Nayani Thiyagarajah says she was a light-skinned wonder child, born into a Tamil family in Toronto.


“My family still reminisces about how light I was,” she says in her new short documentary, Shadeism, which screened recently at the Regent Park Film Festival.


The 22-year-old journalism graduate with milk chocolate skin, a nose stud and a soft-spoken but confident demeanour, grew up in multicultural Flemingdon Park.


“It was really diverse,” she says. “And to me, not in a cheesy way, but skin colour really didn’t make a difference.”

But as she grew darker with age, family members would lament what they considered her turn for the worse. Her mom would often say, “Don’t play too much in the sun, you don’t want to get too dark.”

Thiyagarajah started questioning the idea that lighter skin was better. She liked when her skin got tanned in the summer.

She didn’t worry too much about what her family thought. But it was a recent conversation with her darker-skinned, four-year-old niece that convinced her to make the video.

“She said, ‘You’re pretty, you’re more white.’ And I thought, ‘Wow, this really impacts how she views herself.’”

In the video, she sits with her niece in a living room, and rubs her little hand.

“Do you like this skin colour?” she asks as her niece shakes her head.

“No, why?”

“Because,” the girl answers, smiling, “I need to come white.”

“You need to become white? Really? You don’t like this?” she asks gently, rubbing her hand again. “This is pretty.”

Thiyagarajah doesn’t want to put blame on her family, but she does want to challenge the preference for lighter skin.

She questions the Fair and Lovely whitening cream that many in her community would use regularly, and a local beauty salon that offers “fairness facials” at three locations in the GTA.

She also brings together four of her female friends from different backgrounds – representing Bangladesh, Grenada and Venezuela, Angola and Trinidad – who discuss how shadeism plays out in their own cultures. Her friend from Bangladesh, the darkest of three sisters, was given the nickname “Mati,” which translates into “soil.”

In a telling scene of the video, the filmmaker sits in the sun with her niece as the little girl keeps pulling a pink bucket hat over her face, covering herself. Thiyagarajah hopes to expand the project into a feature-length documentary. She hopes to convince her niece to stop hiding from the sun.

She can join me as I try to tan my pasty-white skin.

– Read more of Carolyn Morris’ columns at