Meet the choreographer tackling shadeism — an insidious part of racism we don't like to talk about
Shadeism is discrimination within racialized communities based on the shade of one's skin
Shadeism has been a practice since colonialism. In the Americas, it was one way by which enslaved people would be unofficially ranked. Lighter-skinned people would receive privileges less accessible to darker-skinned people. In the contemporary world, it is still present, if more insidious and more normalized.
Born in Canada to Ghanaian parents, Hamilton-based choreographer Esie Mensah has built an impressive career as a hip-hop and African dancer, even creating her own unique style called "Afrofusion." Mensah recently was featured in Rihanna and Drake's "Work" video, and she can be seen in the 2016 Rocky Horror Picture Show TV re-make. Even so, on more than one occasion Mensah has been told she didn't get a part because she was "too dark".
"A colleague of mine even said that directors often avoid darker-skinned actors and dancers because it takes so many lights to light them," she says. "But what are the consequences of that on representation?"
On exploring the issue further, Mensah found that shadeism is usually not openly discussed. Now, she's bringing multiple experiences of shadeism together in a stunning new performance to bring the issue out into the open: "Shades of Blackness." The show brings together dance and dialogue to question the idea of shadeism and its impact on the black community.
In this video by filmmaker Alexis L. Wood, Mensah tells you how her experiences with shadeism led her to start this much-needed conversation through the visceral power of dance. After each show, Mensah plans to hold a Q&A with the audience; she's tested this out with a work-in-progress showing of the piece to a diverse audience and discovered that the piece resonated with more people than she had expected.
"People from the Asian and Middle-Eastern communities especially found that the piece struck a really personal chord for them as well," she says. "It made me realize how much we need to talk about this topic. I want 'Shades of Blackness' to be shown across the country so we can bring this conversation forward."
"Shades of Blackness" is being developed for performance later this year.
Alexis L. Wood is a British documentary filmmaker who is drawn to the issues we rarely discuss. She was worked with the BBC, Bravo and VICE on films around immigration detention, youth justice, autism and sexuality in the disabled community.
Watch Exhibitionists Sundays at 4:30pm (5 NT) on CBC.