Adams and her mother, Doris Addo, after Adams was crowned Miss Calgary 2020. PHOTO: ANSBERT MUONAH

Walking home after a neighbourhood water balloon fight in Calgary’s northwest community of Edgemont, Shetin Adams vividly recalls the moment she experienced achieving what is a kind of milestone in the Black community. At the age of seven, she was called the N-word.

Two young boys, a little older than her had called Adams over to them, and when she ignored them and kept walking, the boys used the racial slur.

“I knew it was a bad word, I just didn’t really know the depth of it until I got older, obviously. I think back to all the times I’ve been called the N-word in public. It’s been more than once, more than three times,” says Adams.

Reflecting back on the moment, Adams is grateful to herself that she didn’t stop walking.

“Who knows what they could have done honestly, people are crazy.”

That kind of overt racism made it harder for her to embrace her cultural background while growing up in Calgary. Despite that struggle, Adams learned to be proud of both her Ghanian and Canadian roots, winning Miss Calgary 2020. Now, she plans to use her platform to support social justice and equality movements.

Adams remembers the complexity that came growing up with a cultural background. Though she would attend social gatherings on the weekends that welcomed diversity and people of all different ethnic backgrounds, it was on the weekdays in school where Adams sometimes questioned her culture and self.

Attending predominantly white, Anglo-European, Canadian schools, Adams recalls the inappropriate comments that some of her classmates would make.

Adams and her younger sister, Jemila Adams, around the age of the N-word incident in her neighbourhood. PHOTO: DORIS ADDO.

“People sometimes would make very offensive and hurtful comments to me throughout my school days,” says Adams. “They really replay a lot in your subconscious mind and shape how you view yourself and how you view your own culture and just aspects of yourself that I’m still trying to unlearn today.”

Many of those comments caused Adams to feel shame about her Ghanaian roots. Remarks regarding the smell of her food embarrassed her so much that she wouldn’t bring any Ghanaian dishes to school, instead making her mom pack her sandwiches and salad for lunch.

Adams says that it wasn’t until later in high school when she began to realize what kind of woman she wanted to be.

“In high school, one of the things that made me embrace a lot of the things that I went through was just talking to more people and severing those ties of people that continuously made jokes that were not that appropriate.”

Pageant journey

After graduating high school in 2017, Adams started at the University of Calgary where she is currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in international relations and affairs.

Nearing the end of 2019 Adams began battling depression and anxiety.

“My mental health, it’s gone through ups and downs and I’ve definitely struggled with it. But if I’m being completely honest, I would say that the lowest point of my mental health was at the end of 2019,” says Adams. ”I was so humbled to be as depressed and anxious as I was, I’ve never experienced that.”

Adams started seeing a therapist who helped her in working through those problems. In Dec. 2019, Adams’ therapist challenged her to do something that she’s always really enjoyed. Adams thought about competing in a pageant. Having only participated once before in a charity pageant, she decided to apply for Miss Calgary.

After her application was accepted, Adams moved on to the orientation and training process for contestants. However, in the middle of March, the novel coronavirus flipped the pageant upside down. Alberta shutdown and all events and gatherings were cancelled the week before the pageant.

In June, the pageant was rescheduled for November.

So it came as quite the surprise to Adams when, in July, it was announced the pageant would be happening in three weeks.

“I was like, ‘Oh my God, I’m eating so much. I have a gut now because of a lockdown, I’ve been eating, I’m not feeling cute at all.’ It was just crazy.” 

The interview and orientation portion of the pageant were done virtually and, when it came to the day of competition, things were quite different than normal. Each age division only got an hour to compete, there were no more than 50 people allowed in the room and all individuals (with the exception of the contestants) had to wear masks.

“It was definitely not as fine as it has been in other years, but still very impressive that they were even able to pull it off without anyone getting sick or anything like that and still have a smooth show.”

Adams admits she had feelings of nervousness, she wanted to put her best foot forward. Just days before the pageant she was changing the way she walked and posed.

“I think it only really gets real when you’re a couple days out from it and you’re like, “Oh my God, what if I make a fool of myself? What if I sound stupid? What if I don’t know the question they’re going to ask?”  

However, waking up the morning of the competition, she was ready to go. 

Calm, cool and collected it wasn’t until after the pageant was all over, when she heard her mom screaming, that Adams realized she had won Miss Calgary 2020. 

“I was just so elated and so happy because I put a lot of work in it and I think it was honestly just a huge moment for me on a personal level because the month leading up to that point [was] so difficult on an emotional and mental level.” 

Using Her Miss Calgary Platform

Breaking down barriers and outdated beauty norms, Adams is excited to be part of the growth of inclusivity in the beauty pageant industry.

2019 saw Black women win the two most prestigious beauty competitions in the world.

Zozibini Tunzi from South Africa was crowned Miss Universe, and Toni-Ann Singh from Jamaica was crowned Miss World. 

Toni-Ann Singh, Miss World 2019.

Despite these massive strides for women of colour in the beauty pageant industry, Adams says there is still much work to be done.

“The prizes that we got in the Miss Calgary gift bag, I wasn’t able to use half of them because they just did not fit my skin,” says Adams. “I couldn’t use any of it because they were all for someone who was lighter than me. [It] probably would have worked for someone of many different races, but not my shade of brown. I was just way too dark for anything in there.”

Adams is excited to be part of the much needed change in the beauty pageant industry, and help the Miss Calgary organization to become more cognizant of inclusivity. 

For example, when Adams was given access to the Miss Calgary Instagram, she immediately took to changing its algorithm by diversifying the content in which the page engaged with. She followed Indigenous pages, Black pages, plus-size models, LGBTQ+ pages and many more.

“The algorithm was just so messed up,” says Adams. “Changing your algorithm is good just for you on a mental health level, but then in terms of engaging with social justice and activism and that kind of thing, really try to engage with people that are not exactly like you.”

She also has big plans to use her platform to impact the community – helping the Black Lives Matter movement grow.

“I’m hoping that just by offering people a new perspective, that they embrace it and are able to incorporate that in their everyday lives,” says Adams.     

Adams also wants to listen and invite people to tell their own stories. She wants racial injustice be an ongoing discussion in government and our everyday lives.

“To hear people speak from the heart uncensored, just to talk about it, I think it’s such a great step in the right direction.”