By Sheila Phibbs
The Haldimand Press
DUNNVILLE—Shae-Lyn Pinnance of Dunnville was very young when she realized that her experience growing up as a ‘mixed child’ (white mother, black father) was very different compared to some of her friends. She explains, “I would say that once I started kindergarten and was around more kids is when I really realized I was different. Classmates would always question me on why my skin was brown and whenever my hair was down, they would try to touch it because it was ‘poofy’ and ‘big’.”
This is just one of many incidences of stereotype and misperceptions that Pinnance faced throughout her childhood. In response, she would often wear her hair up, trying to make it as small as possible. She also recalls people thinking she was adopted and even asking her mom, “When did you get her?” Pinnance says, “It got to the point when I was young that I told my mom that I didn’t believe her that I wasn’t adopted. Still to this day, when I go out with my mom, I have in the back of my head that people will look at us and not think that we are mother and daughter.”
In fact, with just three or four mixed race children in her elementary school, it was often assumed that she was related to them. Pinnance would also hear comments about loving chicken because she is black, being “the whitest black person”, or being “exotic looking”. While the intent may not have been to cause hurt, these remarks made an impact. Pinnance describes asking her mom if she could get her hair chemically straightened, “So I could have hair like my friends.” She was only nine or 10 years old at the time.
Appearance was once again an issue during grade school when “Twin Day” was announced. Pinnance looked forward to being a twin with her best friend, who happened to be white and had straight, blonde hair. That excitement soon turned to disappointment as her friend told her they couldn’t be twins because they didn’t look alike. The intention of Twin Day – to dress alike, not look the same – was lost in that moment and she told her mother she would not be attending school that day because, “No one looked like me.”
Pinnance’s mom was her advocate, speaking with the principal to convey her daughter’s feelings and the assumptions made about who could participate in this activity. Pinnance explains, “My mom always says that it was a good opportunity for her to educate others about these types of white privilege situations.”
Notably, Twin Day was renamed Dress Alike Day, although it didn’t happen again while she attended that school.
Having grown up in a predominantly white community and not being educated on her black culture, Pinnance admits that when she was young she favoured the image of the blonde, fair princesses. In her eyes and those of her friends, they were the prettiest and they wished they could be like that. She says, “It wasn’t until I went to university and I was around different ethnicities that I started to feel comfortable again and realized that it’s okay to be different.”
That being said, Pinnance realizes that, over time, “Racist comments have chipped away at how I see myself and value myself. I didn’t realize that when I was younger; I just knew that sometimes, when my friends would make a comment or joke, it didn’t feel good, but I didn’t know why. I’m understanding the why now and I’m not okay with it.”
It was with that conviction that Pinnance recently shared her story on Facebook, relating her experiences growing up.
She was moved to speak out after seeing online posts by friends stating, “Why are there protests in Canada?” or “We don’t have racism in Canada”.
She says, “It really struck a nerve because … I was thinking about all of the judgements, stereotypes, etc. that I have been through and here are people who I would consider my friends or friends’ parents and they believe that it doesn’t exist here. It made me want to educate people so they could understand that it does in fact happen here and it is something that needs to be talked about.”
Pinnance also commented on Black Lives Matter. She believes the value of this movement is educating people on what is going on in the black community. She contends, “A lot of people say that racism doesn’t exist and that is what this movement is about. Black Lives Matter isn’t meant to offend anyone, and it is not saying that other lives don’t matter. What it is saying is that black lives need help right now because there are so many black people who are in danger or are being killed.”
While Pinnance is doing her part to educate others, she continues her own education at Trent University in Peterborough. The Dunnville Secondary School graduate is studying Forensics and Biology and has been accepted to study abroad at Kent University in England for the 2021-22 school year (deferred from 2020-21 due to COVID-19).
She returns to Dunnville during school breaks and on occasional weekends. It is her home with her mom and the place where her story began. And as Shae-Lyn Pinnance continues to share her story, she gives us all something important to talk about.