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.