Why Black Boys Need Lupita Nyong'o

Will Lupita's rise help cure our cultural obsession with light skinned girls?

It was revealed yesterday that Lupita Nyong’o was named People Magazine’s "Most Beautiful" person. Considering the fact that she’s been everyone’s red carpet darling -- seriously, if you happen to personally own a red carpet in your home, there’s a 60% chance Lupita was on it at least once in the past six months -- this was expected. Also expected? The inevitable backlash from certain Black people incredulous that someone had the audacity to consider Lupita beautiful. I think some of these people just keep “Lupita is ugly” in draft format on their iPhones and Twitter accounts, waiting for an opportunity--any opportunity--to hit send.  

I spent much of yesterday morning reading some of these replies while shaking my head at their obliviousness to their ignorance. I even poked some fun at them yesterday afternoon, crafting a quiz titled: "Exactly How Threatened Are You By Lupita Nyong’o’s Beauty?" And I felt no shame in doing any of this because, well, I’ve earned it. In three months, I’m marrying a brownskinned woman with dreadlocks who carries Vaseline and owns a "Black Girls Run" t-shirt. My last serious girlfriend before her? Same complexion as I am. Even my “it’s complicated” relationship from college was with someone darker than I am.

Basically, I can scoff at the colorstruckedness of the Lupita hate brigade because that’s obviously not me. And it’s never been me.

And...well, that’s a lie.

From the time I first realized I liked girls (approximately age 8) to the time I entered high school, I had six "serious" crushes. None of these girls were girlfriends--I was far too timid then to make that happen--but each occupied that fantasy space in my heart and on my mind. One was a really good basketball player. Another was a classmate. Two lived in my neighborhood. I met the other two at summer camp.

And all shared the same phenotype: Light skinned, long hair, light eyes, biracial.

I’m not pointing this out to suggest a Black person’s complexion determines how authentically Black they are. Those girls were just as Black as the women I dated as an adult. And, to be clear, there’s nothing wrong with having a crush on a lightskinned woman. Lightskinned Black girls are Magic too. But there’s no doubt in my mind this crush pattern was a direct result of believing only lightskinned girls were crush-worthy.     

I’m bringing this all up because, while much of the conversation about the very public praise Lupita receives for her looks focuses on its impact on Black women and girls, there’s another group who stands to gain just as much: Black boys.

As much as we tout how important it is for a young Black person’s parents to instill an appropriate sense of self-worth, self-love, and racial consciousness, family units don’t exist in vacuums. A kid’s peer groups matter. The images they’re exposed to matter. The media they consume matters. And, I don’t think it was a coincidence my young tastes skewed lighter at a time when the vast majority of the young female entertainers considered crush-worthy (Halle Berry, Aaliyah, Lark Voorhies, Mya, Karyn Parsons, Tisha Campbell, etc) were also light. Even the ones who were browner (Tatyana Ali, Ananda Lewis, Chilli, etc) were lauded for their long, wavy hair--a trait usually associated with lighter-skinned women and not one most Black women posses, not by far.

Also, young people are terribly obsessed with social proof. Nothing is cool until there’s a caucus and consensus on what and who is allowed to be cool. As an adolescent in the early 90s, even if you liked the 4th grader who favorite the first Aunt Viv, it was more socially acceptable to crush on the 10-year-old Rachel Stuart doppelganger.

This is where the endless laud and favor given to the beauty of a dark-skinned Black woman with short, kinky hair can make a difference. Just the act of seeing or reading about this universal praise can light a bulb in the head of a young kid already convinced light girls are the only girls worthy of his extra Nowalaters and Valentine’s Day cards.

In the last year, Lupita Nyong’o has been a slave, a flight attendant, a red carpet darling, a muse for Oprah, an inspiration for Black women and girls, a face of Lancome, and a subject of approximately 2,833,354 different Tumblr pages. She is not, however, Superwoman. There’s no possible way one person can reverse the centuries of history and context contributing to the colorism we face today, regardless of how many emoticons her new ‘dos induce.

But, she doesn’t have to be that to be a Black boy’s celebrity crush.