Natural Hair Mag

Postracial achievements: The media’s fetishization of Lupita Nyong’o and Kwasi Enin.

With all of the celebration over Kwasi Enin, the Black student who got into all 8 Ivy League schools and Lupita Nyong’o as the first Black woman to represent Lancôme, I’m slightly confused as to why gaining entrance into white institutions has become the new barometer for “racial advancement.” While these are accomplishments, I’m just a bit puzzled about the fact that whiteness still dominates as the ultimate measurement of success.

Lupita Nyong'o at the Toronto International Film Festival 2013

Lupita Nyong’o PhotoCC BY

I am on the same bandwagon as most—I think Lupita rocks. She’s beautiful, not just because white America has decided she is, but because it’s evident.  In fact, I think what makes Lupita’s image powerful is the fact that her darkness in a white world stands as a reminder that white supremacy is still in effect. While white America is drooling over the fact that Black actresses exist, I do recognize that Lupita is being fetishized by white Hollywood.  In a media culture where Black women are virtually ignored, I find it problematic that she is now being used as some marketable token to make white Hollywood look accepting. As Dr. Lisa Tomlinson writes on the Huffington Post:

“Similar to Dr. Yaba Blay author of One Drop: Shifting the Lens on Race, I’m skeptical of all the fanfare and the fetishism that has accompanied discourse around Lupita. As history has shown, mainstream media has systematically exoticized racialized women for white consumption. I cannot help being suspicious that Lupita Nyong’o’s beauty and achievements are being packaged as a ‘token’ commodity.”

While Lupita is talented and gorgeous, I think we should be suspicious of white America framing Lupita as some exoticized dark doll to pass around to make themselves feel progressive. Focusing on Lupita distracts us from the fact that there is virtually NO Black female representation in Hollywood, outside of Olivia Pope and Mary Jane.

Lupita has just become the new spokes model for Lancôme, a French cosmetics and skincare company, and again, she is being celebrated. While her accomplishments are REAL and ground-breaking, I think we should question why entrance into white spaces for Black folks is always regarded as an “accomplishment.” I find that highly suspicious. By celebrating Lupita’s partnership, companies like Lancôme, which have previously only featured white women, are now including brown women to look more marketable. Lupita offers a new market to tap into.

In this capitalistic, post-racial culture, progress keeps being conflated with being marketable.  Also, for those of you who may be rolling your eyes and saying, “damn woman, shut up. Can we just celebrate, stop being so negative” I just have to say that there’s a difference between being negative and critical. Being critical means you’re invested in understanding how power operates and that’s what I’m doing. I’m just suspicious of why certain Black figures are celebrated and given visibility over others in white America.

Similarly, I see an issue with the Kwasi Enin story whose ivy-league acceptances offer a unique space for the white academic colonial gaze to fetishize his brown body. I do not mean to diminish his accomplishments; however, I think we should be suspicious that his image is being used to further a “model minority” agenda.  I’m glad that Enin was accepted; however, we have to simultaneously remember that systemic racism exists. Unfortunately, we live in a society that individualizes everything. Therefore, if Barack Obama can become president, and if Enin can make it to Harvard, what’s keeping all of those other “lazy” Blacks from achieving something? You see what I mean? By focusing only on the individual and their achievements, we lose sight of the systemic problems that keep brown bodies from regularly achieving these accomplishments. We have to remember WHY these events [getting accepted into an ivy league school] are rare in the first place.

ivy league

The 8 Ivy League universities PhotoCC BY

Unfortunately, we have to walk a careful racist tightrope because on the one hand, we want to celebrate Kwasi’s achievements, but on the other, we know that the media is going to spin this in a way to demonstrate how affirmative action is no longer needed because see—a Black kid got into Harvard. Black people seemingly do not need any systemic help anymore despite the fact that we enslaved Black folks for a long time. We’re all equal now because…Harvard!We live in a post-racial “color-blind” society, meaning that we don’t like to talk about racism as a real systemic inequality that disproportionately impacts brown populations, and disproportionately favors white folks. So, we pretend like we’re equal so that we don’t have to collectively [as a society] take responsibility. Thrusting images of people like Barack Obama and Kwasi Enin into the spotlight distracts us from the fact that Black people are still systemically suffering because of white supremacy.

While it’s important to celebrate Lupita and Kwasi’s achievements, we must simultaneously remember that the postracial media culture is constantly trying to show how Black people are “equal” in a really artificial, tokenized way. We have to question how these achievements are meant to function as a way to conceal the truth: that Black people in America are still not equal. [Don’t get me started on the gendered components as well—we celebrate Lupita’s beauty and Enin’s academic prowess…].

Allowing Black people minimal, temporary entrance into white spaces allows us to get distracted for a few moments because we think equality is actually happening. White supremacy and patriarchy OPERATE off of these distractions. They make us think they’re on our side, but they’re not. Tokenism is a strategy of the oppressor. You give us a few limited representations and then we think change is actually happening, despite the fact that this tokenized diversity helps inequality continue unchecked. Now, rather than focusing on racism in higher education or segregation in regards to zoning as well as the lack of resources inner city schools receive, we are celebrating one Black student getting into very elitist, white universities and this is framed as “progress.”

This in no way is meant to diminish Enin’s scholastic achievements. I think we have to be careful of the way this narrative is being framed, as if he’s some “exceptional negro” because the white gatekeepers have allowed him into their world. Enin is being used as a postracial pawn in white racist America.

Yes, Black people are not a monolith-but racists don’t know that. They think that if one Black man becomes president, then ALL Black people can do it because evidently, we’re all the same. If Lupita can make it in Hollywood, despite the fact that she had to play a slave, then all Black women can—what the hell are we even complaining about, right? I am not discounting Nyong’o and Enin, I am merely questioning the ways these events are framed in the news.

Just as white America casts Lupita and Kwasi as credits to their race, we have to mindful of who is framing the narrative and perhaps ask why entrance into white spaces [Lancôme, a  French company, and ivy league schools-white institutions] is always viewed as the ultimate measurement of success. I find it suspicious that Enin’s acceptance into eight universities is getting more play time on television than issues relating to systemic racism that directly relate to racialized inequalities in education.  Black people have to “prove” how they are worthy to be in white spaces, rather than the focus on white spaces being inherently exclusionary and discriminatory.

Suggested Videos

  • neenee

    Love this article(all of them actually). I may disagree with a few points in other articles, but this is on point. I respect your opinions and writing style. Please keep continue to write thought provoking articles. Our community needs writers like you. Thank you

    • Aphrodite Kocieda

      Thank you so much neenee. I appreciate it! While we might not agree on particular subjects, I think it’s important for natural hair spaces to engage in critical discussions about cultural moments. So, again, thank you so much for reading!! I also appreciate the compliment!!!

  • Kay

    I have to tell you that this piece is great great great! Now, having said that, I must also say that I disagree with some points( but, what’s the point in having people agree with you all of the time). right?

    The reason why I love your article is because I have been hearing and reading about this idea of Lupita being a “fetish” and being the “token” black for some time now. And what I have read prior to your article did nothing to throughly explain this fetish or token concept to me or to get me to see where they were coming from.

    But your piece just provided much needed clarity as to why some people may feel that way about Lupitas success. This is a very critical piece and it’s like a light bulb just went off in my head. *bing*

    Although I many not agree with everything, at least now I can say that I understand So thank you.