A Different Shade of Racism

April 19, 2014 § Leave a comment

Nayani Thiyagarajah, who graduated from  Ryerson’s broadcast journalism program last  spring, is addressing a widespread, multicultural  taboo in her new 20-minute documentary,  Shadeism.  The term refers to intraracial discrimination based  on subtle differences between skin tones, a  phenomenon that many people experience, but  few bring up.

Last week, Shadeism opened the Regent Park  Film Festival. Thiyagarajah, who directed and narrates the film,  explores the topic through the lens of her own  family. In the film, she says her Tamil parents  called her “a light-skinned wonder child” when she  was younger. But as she grew up, her skin darkened. She says,  “I began to wonder, if I wasn’t light anymore, did  that mean I was no longer beautiful?” The film took on graver tones when Thiyagarajah  describes how her four-year-old niece confided that she didn’t like being “brown” and needed to  “become white.”

Since it was posted on YouTube two weeks ago,  Thiyagarajah has received feedback from  countries as far away as Australia, India and  Ethiopia, she says.  The Toronto District School Board has also  expressed interest in acquiring rights to the documentary. The board wants to use Shadeism as an  educational tool to prompt discussion in Toronto’s increasingly multicultural classrooms.

This is exactly what Thiyagarajah says she hoped for the film to accomplish. She says people don’t  discuss the impacts of shadeism enough, and that makes the problem worse. “It’s a serious issue,” she says, “but I can’t help but laugh at how ridiculous it sounds when you  actually talk about it.”

Of special concern are the lengths people go to lighten their complexions. In between narrated sections of Shadeism, Thiyagarajah includes media images of artificially  lightened models, and commercials for a skin-lightening cream called Fair and Lovely. The cream is  manufactured by Unilever, the same company that produces Dove products in North America.  Thiyragarajah says the fact that Unilever capitalizes on skin tone insecurities demonstrates how  widespread those insecurities are.

Short of living at a bleaching salon, she said, the only solution to the shadeism problem is to address it. “We can struggle with our skin tone, or we can talk about it,” she said. “And then it becomes something empowering.”

According to Marsha Barber, Thiyagarajah’s former broadcast instructor, that’s the point. Good documentary should affect people’s lives,” she said. “It takes them into worlds they wouldn’t previously  have explored.”

Barber is not surprised by the positive attention Shadeism is receiving, though she was particularly  impressed to hear about the TDSB’s interest. She said CBC, Rogers, TVO, and film festivals all over  the world have showcased her students’ work in the past.

Thiyagarajah, who created the film with fellow Ryerson journalism students, Brian Han, Leanne McAdams, Derek Rider and Vanessa Rodrigues, says she hopes to expand Shadeism into a feature-length documentary in the upcoming year.

Asked whether her niece’s perceptions of beauty have changed since filming wrapped up in April, Thiyagarajah says the four-year-old hasn’t seen the footage yet.

“We’re watching it this weekend together,” says Thiyagarajah. “She asked me, ‘why are you asking me these questions?’ She’s starting to think about it.”

View the original pdf here.


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