I like Lupita Nyong’o. Everyone does, right? She’s great.
This is not about her.
It’s about what you might call the white liberal construction of Lupita Nyong’o.
In this construction, Lupita Nyong’o was an attractive nobody who was from “Africa” in some dim sense — probably from some village. That’s what they have in Africa, right? Villages? And also somehow from Mexico a little, too. They have slums there, probably. Whatever — she might as well have been from the poor part of the Moon.
Then she somehow got “discovered”. That’s what happens to beautiful women from faraway villages and/or slums who get famous, right? They get “discovered”? “Plucked from Obscurity”, as the Daily Beast put it.
So she’s from some kind of remote, romantic favela — one has the mental image of her standing alone, barefoot, in a dirty Mexican street, or in a baked dusty Saharan hardpan, when suddenly the disembodied camera-lens of white approval lands on her. And the rest is history.
The real story is more prosaic and more rich. Lupita Nyong’o’s background is one of enviable privilege. Her father is a political scientist with a University of Chicago PhD, one of the most important people in the Orange Democratic Movement — the ruling party of Kenya — and a high minister in the current Kenyan government; at a rough estimate he earns thirty thousand times as much money as the average Kenyan. Having him as a dad would be like being John Kerry’s kid. Lupita grew up in Mexico, New York, and Nairobi, and speaks four languages. She went to Hampshire College and Yale Drama and did PA work in Hollywood. Her life trajectory is full of the kind of experience that money very definitely can buy.
She’s obviously brilliant and beautiful and a great actress with a huge career ahead of her, and that’s all to her credit. She wasn’t “plucked from obscurity”, she went to a really famous, elite drama school and then went to Hollywood and worked her way up. That she comes from money and influence and has a gold-plated acting education separates her not at all from the rest of the Hollywood nomenklatura.
What’s interesting to me is that apparently white liberals simply can’t relate to her unless she had a ‘slumdog’ upbringing, with her life a redemptive story that flatters contemporary whiteness. We’re not racist anymore! We’re not classist anymore! You can be anyone from anywhere — talent, beauty, and moxie are all you need.
But remember, the slumdog kids got tossed back where they came from. The camera loved them and audiences did too, but they were still disposable. Alterity always is. White Hollywood has always seen non-white Others as essentially interchangeable.
Lupita Nyong’o’s staying power in Hollywood isn’t guaranteed by her tremendous talent, or her beauty or moxie. In Hollywood, being a talented, beautiful actor with moxie who is also a dark-skinned outsider gets you stuffed back in the bag when they no longer need you around to flatter themselves that they once gave you a job or an award. Lupita will be able to continue because she’s not really an outsider — or, she is one only partly. The money, the privileged upbringing, the elite education — that’s the kind of currency it’s still essentially impossible to get along without.
But the prominent role of privilege in her story is a secret that white liberals keep from themselves. We need to; it helps us feel good about ourselves for feeling good about her. To us, Lupita was from nowhere and nothing, and used her past as a nobody to inform her blazing performance as Patsey the slave, the brutal honesty of which surely makes redneck racists feel abashed, and makes white liberals feel proud. We enjoy the daring of our approval of Lupita, and the bravery of our disapproval of chattel slavery.
White Hollywood is now ready to face that past, the past of slavery and vile racism, and put it behind us. White Hollywood feels good about facing that past, as past. It wants you to watch the Oscars, and feel good about it, too, as a white liberal in flyover country. Hurrah for us, the white liberals! …What? Of course it’s all in the past — look at Lupita! She came from Black-nowhere and we let her be a star.
Obama’s president and Lupita has an Oscar — things are great.
Fruitvale Station? Never heard of it.