New doc on Shadeism doesn’t make the cut

Originally posted on: 2014/12/08


HUE: A Matter of Colour

poster-hue-lg“This feature documentary by renowned director and cinematographer Vic Sarin is a personal yet global investigation into the history and current state of colourism: the discrimination within one ethnicity based on differences in skin tone. Sarin travels the globe to discuss this complex cross-cultural social issue with individuals whose lives it affects, including a Filipina entrepreneur whose business has flourished within the billion-dollar skin-whitening industry. Hue leads viewers on a thoughtful and surprising journey to the heart of a painful and pervasive social issue that not only polices appearance, but also class, gender, and geography.” – description on National Film Board‘s site.

Debuting November 10th, 2014 on the CBC’s free preview on their documentary channel, Hue opens with the narrator and main subject, Vic Sarin, discussing his relationship to his mixed-race family (or if anything lack thereof). This movie, he reveals, is his way of explaining his strange and often absentee behaviour to his children. The children provide an example of said behaviour by explaining how he refuses to go on the beach with them, choosing instead to stay out of the sun, as well as staying out of family photos. He also tells us that he has a strained relationship with his first born from a previous marriage, in part because he never showed up for a family vacation in the Caribbean due to his compulsion to work. Meanwhile, the backdrop is of the children packing for a family vacation to Sarin’s favourite destination, Brazil, the place where the film opens and closes.

While it is a bit obscure at first, he eventually informs the viewer that he was born in India to a diplomat father (read privileged), raised in Australia for a while, eventually ended up in Toronto Ontario in the 60s, and now resides in Vancouver, BC with his family. Every country of residence impacts him in a different way: in India he discusses how he was scolded for playing in the sun. In Australia he very badly wants to become a citizen but is denied due to racist immigration policies which devastates him. In Toronto he was very aware that he was marginalized and isolated, being one of only a few people of colour, and having only white friends. He also rhetorically asks an insightful question regarding his choice in marrying two white women, commenting on how that was likely not a coincidence, regardless of the real or perceived lack of eligible Indian women in Canada.

As a viewer, it was pretty clear to me from the outset that this documentary was going to be centered around his and other people of colour’s internalized racism, which is very much related to and often a result of shadeism. However, the latter isn’t a necessary condition for the prior. In other words, while it is improbable that we can completely rid ourselves of our internalized racism as people of colour, I believe that it is possible to look at shadeism with a critical eye (not to be confused with the problematic & Eurocentric “objective” eye). Simply discussing internalized racism though, without even as much as naming it, is a dangerous arena in which to venture unless you come prepared with heavy critical analysis to accompany it. Unfortunately, this is not what happens, which leads to several problematic & triggering moments in the film.

One of the first interviewees is none other than Malcolm Gladwell’s light skinned Black Jamaican mother Joyce (and later her identical twin sister). Joyce rightly points out that colorism or shadeism exists in Jamaica, however she also lightly brushes over how white slave owners and African women just “happened” to have children resulting in the “brown” middle class (the Jamaican term for mixed-race). Another misstep is that she completely erases the existence of Indigenous Jamaicans, namely the Taino who are often mistaken for Arawak, by saying that there is “no such thing as a ‘Jamaican’ because there was no one before slavery”. Of course, the island got its name from the Taino, and their descendants still live there and around the world today.

Sarin also travels to the Philippines and interviews a woman who was dark-skinned, cash poor and bullied as a child, but eventually creates a famous whitening treatment centre and is now nearly white herself via treatments & surgery. She shares a devastating story where she is nearly raped by a man at the age 7, simply for being dark-skinned, and in exchange for a rice-cracker. Later in the documentary, her young adult daughter admits that her mother in fact experimented on her with the treatments and uses her for advertising, which she doesn’t like but goes along with to help her mom. While she and her daughters know that the business is built on hurting people, they quickly assert that they are able to separate their feelings from their desire to make money and be capitalists.

