By Vanessa Carter, February 21 2021—
In the midst of the usual Valentine’s Day fever that occurs in February, a much bigger conversation is happening around the world — this time on a larger scale, after the events of summer 2020. It is now Black History Month, a period to recognize everything that the Black community has accomplished and the journey they have made to rise in positions of power.
One particular individual determined to spread awareness about Black Lives Matter is Miss Calgary 2020, Shetin Adams. Adams is a fourth-year University of Calgary student majoring in International Relations who was crowned last August at a socially-distanced Calgary Pageants event, after competing against six other women for the title. In the past year, she has quickly become an important figure in promoting her cause, breaking pageant stereotypes and becoming a voice advocating for diversity on campus.
“The first thing that [Black History Month] means to me is celebrating stories and achievements that I think have been buried for a lot of time or have been overlooked in lieu of their white counterparts,” said Adams. “It also […] means a celebration and hopeful attitude towards Black futures so that we’re not really only focusing on the past, but we’re also looking toward some of the achievements that we can accomplish in the future and some of the amazing things that are being put in place today.”
As Black History Month has gained more attention over the years, there has often been debate about whether this should be a time of solemn acknowledgement, or cheerful celebrations in light of everything the Black community has overcome. On this topic, Adams has thought about it both ways.
“There was a time that I felt that Black History Month was more of a solemn thing,” said Adams. “I spent a lot of my time mourning a lot of the great iconic people in various cultures whether it’s Ghanaians or Black Americans. Just people in the past who maybe got dealt a pretty difficult [hand] of cards in life. There was that time that I really wanted to acknowledge and respect that. But as I’ve gotten older, I really think it’s more effective for me not to look at Black History Month as a solemn time but more of a celebration for everything that Black people are currently overcoming.
“The most important thing a person should do during this month is listen. I think that’s what everyone’s been saying for the past year. But also do some of your own research, because there’s information out there that has been taken away from us. The best thing you can do for yourself is empower yourself with accurate information.” Adams also advocates to “question beliefs that you held for a very long time.”
During her reign, Adams has taken action to support the Black Lives Matter movement. She’s been busy attending protests, promoting local Black-owned businesses, participating in seminars and creating art through painting and making short films — all throughout the current COVID-19 pandemic. More than anything, she wants to set a good example by educating others and making sure her actions speak louder than words in conveying a message about the importance of preserving Black history.
When it comes to the world of pageantry, Adams has also had her fair share of experiences in breaking stereotypes and contributing to a more diverse winners list. She believes pageantry is an effective way for her to convey her beliefs that more women of colour should step up and make their mark in an industry that is rapidly evolving over time.
“I definitely think that as a Black woman there is sort of that first instinct people have to think that I’m being aggressive or maybe being angry when really I’m just trying to be assertive,” Adams explained. “A lot of people in my life are very surprised that I enjoy pageants, because I am a die-hard feminist. It’s just a matter of finding a system that encompasses your values.”
Adams also elaborated on how major pageant systems seem to face controversy with their winners almost every year.
“When women of colour win pageants I’ve noticed a lot of people are so quick to assume that maybe they won because it’s like a diversity win and maybe the system just needed it,” she said. ”But when white women win, they face backlash because they aren’t diverse and can’t speak for minorities in the areas they represent, so is there ever really a way for women of colour to win?”
A prominent figure in the pageant world is Nova Stevens, a Black Lives Matter activist from Vancouver who will represent Canada in the upcoming Miss Universe pageant and is the second Black woman ever to do so. When asked about her thoughts on whether or not the major pageant systems are selecting more diverse winners, Adams said she would “attribute most of those wins for women of colour to becoming less afraid over time to step up and use their voices.”
“Entering a pageant as a Black woman, you kind of know that it’s kind of going to be a little bit of an uphill battle, because you don’t even know if the person that they hire for your makeup is going to know what to do with your skin or if the hairdresser has ever worked with Black hair,” said Adams.
Adams also has ideas for what the pageant industry can do to better support women who may not come from privileged backgrounds.
“Pageants used to be so exclusionary and it also made people who come from underprivileged backgrounds feel really bad about not getting the kind of support that others do,” she said. “There’s still a very long way to go but I wish there were more scholarships for pageants given to girls from underprivileged and under-represented neighborhoods to allow them to compete, because not having sponsorships and money in their family really limits the amount of people that are applying.”
In relations to what Adams thinks about how diversity could further be encouraged on our own UCalgary campus, she believes more can definitely be done. She has some thoughts on the Students’ Union social media pages being called out by students, faculty members and other student clubs for advertising Sex Week, but little to no mentions of Black History Month.
“I have very good friends that are part of the Students’ Union that I talk to all the time. But at the same time, how are you going to be a Students’ Union — meant to represent and advocate for the students and be sensitive to their experiences — but then not speak about something that is so important?” questioned Adams. “This year, out of all the years, is not a year to not talk about Black History Month, especially after 2020 that had been such a traumatic year for everybody. But [for] the Black community in particular after what happened last summer. This is not the time to make your Black student body feel ignored.”
Perhaps a more inclusive initiative should be adopted by everyone on campus to be an ally to our Black student body. It takes effort to educate ourselves about injustices and everything the Black community has gone through, in order to understand what we can do to unite our voices and provide support to them — even if the issues don’t directly affect us. Ways to be an ally may include attending protests, reaching out and asking what you can do to help and doing your own research to realize the long-lasting effects from the struggles of the Black community.
“I want people to understand that the protests that have come as a result of the Black Lives Matter movement are coming out of an immense deal of pain through generational trauma and suffering that people have not been sharing for a very long time,” said Adams. “I would also want people to know that when you put yourself in another person’s shoes, just for a moment, and really take the time to learn more about where we’re coming from and why we feel the way we feel and then asking yourself if you can empathize with that, it goes a long way. At the end of the day all these protests and all these movements are really just asking for empathy, understanding and respect.”
When asked what she would want young Black girls to know about Black history and pursuing positions of power, Adams says mentorship is the way to go.
“Find a mentor and then just do it. Don’t let anyone stop you from doing what you want to do. I think especially with our history, when you’ve been shut out from things like this, there’s a tendency to think that no one will take you seriously or that you don’t belong there or you don’t really have what it takes to do it. But honestly, if you’re confident in what you want, others will pick up on it and treat you for it.”
Adams is about to graduate university and has achieved a well-earned local pageant title — all while remaining a proud Black woman who has used her voice in a way that inspires others. May her words radiate on our UCalgary community during this Black History Month and become something to keep in mind for the future.