The colour of my skin

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Shadeism on set

The women behind the documentary, Shadeism: Digging Deeper. Muna Ali, Nayani Thiyagarajah and Khadri Ali following their interview with Dr. Yaba Blay (second from the left) of Drexel University.


Shadeism — skin colour bias — is still alive and well, and Nayani Thiyagarajah and Muna Ali are on a mission to get people talking about it,  starting with their own families and friends. 

Photo courtesy of NAYANI THIYAGARAJAH 


When the sun came out to play, Nayani Thiyagarajah was told to cover up and find shade. Its intense gaze, her mother cautioned, can leave a searing impression on the skin, turning her light-brown complexion into a darker hue.

As the “light-skinned wonder child,” Thiyagarajah, a Torontonian of Sri Lankan descent, was able to ignore her mother’s admonitions and enjoy her romp in the sun. “My skin wouldn’t get to the level that they considered dark skin. I could go out in the sun and run around, but some of my cousins couldn’t,” she said. “It was a privilege. I always knew it was an issue; I just didn’t know what to call it.”

Shadeism, colorism, pigmentocracy, whatever you wish to call it, refers to the prejudices people contend with when others treat them differently based on their skin tone.

Seemingly innocuous remarks from relatives about how she resembled her fair-skinned grandmother, but didn’t have her “colour,” cut Thiyagarajah skin deep. There was also the prevailing assumption that dark-hued girls in the family were wilder, more rebellious, she said.

For the most part, Thiyagarajah was spared from comments about her skin tone; some of her female cousins and aunts tried to make themselves over by bleaching their skin — a regimen that went unchallenged until she decided to open up the conversation.

Thiyagarajah hadn’t realized how common the practice of bleaching was in other communities, or how widely other cultures valued light skin, until she and her friends began swapping stories.

What began as a group of five friends sharing their views and experiences of Shadeism, in a short documentary has turned into a cross-continental feature documentary to be released early this year. The team raised more than $15,000 through crowdfunding site Indiegogo to finance their venture.

Thiyagarajah and the production team travelled to Somaliland, India and Jamaica to document just how widespread our cultural fixation is with light skin and how the beauty industry perpetuates this colour complex.

“I know there’s a bleaching industry, but I didn’t realize how it permeates in the smallest villages and countries,” she shared. “I didn’t realize how many North American, European-based companies are participating.”

The film also revisits the women featured in the original production, and expands the cross-cultural dialogue to include women of Filipino, Jamaican, Guyanese, Somali and Colombian descent. Though men are not immune from being judged based on their shade, they felt that the women’s stories had only just begun to be told.

Thiyagarajah also noted a gender bias: in the Tamil community, dark-skinned men are considered handsome. “My family would never chastise a man. It was okay to be dark if you were handsome.”

“Even back home [in Somaliland], it’s mainly women who [whiten their skin],” agreed friend and producer Muna Ali.

And have their attitudes changed since the first documentary was released? “I can have conversations with my mom and my dad, and relatives and sort of challenge them,” said Thiyagarajah. “I’ve been able to talk to my cousins more about it. Things have shifted in terms of whether we can talk about it now [as a family]. In the past, we really couldn’t talk about it as an issue.”

Adults can be thick-skinned without realizing it; it’s harder to challenge their perceptions or to call them out, she added. Her family will sometimes resort to gentle ribbing when she tries to bring up the issue. They’ll say, “Oh, she’s going off again.”

“My family is always quick to call out racism. But when it comes to ourselves, we’re shadeists,” she said with a hint of sadness. “We don’t recognize how it affects others and our values.”

“I’ve always been aware of the conversation, but never personally affected,” said. “We didn’t really talk about it at home, because we didn’t think [your skin tone] was a big deal.”

It was outside remarks from the community that made Ali feel self-conscious, when people would comment on how pretty her mom was because of her complexion.

Growing up, they tried to work through these insecurities on their own. “When people talk about what a beautiful girl is, it’s always a lighter-skinned girl,” said Ali. “There was an internal conversation you would have: If that’s what’s considered pretty, then what am I?”

When you’re surrounded by images that don’t represent you, it’s not hard to understand why people continue to ascribe whiteness as a marker of beauty and equate it with power, added Thiyagarajah.

It rattled her to hear her niece, a mere toddler express her desire to be whiter like the girls favoured to be on magazine covers. That conversation changed the course of Thiyagarajah’s pursuits as a storyteller.

At the time, she was studying journalism at Ryerson University and sketched a plan to do the short documentary. Now she and Ali, along with some friends have formed their own production enterprise and are also set to release a narrative short and direct a music video.

The money they raised was also used to develop a curriculum and a self-care toolkit for kids to discuss the roots of beauty constructs and to help them recognize shadeism as a form of discrimination.

“If I can have a conversation with the person it’s happening to, we can create change and solidarity,” Thiyagarajah said. “I really make the film for the people who are going through it.” 

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