“I’ve been hated for my skin colour, for my sexuality, for my mental health, things I can’t change. People are going to hate me whatever, so I might as well be who I am. I don’t care what people think anymore.”
Shona Van Hassen grew up around her uncle’s circus, sometimes travelling the country with this unique, ragtag community. She loved the life from the beginning, and would eventually become a stilt-walker and trapeze artist, before finding her niche as a fire-poi and burlesque dancer, as well as a Black Lives Matter activist. As a child, she was just soaking it all up: the colour, the costumes, the music and, most of all, the amazing people; including her mother—who ran away to London to become a punk and often performed as a clown in the circus—and those they lived with, from performers to prostitutes and dominatrixes. Her non-judgemental attitude now and the generous, open way that she lives her life, her experimental performance style, even her sexuality, are greatly influenced by this early exposure to truly original people living in the margins, but she has been even more profoundly shaped by the challenges that she has faced and the strength it has taken to overcome them.
As a tiny child she was a tomboy, always playing in the mud and climbing trees, so when people first started to call her dirty, she innocently thought this was what they meant. She had no idea that they were referring to her skin colour. “I remember a little girl coming up to me when I was maybe three or four, licking her finger and trying to rub my colour off,” she says. “Her mum pulled her away and said, ‘Sorry, she’s never seen a black person before. She thinks you’re dirty.’” She was so young that she was able to shrug it off, but it was racism within her own family that was the most damaging. “When I was born, my dad said, ‘She’s not mine.’ My mum had to literally explain race to him.” Her white dad had lucked out two years earlier with the birth of her sister, who was white-passing, with curly, blonde hair and green eyes. Shona looked more like her mother, although she didn’t know just how varied her ethnicity was until she sat her mum down when she was sixteen and asked, “Right, what am I?” Her mum drew her a diagram, unlocking the secrets of her blasian features. She was so different to her dad that the police stopped him in the street more than once when she was tiny to make sure he hadn’t stolen her.
“As soon as you start treating black people or LGBTQ people as equal, that’s when people get threatened that we’re taking power away from them. In a way we are because we’re taking their superiority and privilege away. It’s what happens when you’re conditioned to look down on people.”
When her grandma also started calling her dirty, she was still too young to understand why, but her subsequent acts of cruelty were undeniable. “I always had a split lip when I stayed with her,” she says. “She’d push me down the steps of the caravan. Wherever there were steps, I’d get pushed down them. No one really questioned it because I was always running around. And I’d lose weight because she would take the things I liked off my plate and give me less food or things I couldn’t eat. She wouldn’t let me have water when I was hot. I just thought she was cruel. It never really computed until I was much older what it was about. She’d make me have the first bath when it was stupidly hot, and I’d come out bright red, and then my sister would go in when it had cooled down. She’d tell me, ‘Yours is the kind of filth you can’t wash off.’” Eventually, Shona started faking sickness to get out of seeing her grandma and stopped going altogether when she was ten.
The one person that treated the sisters equally was her mum, but this presented problems of its own. “Because my sister was conditioned to be better than me, by my dad and grandma, she didn’t understand how lucky she was. She’d say, ‘You’re Mum’s favourite.’ It’s like, ‘No, we’re just getting treated equally. You’re just not used to that.’ Which is what’s happening in the world. As soon as you start treating black people or LGBTQ people as equal, that’s when people get threatened that we’re taking power away from them. In a way we are because we’re taking their superiority and privilege away. It’s what happens when you’re conditioned to look down on people.”
Watching her sister go through life more smoothly than she was able was definitely difficult, especially as the two were abandoned in the flat together for most of their teenage years after their mother, Shona’s lifeline, became trapped in an abusive relationship. Her sister was academically gifted, while Shona was rebellious, creative and out there, with colourful hair and tattoos even as a young teenager. She would steal food to survive, and vodka, and subsequently developed alcohol and self-harm issues. “I was hanging around with a group of misfits, problem kids like me,” she says. “We’d get drunk and stoned together and crash at each other’s houses, and my sister was pissed so she’d lock me out. I slept in the garage a lot. But I don’t blame her. She was raised to hate me.”
At the same time, she was also being bullied at school: called fat, ugly, monkey, dirty and told to go back to her own country, as well as being singled out for her sexuality. “I had come out as bisexual, before I knew what pansexual was,” she says. “Actually, I didn’t really come out. I just never really wasn’t. I was just the weird one in year seven who had a girlfriend. All the girls at school thought I fancied them or thought I wanted to see them naked in PE.”
White beauty was also a pressure, and she would fantasise about bleaching her skin and cutting her curves off, pushing her towards bulimia and anorexia. “I remember hating myself because I wasn’t like my friends. I ended up starving myself for years. And I still wasn’t good enough. Growing up, there was no one like me in the media, just token black people, no one to show that there was nothing wrong with the way I looked. I felt so ugly.”
