Lupita Nyong’o is opening up about colorism and, in the process, furthering an important and often neglected conversation about the added layer of discrimination darker-skinned people of color can experience. The Us actress admitted to BBC Newsnight during an appearance this week that she has personally witnessed that we live “in a world that rewards lighter skin over darker skin.”
Discussing her children’s book Sulwe, which comes out on October 15, Nyong’o likened her main character’s story to her own — albeit the book contains a much happier, magical version. Some of Nyong’o’s experiences, she admitted, have caused her to go through periods of intense self-doubt. She told BBC’s Emily Maitlis that she “grew up feeling uncomfortable” in her skin color and even wishing she looked differently. Nyong’o also said she was affected by how much more positive attention her lighter-skinned younger sister received. “Self-consciously that translates into, ‘I’m not worthy,'” Nyong’o said.
These experiences with colorism and the feelings of self-doubt that came with them followed her into young adulthood, too. At one point, Nyong’o auditioned for a role in a TV series and was told she was “too dark” to be on TV. “We still ascribe to these notions of Eurocentric standards of beauty, that then affect how we see ourselves among ourselves,” she observed. “Race is a very social construct, one that I didn’t have to ascribe to on a daily basis growing up.”
As Nyong’o put it, colorism is “the daughter of racism.” It’s driven by a bias against darker-skinned people and the preferential treatment of their lighter-skinned counterparts. Unfortunately, it’s a type of prejudice that isn’t often discussed — but has been a problem as long as racism itself. In 2014, Nyong’o recounted one of her earliest experiences with colorism to People, saying, “When I was in second grade, one of my teachers said, ‘Where are you going to find a husband? How are you going to find someone darker than you?’ I was mortified.”
In that same interview, she discussed how insidious this sort of messaging is. “I remember seeing a commercial where a woman goes for an interview and doesn’t get the job,” Nyong’o said. “Then she puts a cream on her face to lighten her skin, and she gets the job! This is the message: that dark skin is unacceptable.”
With Nyong’o speaking out candidly about colorism (and bringing the experience into Sulwe), she’ll hopefully create a chain reaction that pulls this dialogue further into the sphere of public consciousness.