Real Talk on Race is CBC Montreal's special series exploring personal conversations and experiences around race in the city.

Anathalie Jean-Charles first realized her complexion was a problem when, as a nine-year-old, she showed a school picture to her grandmother.

"Wow, why on earth are you so dark?" her grandmother asked.

Today, Jean-Charles, a Haitian-Montrealer, can identity that moment as colourism — discrimination against people who have a darker skin tone than others within the same racial or ethnic group.

Also known as shadeism, this form of discrimination is found around the world with one underlying rule: the whiter your features, the better you are.

"Shadeism, or colourism, is the insidious cousin of racism," said Nayani Thiyagarajah, a Toronto-based filmmaker who recently completed a feature documentary entitled Shadeism: Digging Deeper.

"It's definitely rooted in this idea that whiter is more powerful and therefore better or more ideal," she said, adding that colourism was born of a long history of colonialism, slavery and indentureship.

Anathalie Jean-Charles

Anathalie Jean-Charles said she realized her complexion was a problem by the time she nine. (Submitted by Anathalie Jean-Charles)

In an interview with CBC Montreal's Daybreak, Jean-Charles, fellow Haitian-Montrealer Fabiola Gay and Daybreak's Shari Okeke recounted moments when they realized their complexion was seen as too dark, or enviously lighter than others.

'Backwards and insulting'

Gay, a Montreal restaurant owner, recalled a particular moment when she faced colourism at the hands of an ex-boyfriend.

"He told me that he usually dates either Spanish girls or very light-skinned girls, and that... he couldn't understand why he was attracted to me," Gay said.

"I really did not realize what he was telling me, that it was really backwards and insulting… I think I was just really shocked."

For Okeke, her complexion was often contrasted with her white mother's.

"I grew up thinking I was very, very dark because everybody would always freak out when they'd see my mother and say 'she can't possibly be your mother because you're so dark.'"

"He told me that he usually dates either Spanish girls or very light-skinned girls, and that... he couldn't understand why he was attracted to me." - Fabiola Gay

But on a trip to her father's country, Nigeria, Okeke soon realized that her dark complexion was relative.

"I got there and everybody started calling me a white woman and saying I was so pale. This was very strange to me," she said.

Okeke's cousins explained she was getting dirty looks from some women because they were threatened by her lighter skin. There were even those who would bleach their skin to get Okeke's tone.

Thiyagarajah described colourism as an internalized racism rooted in anti-blackness — a self-loathing that sometimes drives people to chemically lighten their skins.

Gay said that skin-lightening is alive and well in Montreal too, with products that are strategically located.

"I've only seen these products in shops where I go buy my hair products, and these are black-owned stores," she said.

Shari Okeke and mom

"I grew up thinking I was very, very dark because everybody would always freak out when they'd see my mother," said CBC Daybreak's Shari Okeke. (Shari Okeke/CBC)

Discrimination from within

Like Gay's experience with her ex-boyfriend and the comments made by Jean-Charles' grandmother, colourism is a form of discrimination that is often doled out in the home. 

"Colourism is definitely something that is passed down through generations, through family — that's our most immediate environment and, broader than that, our communities," Thiyagarajah said.

Gay said she has felt the sting of colourism as much as, if not more than, the pain of racism.

"Your family, your friends — [that's] where you're supposed to feel safe. You're supposed to build confidence through your mom, through your dad, through your family and this is where you actually get broken," she said.

Thiyagarajah said many of the women she interviewed for her documentary told similar stories involving men in their communities.

"A lot of shadeism was being perpetuated by the men in their lives in terms of who they prefer to date, be with, have a relationships with, have children with," the filmmaker said.

Fabiola Gay

Fabiola Gay (right) says colourism isn't just about skin tone — it's about hair texture and physical traits too. (Submitted by Fabiola Gay)

The privilege of lighter skin

If colourism is to end, the divide between darker-skinned and lighter-skinned people within a community needs to addressed, Gay said.

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"I think it's for us to recognize that as a dark-skinned woman we've been hurt, that it has been very hard for us," she said. 

"But it's also knowing that light-skinned women are not the enemy. It's just the way the society is constructed — they're also victims of that."

With files from Shari Okeke/Daybreak