The viewer then travels to South Africa learning the story of a light-skinned Coloured woman who details her many experiences with shadeism. The most troubling story however is of her turbulent relationship with her darker-skinned sister who had “deeper issues” she explains. She realizes the day her sister dies that she didn’t treat her very well because she was dark. Another light-skinned Coloured man is interviewed and makes several problematic statements about how Apartheid, while bad, was helpful in knowing who to marry and now nobody knows what to do. Um… WTF?

The next stop is in India where he interviews a dark-skinned woman who is still a virgin at 32 and claims that “every Indian girl wishes she was lighter skinned” (and plenty other gross generalizations). She continues by explaining that even a (dis)abled man who is “missing a leg” wouldn’t marry her, which is supposed to inform the viewer that this man who is so undesirable because he is (dis)abled will still reject an able-bodied dark-skinned woman. Holy ableist and intersectionality fail.

Tanzania is the final destination, where we meet several African children with albinism who attend a special school that protects them from being murdered. I am glad that Africans with albinism are included in this documentary because people with albinism (from any part of the world) are often marginalized and erased from the narrative of shadeism (and much more). The people who are trying to kill them, we learn, are “witch doctors” who want to use their limbs for unknown purposes. Off the bat, I am not Tanzanian and thus will not delve too deeply into assumingly Indigenous religious practices other than to say that the Eurocentric Christian colonization of Africa has made me very cautious of buying into the demonization of pagan rituals. I also find it necessary to note that an extreme trigger warning is due for this section in which a traumatizing account of the murder of a 7 month old baby in front of its mother and siblings is retold.

We finally return to Brazil, the family vacation destination, where we meet a dark-skinned Afro-Brazilian who is a famous “dancing” street sweeper. He discusses his experience with poverty, including sharing a single pair of pants with his father who would come home during his work breaks so that his son could wear them to school, if only for a few hours. He explains that although he had to leave elementary school, samba saved him, and he loved dancing with his family. As he got older, he needed to find work, and there was an opening for a street sweeper – a job he still has today and is quite famous for – particularly for his antics during Carnival. To be clear, there is of course absolutely no shame in taking pride in your work and finding ways to make it enjoyable, whatever that work is. However, the imagery of him dancing with a broom in his bright orange sweeping uniform in front of a mostly light-skinned crowd is reminiscent of “shucking and jiving” and so many other painful stereotypes of the only things that Black folks are “good for” – brainlessly entertaining white folks.

Sarin closes the movie on the beach in Brazil with his family with his shirt off, showing us that he’s taken a step forward with his fear of the sun and thus with letting go of at least some of his internalized racism. However, he ends a problematic documentary with one of the worst mixed-race clichés since the tragic mulatto in a gag-inducing quip about how “one day we’ll all be mixed which will end racism” (paraphrasing). He then continues with “Will I ever experience the same freedom I see in the faces of my children? Perhaps it is too late. Or is it?” implying that “freedom” is equated to being closer to whiteness, like his mixed-race children. Much like in Dark Girls, there is not enough counter-narrative or critical analysis to this sad story. Aside from one woman in India who is trying to create a healthy space for women to embrace issues like shadeism, both his and his interviewees’ stories come off  totally despondent and powerless except for through chronic work and capital gains. To my point – every person in the movie overcame their situation with respectability politics and capitalism, or just accepting the status quo, which yet again does nothing to support people of colour facing these very situations.  Furthermore, interviewing mainly light-skinned people and a self-hating dark-skinned person (who is now “white” as she puts it via whitening creams and surgery) is actually reproducing the very issue that he claims to be uncovering. Finally, the description brings up the intersection of gender but completely leaves out anyone who openly identifies as trans* (or queer or (dis)abled or Indigenous to Turtle Island etc).

To conclude,  I believe that everyone who creates work for the general population has the responsibility to avoid misinforming the public at all costs. Sadly Sarin misses the mark on this one and if not neutral, probably does more harm than good. In contrast, if you want to see a fantastic documentary about shadeism, please do yourself a favour and watch the soon to be released Shadeism : Digging Deeper by Nayani Thiyagarajah et al, a movie by women of colour for women of colour.

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