Life spiralled further when she was sexually assaulted by a boyfriend and ended up staring into a rough sea one night, contemplating suicide, desperate for the pain to end. Her mum’s boyfriend had thrown a bottle of vodka at her, told her to kill herself and sent her off into the night with no shoes. “I thought people might think it was a drunken accident, so it wouldn’t affect my family,” she says. “If I could make it look like an accident, it would be okay. That was all I cared about. I just didn’t want to be here anymore. Everything hurt so much.” Thankfully a friend found her, took her in, gave her fresh clothes and they curled up together, in a daze, staring at Scary Movie 2, safe for the moment, but she knew she needed help and eventually reached out to a counsellor. Opening up about her past experiences helped, but she was still living it—the self-hatred, the bullying, the shitty homelife, the feelings of suicide. How do you change how you feel when everything around you has stayed the same?
And then, at sixteen, things really did begin to change. “I went to hospital because they thought I might have cancer,” she says. The scare proved to be without grounds, but the experience shook her. “That day I saw someone jump in front of a train and I saw a kid dying of cancer. It was the shock I needed. I saw myself as going from one to the other. I kind of didn’t want to die anymore, but I still felt like I was dying. It was like this weird depression. My brain was still saying that I didn’t deserve to live, but now I wanted to. That’s when I really started to focus on my mental health, take tablets, and try to heal.”
“People get confused when you don’t fit a stereotype. They like to put you into boxes. Like my ex’s family, who were like something from ‘Get Out’. They actually drew a pie chart of my ethnicity and would question me all the time. They made me feel like such a hood rat.”
It was her relationships with her ‘misfit’ friends that helped her to begin this process. “All of my friends were so messed up at the time with their own shit, and I was trying to help them because I’ve been through a lot in my life. People would come to me for advice, and I started seeing things from their point of view. It was a slow process, but when you’re giving advice, you realise how you should be feeling about yourself. And then I started to stand up for people being bullied because of their colour. So I went from ‘I hate my skin colour’ to ‘fuck you! This person is beautiful. We are beautiful. You can hate me for my colour, but I love me for my colour.’ So it was definitely a transition in my late teens. Like, I’m brown, get over it. My blackness was not the issue. It was the racists and the bullies who obviously have deep-rooted issues of their own.” From there, Shona went from accepting who she was to revelling in it, leaving her free to express herself as creatively as she wanted to. “You get to a point where you’re beat down so much for who you are that it gives you permission to be anything. I’ve been hated for my skin colour, for my sexuality, for my mental health, things I can’t change. People are going to hate me whatever, so I might as well be who I am. I don’t care what people think anymore.”
The problems haven’t completely disappeared, but support has helped with the self-harming and addiction issues. “It never really goes away and the temptation’s still there, but it’s not something I’m in anymore,” she says, and she is now better equipped to deal with the challenges of being a black, pansexual woman. “I’ve met people who say they just don’t find black people attractive. I always challenge them and when you dig deeper, it’s not the skin colour they don’t like but the perception of black people in the media, online, in films. On the other hand, I’ve had people tell me that I’m so exotic, fetishizing my skin colour. I’m like, I’m not a fruit!
“Being pansexual and black is hard,” she continues, “because the two communities don’t click. Everyone assumes that I’m straight because I’m brown, because you don’t see many black women who are into girls. And then there’s what a lesbian or bi- or pansexual should look like. If you’re black and gay, you have to be boyish to show that you’re not straight. People get confused when you don’t fit a stereotype. They like to put you into boxes. Like my ex’s family, who were like something from ‘Get Out’. They actually drew a pie chart of my ethnicity and would question me all the time. They made me feel like such a hood rat. Every day there was something about my race, my colour – it was crazy. They knew more about my life than I did, and then they’d say they didn’t really know me. They literally knew everything about me, but they still didn’t know me because I didn’t fit into this box. People do it all the time with black people and LGBTQ people. They need to categorise them.
“When it comes to sexuality, I just see myself as human – I don’t care what a person has in their pants; why should it matter? – but at the same time I feel alienated towards the whole humanity thing. It’s like, do you identify as a man, woman, they, them, he, her? I’m none of it. Call me what you like. I don’t care. It literally doesn’t mean anything to me. On the spectrum, I would definitely put myself outside the situation. Humanity is like me looking in rather than being a part of it. Because I’ve always been told that I’m different, I don’t feel a part of it. I’m fine with that now. I met someone who felt exactly the same after a show recently and felt instantly connected. Yes, another alien!”
These days, Shona’s life is calmer than it has ever been, with a stable homelife and an improved relationship with her sister. “Now, we love each other. We don’t have to get along, but if I’m sad I’ll go to her. She’s there for me.” Central to her life is campaigning for equality and educating others about her experiences. She says, “The issue that faces every person of colour is the feeling of not being equal, the feeling of being not good enough, that there’s something wrong with us. We need to teach each other and our children that we are good enough, we have a right to live and not just (emphasise just!) survive, that we are beautiful and we are loved. The world can be an unequal place, but we need to stand up against inequality and hate, and we, no matter what your skin colour, background, sexuality or mental health status, are all worthy. Every one of us matters. We must stand up against those who try to keep us down, lift up the most vulnerable, and make a stand against inequality wherever it may be.”
At the suggestion that her life so far has been unique, incredible and extraordinary, as a fire-eating, ex-circus-performing, burlesque dancer who has overcome so much and now stands up for the rights of others through the BLM movement, she says, “Really? I think I’m quite boring. People tell me about going on holiday with their family and I’m like, ‘On holiday with your family? No! That’s crazy!’. So much of life is about perspective!
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