Resisting shadeism: An interview with Nayani Thiyagarajah

Photo: flickr/indianfilipino

In spring 2010, a group of Ryerson University students made a short documentary, Shadeism, for a class project. Within weeks of sharing online, it received thousands of views and hundreds of responses.

The film discusses shadeism -- discrimination based on skin tone within a given community. Bringing together diasporic women from Toronto's South Asian, African, Caribbean and South American communities, it provides insight into a discrimination that exists throughout the world but goes largely unreported. Now, director Nayani Thiyagarajah and her colleagues are in post-production for a feature length documentary, Shadeism: Digging Deeper, intended for release in 2015.

Jeannine M. Pitas recently sat down with Thiyagarajah to discuss the film, future projects and, of course, shadeism.

How did you get started on the Shadeism project?

I was finishing my undergraduate degree at Ryerson in 2010, and I had to do a documentary project. I knew I wanted to investigate [shadeism]. I'd had a conversation with my four year old niece, who felt that having darker skin wasn't beautiful. This was a huge statement for me. I'd assumed my family members and I had let go of the belief that lighter skin is better, but my niece is the next generation and already has this belief. I'd also recently gone back to South Asia for the first time, doing some photography and videography training in India. I was in Mumbai, capital of the Bollywood industry, and I couldn't escape the ads for skin-lightening creams, such as Unilever's "Fair and Lovely" brand, which is sold throughout India.

 

What reactions did you initially receive?

At first, my teacher at Ryerson didn't realize that shadeism was a big issue; it was something many people weren't aware of. But people of colour know how this happens in our communities, and I wanted to talk about it. We finished the film April 2010 and we showed it in the Regent Park film festival. We then put it online, and I did not anticipate how widely it would be shared. It sparked something that was sitting inside so many people.

My family was proud of how well the film did, and they recognize that it sparked strong emotions in many people, but it's still a difficult issue to talk about.

It was young people -- second and third generation diasporas from many parts of the world -- who gave the most support. Many were grateful for the film, and they responded honestly and courageously. My colleagues and I never expected to see such a raw, sincere connection to the film.

 

Let's back it up. What is shadeism, especially given the context of this "post-colonial age?"

The main source of both racism and shadeism is colonialism. Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean were all colonized by white folks, and so whiteness became linked to power. Racism is based on race, ethnicity, the region of the world someone comes from. Shadeism, I'd say, is a ramification of racism. How that translates internally in our communities is that those who are more "white" are considered more beautiful and are offered more power, or the possibility of more power.

This is hundreds of years in the making, and imperialism still happens. The U.S. still has a lot of say in the government of Philippines, for example; it has also been noted that India is becoming more of a Westernized consumer society. This affects the way we see the face of power.

Also, the global skin lightening industry is growing; companies are expanding their markets by preying on insecurities that have existed for generations. Every major beauty company has skin lightening or bleaching products, and the marketing is selective. In North America, these products are marketed as "brightening" cream for "dark spots"; in other parts of the world, they are marketed as skin lighteners. So now, those who resist shadeism are battling not only history, but industry.

 

How do you feel about Unilever and especially Dove, which markets around a "Campaign for Real Beauty" and embracing natural appearance?

I can't believe the Dove ads, which target a specific market and claim to accept all body types. I can't believe that one parent company that produces both Dove and "Fair and Lovely," seeking to empower women in one part of the world while feeding off insecurities in another part. It's really sad to me.

 

What are some forms of the resistance taking place across the world and in Canada?

Many forms of resistance [are] coming out [as] plays and music across the world.

Our stories of resistance are often not told; our countries are seen as backward ... But they are not. We are not victims; we can't change hundreds of years of ideas over night, but we are resisting.

In India there is a Dark is Beautiful Campaign supported by globally known film actress Nandita Das. We have also heard from folks across the Caribbean who are doing programs and summer schools to educate people about this issue; there's a Kenyan filmmaker named Ng'endo Mukii who made a documentary short on shadeism called Yellow Fever. There are many forms of resistance occurring globally. It's beautiful to see this resistance because sometimes we can be bogged down by the immense weight of this issue.

We've had a very good response from the school boards in the Greater Toronto Area; teachers of all backgrounds have approached us with the desire to show the film and begin the discussion in their classrooms. There is resistance happening in so many different forms. Whether it's making a consumer impact is hard to judge, but we are trying to spark a counter-narrative, a collective dialogue about the issue.

 

Tell us about Shadeism: Digging Deeper?

Shadeism: Digging Deeper goes into greater depth; it is simultaneously more personal and more global. In 2012 our team travelled to India, Somaliland and Jamaica, and we spoke to more women from different communities. It's amazing how the issue found us even when we weren't actively seeking it out.

We went to Somiland without expectations of what we'd film. We were invited to see a play put on by a group of young women at a community centre. When we were at the play, it turned out that some of the young women were talking about shadeism and bleaching; we had a post-show discussion with them, and interviewed them. It was a beautiful, spur-of-the-moment incident that showed us the issue was following us as much as we were following it. It was a moving, sad, transformative moment. Wherever we've travelled, the conversation is not a blind acceptance of the rhetoric; wherever we go, people are resisting and challenging it.

I am so happy that this film is inspiring people to talk about these issues because this is where change begins.  

Jeannine M. Pitas is a freelance writer and a PhD candidate at University of Toronto's Centre for Comparative Literature.

Photo: flickr/indianfilipino

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