Shadeism interwoven into society

Growing up in Pakistan, Dr. Naila Butt noticed at a young age that skin colour was something people in her community always talked about. She had a fairer complexion compared to other people in her community, which was always admired. She saw that having darker skin was looked down upon. People were being cautious of being out into the sunlight for fear of getting darker.

“Protecting your whiteness is something that was very, very important,” she said.

But she’s been one of the lucky ones, she said, because her father concentrated more on intelligence and education than skin tone.

As the executive director of Social Services Network (SSN), a non-profit charitable organization in York Region, Butt is responsible for designing and implementing programs. She’s been involved with it for over four years.

SSN works with immigrants, predominantly from south Asia who have language and cultural barriers. The organization helps people who struggle with accessing various resources and services, and also assists people who have difficulty integrating into Canadian culture.

“We also have to give some perspective to it. India, Pakistan, some of the south Asian countries, we have been ruled by the British, so there has been that hierarchy that white people are better,” she said.

She has known many people with darker skin tones who had a hard time finding a suitor because they didn’t want the future offspring to be dark.

Shadeism is a lesser-known form of discrimination but it has been around just as long as it’s more well-known counterpart, racism. It is the discrimination based on skin tone within the same race. This form of discrimination is common in South Asian, African and Caribbean, Hispanic, Chinese, and Aboriginal communities.

Members from those communities continue to face discrimination based on the shade of their skin among their own people though they come from the same race. There is a general belief that lighter skin tones are better than darker skin tones that is trapped in people’s minds. This perception of desiring whiter skin tone that started generations ago has given way to shadeism that’s still prevalent to this day.

Sarah L. Webb studies global ethnic literatures and literacies and is also the founder of In an article called “Colorism and Racism: What is the Difference?” she wrote,“Colorism is a manifestation of the idea that even if one isn’t white, her worth may be determined by how close she is to being white.” That is very similar to shadeism. In the article she also says, in societies that have long histories with colonization, European features such as white skin, straight hair, and light colored eyes were seen as the standard of civilized existence, intelligence, beauty, wealth, and power.

Esther Enyolu is the executive director of Women’s Multicultural Resource and Counseling Centre of Durham (WMRCC). She chose to be involved with it because she wanted to be part of an organization that bridges gaps in the community. She brings anti-racist/anti-oppression and feminist analysis into her work.

Being Nigerian, she hears first-hand stories of people from African communities that include stories of struggle with skin colour.

“Any country that has been colonized has issues with shadeism. It’s a colonial culture.”

People think the lighter you are, the better you are, she said, and this is based on colonialism.

“We are all created equal, we are all human beings whether we are darker skinned, whether we are lighter. That doesn’t make you more beautiful and that doesn’t make you more intelligent than the other person,” she said.

Coming from African culture she hears this a lot.

“When a child is born, people will say ‘Oh she’s going to work if she is lighter skinned.’”

Lighter skinned girls are expected to go to work and be successful but not darker skinned girls. The desire of lighter skin is built into society. People grow up thinking lighter skin automatically guarantees success because it is supposedly better.

She hears stories of discrimination all too frequently from people of colour who come to WMRCC.

When people approach the WMRCC, one of the things the organization does is empower them. Some children think they’re ‘dirty’ because of their darker skin, she said, other children don’t want to play with them because they’re ‘dirty’. With education and counseling they hope to change that mind set.

The organization also does anti-racism and anti-oppression diversity training in the community. They get asked to train staff members at churches, hospitals, other community groups, women’s groups, and universities and colleges. They teach them how to deal with people from diverse cultures and to be culturally sensitive.

Growing up in communities that prefer lighter skin can damage kids psychologically, she said. She always encourages parents, especially immigrants, or visible minorities, to do extra work to encourage the children to grow up with good self esteem and appreciate themselves for who they are.

“Colour of skin does not define beauty. Colour of skin does not define intelligence so they need to know that,” she said.

Rohan Parab is a first-year student at UOIT studying automotive engineering. Growing up in India, he started noticing shadeism around Grade 4 and 5.

“The fairer kids would be making fun of me because I was dark skin compared to them, but not all kids did that, it’s just some kids.” He also felt certain teachers would treat ‘fairer’ kids better.

In Grade11 he started using a lightening soap.

“Only if I could change one thing, I’d be more lighter. I thought of it like that.”

In Canada he notices the discrimination less, even though it still happens, he says. After using the soap for about two months, he noticed some change. He saw it in pictures he took two months before and then two months after. He wants to continue using the soap so it can help him reduce some of the tan he may get over the summer.

Josh Suresh, president of Durham Tamil Association, helps get children and youth involved with community activities so they can build networks, have a platform to become well-rounded individuals and, most importantly, build confidence.

When he came to Canada back in 1983 his uncle who sponsored him said, “‘Look, you’re brown, that means you have to be 10 per cent better than the white guy.”

As a person of colour, he was afraid of what people would think of him, which made him an introvert. The colour of his skin held him back, he said. That’s another reason why he wants to create opportunities for the youth involved with Tamil group so they have the confidence to overcome barriers, including shadeism.

Although people with darker skin tones may not face direct discrimination that might have been more prominent years ago, the problem still persists. One way to address the problem is to have open dialogue and discussion on it.


  1. First of all, I want to thank you for bringing up this topic.I am a native woman.I once believed light skin and hair was superior too. I went on to lighten my hair and skin to feel superior towads other native people, in fact my need to feel superior extended to other non European enthic groups in Toronto. But I snapped out of it.

    However , After leaving off reserve for 10 years or so, I decided to move back.I notice that shadism was very common in the community.

    Thank you very much for bringing up the topic!