Lupita Nyong’o on racism in beauty: 'Every day I woke up hoping my skin was a little bit lighter'
With all the post-awards interviews, that selfie and those endless headlines rolling out after the Oscars, there are a few Hollywood moments you’d be forgiven for overlooking.
Like this speech on racism and the western perceptions of beauty, made by Best Supporting Actress Academy Award winner Lupita Nyong’o, who felt so underrepresented by the entertainment industry as a young girl of Kenyan descent growing up in Mexico City that she wished she “would wake up lighter skinned”.
Speaking as she accepted her award for Best Breakthrough Performance at the annual Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon – hosted by Essence magazine – she said: “I too remember a time when I would turn on the TV and only see pale skin. I got teased and taunted about my night shaded skin. And my one prayer to God, the miracle worker, was that I would wake up lighter skinned.
“The morning would come and I would be so excited about seeing my new skin that I would refuse to look down at myself before I was in front of a mirror, because I wanted to see my fair face first. And every day I experienced just the same disappointment at being just as dark as I had been the day before.
“I tried to negotiate with God. I told him I would stop steeling sugar cubes at night if he gave me what I wanted. I would listen to my mother’s every word and never lose my school sweater again if he just made me a little lighter. But, I guess God was unimpressed with my bargaining chips because I never woke up lighter.”
But, thanks to one particularly prominent black model, she received the validation she needed.
“And then Alek Wek came on the scene. A celebrated model, she was dark as night,” she said, adding: “I couldn’t believe that people were embracing a woman that looked so much like me as beautiful. Now I had a spring in my step because I felt more seen, more appreciated by the far-away gatekeepers of beauty."
Elsewhere, she continued: “My mother used to say to me, ‘You can’t eat beauty, it doesn’t feed you.’ And these words played and bothered me, I didn’t really understand them until finally I realised that beauty was not a thing that I could acquire or consume. It was something that I just had to be. And what my mother meant by saying that you can’t eat beauty is that you can’t rely on beauty to sustain you.
“What actually sustains us, what is fundamentally beautiful is compassion for yourself and those around you. That kind of beauty enflames the heart and enchants the soul. It is what got Patsey in so much trouble with her master. But it is also what has kept her story alive to this day. We remember the beauty of her spirit even though the beauty of her body has faded away.
“And so hope that my presence on your screens and in magazines may lead you, young girl, on a similar journey. That you will feel the validation for your beauty, but also get to the deeper business of feeling beautiful inside. There is no shade in that beauty.”
Her address left the entire audience – which included Chaka Khan and Opera – entirely speechless.
Watch it here: