Thando Hopa: So I’m going to tell you a lit­tle bit of a sto­ry. So, In the 1940s, two American doc­tors ran an exper­i­ment known as the doll test.” So the sci­en­tists want­ed to under­stand the impact of racial seg­re­ga­tion and dis­crim­i­na­tion on African American chil­dren. The test was quite sim­ple. Children would be called in and shown two dolls that look exact­ly the same, with only one dif­fer­ence: the doll color. 

So, I received footage show­ing ver­sions of this exper­i­ment and I watched as chil­dren who as young as five years old iden­ti­fied the dolls accord­ing to their racial per­cep­tion. Now, one doll was iden­ti­fied as the black doll, and the oth­er doll was iden­ti­fied as the white doll. 

So ques­tions direct­ed to the chil­dren to reveal which qual­i­ties they thought each doll to have. Now, the ques­tion went some­thing like this: Which doll is pret­ty? Which doll is ugly? Which doll is good. Which doll is mean? 

Now, the video dis­plays chil­dren, despite their race, assign neg­a­tive attrib­ut­es toward the black doll, and pos­i­tive attrib­ut­es toward the white doll. And the ques­tions went along this vein until the ques­tion was asked that brought us back to the impact of the study. And that is Which doll looks more like you?” 

Now, I paused when this hap­pened. Because two obser­va­tions ran through my mind. The first one was watch­ing the heart­break­ing expres­sions on the faces of African American chil­dren as they painful­ly reached for the doll that looked most like them. It was the doll that they and most oth­er chil­dren had assigned neg­a­tive attrib­ut­es toward. It was the doll that I iden­ti­fied with as a black woman. 

Now the sec­ond obser­va­tion. There were no African American chil­dren with albinism among the chil­dren who were being inter­viewed. So I start­ed think­ing about how I would have respond­ed if I was one of those children. 

Now, I iden­ti­fied with the black doll, yes. But that is main­ly because it embod­ied my expe­ri­ence, but I was also quite aware that the white doll resem­bled my appear­ance, as a per­son with albinism on the basis of col­or. So for those of you who don’t know, albinism man­i­fests in all races. It is a lack of pig­men­ta­tion in the skin, hair, and eyes. And this means that for peo­ple of col­or with albinism we usu­al­ly have bod­ies that con­tra­dict the dom­i­nant under­stand­ing of our race. 

Now this exper­i­ment made me intro­spect on the two cul­tur­al and his­tor­i­cal forms of racial dis­crim­i­na­tion that merged into my one body: my black­ness in terms of race, and my albinism in terms of col­or. So African American chil­dren would be born with­in the inter­sec­tion of race and albinism, plac­ing them in a world between worlds. 

Now, when I was born, my grand­fa­ther named me Umtana Wothando, which means a child of love.” He was well aware that I was born into a body that spoke for itself, before I could speak for it. Now grow­ing up I grew up in a com­mu­ni­ty that was filled with diverse peo­ple of col­or, and I remem­ber that when I was about six years old I viewed my first day of school as an excit­ing and scary adven­ture. I was so full of antic­i­pa­tion that my par­ents could­n’t con­tain the ener­gy that was burst­ing out of my lit­tle body. And I think that gen­der was the only social strat­i­fi­ca­tion at this point that I knew. 

However, like most chil­dren who are dif­fer­ent” in one way or anoth­er, school became an ini­ti­a­tion ground. In that I was the only per­son in my school who did not have brown skin. And not only that, the lack of pig­men­ta­tion that ran through my body—including my eyes—resulted in me being short-sighted, so I strug­gled to make out the words and num­bers on the chalk­board as well as on my school books. 

Now, the set of cir­cum­stances that my body found itself in was met with some antag­o­nism from some of my peers as well as some adults. And I grew to under­stand that there was a whole insti­tu­tion that was cul­tur­al­ly cre­at­ed about my exis­tence. From deroga­to­ry names in almost all sub-Saharan African lan­guages, to a for­mal­ized English term which some of you might know. The term albi­no.”

Now accord­ing to the Oxford Dictionary, albi­no means a per­son or ani­mal with a con­gen­i­tal absence of pig­ment in the skin and hair, which are white, and eyes which are usu­al­ly pink. Now apart from oth­er issues with that def­i­n­i­tion, I need to men­tion that as a black per­son, I have in my racial his­to­ry a sore spot that is reignit­ed when ever my exis­tence is described on the same wave­length as you would an animal. 

So albinism is no dif­fer­ent for me. So for clar­i­ty my pre­ferred ter­mi­nol­o­gy is per­son with albinism,” not albi­no. But the plot does thick­en for albinism. In that in cer­tain con­texts I’ve been sub­ject­ed to super­sti­tious beliefs; to neg­a­tive sci­en­tif­ic inter­pre­ta­tions that described it and labeled it as a genet­ic dis­or­der, or a con­gen­i­tal dis­ease; to cin­e­mat­ic mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tions that por­trayed it as a freak of nature, or as evil; to almost no rep­re­sen­ta­tion in the beau­ty econ­o­my at the time. So as a young woman, I was liv­ing in a cul­ture that was built up to dis­miss mar­gin­al­ized and dis­crim­i­nate against my kind of human expe­ri­ence. Albinism was cul­tur­al­ly cre­at­ed to being an insti­tu­tion­al­ized other. 

Now, all this socially-constructed mad­ness told me that we as a soci­ety strug­gle to see dif­fer­ence as part of human diver­si­ty be it race, gen­der, sex­u­al­i­ty, or be it albinism. The pat­terns of oth­er­ing were unde­ni­ably sim­i­lar. But, my life went on with a sem­blance of func­tion­al­i­ty. And I went through many lived chap­ters in my life. And I land­ed on one strange but enlight­en­ing chap­ter, which I locate in my adult life. 

So the year was 2012. And I met design­er Gert-Johan Coetzee, who’s a fash­ion design­er. I was a full-time pros­e­cu­tor at the time, and he asked me to do a fash­ion shoot for his cam­paign. Now, I was reluc­tant to say the least. And I remem­ber I had this con­ver­sa­tion with my sis­ter and I told about the ridicu­lous prospect of me being a mod­el while being a lawyer. And she said in turn, she said, You know, I don’t under­stand why you think this is such a ridicu­lous idea. Do you know how many per­cep­tions you could change using this plat­form?” Now, I was unaware at the time that she was actu­al­ly giv­ing me a mis­sion state­ment for the work that I was about to do. 

So any­way, I reached out to Gert, and dur­ing our meet­ing I gave him the most mat­ter of fact legal voice that was loaded with years of insti­tu­tion­al bag­gage. I said, Gert, I will do this mod­el­ing thing, pro­vid­ed that we rep­re­sent albinism in a pos­i­tive way.” Now, I was about to embark on a jour­ney that would show me what an over­sim­pli­fi­ca­tion that state­ment actu­al­ly was. 

So I com­plet­ed my project with Gert. And I actu­al­ly had fun doing the shoot. But the inter­est that the project gen­er­at­ed from dif­fer­ent indus­try play­ers would help me quick­ly under­stand that this was not going to be an easy journey. 

So I’m gonna take you to a year lat­er, 2013. I have this amaz­ing shoot with Forbes Life mag­a­zine. And this shoot actu­al­ly doc­u­ment­ed a deci­sion that would be a hall­mark deci­sion in my career. And that was to present my eye­brows and eye­lash­es as pale, believe it or not. 

Now, I had always, always, always altered my appear­ance by just dark­en­ing my eye­brows and eyelashes—and this is just how I pre­sent­ed my beau­ty to the world and to my nuclear com­mu­ni­ty. But note. The image of black albinism was usu­al­ly not cel­e­brat­ed in our glob­al beau­ty cul­ture. And not only that, in our South African pop­u­lar cul­ture I had not seen the image being asso­ci­at­ed with beau­ty. So this par­tic­u­lar deci­sion was accom­pa­nied with…a lot…of self…doubt.

So the shoot end­ed, but my deci­sion con­tin­ued. And I was met with some resis­tance from indus­try cor­ri­dors when I pur­sued my new” appear­ance. So the behind-the-scenes advice went some­thing like this. Oh, but. You have to put on mas­cara on your lash­es and dark­en your brows or else your face is going to dis­ap­pear, sweet­ie.” Or, How? I thought you said you were done with your make­up. Did you uh, for­get your eyebrows?” 

Now the odd thing was, I was just try­ing to look like myself. I was try­ing to embrace the unique char­ac­ter­is­tics that half a mil­lion peo­ple across the world are born with. I want­ed to be the kind of woman that the younger me looked for in mag­a­zines but just nev­er found. 

Now with the upcom­ing new world of diver­si­ty, old ideas still per­se­vered in the dom­i­nant cul­ture, and I start­ed feel­ing like I was unnec­es­sar­i­ly choos­ing a hard­er route. But inter­est­ing­ly, albinism was not the only rep­re­sen­ta­tion that affect­ed me. Because race, gen­der, and nation would also remind me of their rep­re­sen­ta­tion­al harm in media. Black peo­ple, women, and Africans, are still ward­ing off the impact of harm­ful rep­re­sen­ta­tion in media that they did­n’t even have equal con­trol over. And the rep­re­sen­ta­tion expressed itself in our pop­u­lar cul­ture through neg­a­tive stereo­types, exploita­tive rep­re­sen­ta­tion, objec­ti­fi­ca­tion, and mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tion that com­mu­ni­cat­ed social inferiority. 

So my albinism, my black­ness, my wom­an­hood, and my African-ness would make the ques­tion of who I rep­re­sent quite a polit­i­cal­ly loaded affair. My body attract­ed sce­nar­ios that remind­ed me con­sis­tent­ly that I car­ry more than just one iden­ti­ty. My in front of the cam­era image was usu­al­ly accom­plished after maneu­ver­ing microag­gres­sions and stereo­type— not just about albinism but about race, gen­der, and nation too. 

Now, I’m going to give you a cou­ple of exam­ples. Race. So, we would love to sign you. But you would look more acces­si­ble with like a long brown weave.” Or, Oh, uh, could we make her lips small­er?” Or, I’m sor­ry, I just can’t work with hair like this.” 

Now, the nuanced attacks that I received were not just lim­it­ed to race, because being a woman came with its own set of chal­lenges. Gender. Hi. So I know that I’m ask­ing you to do this pret­ty late on set, but could you just put on this shirt. It’ll show a lit­tle bit of your nip­ples but…it’ll be taste­ful­ly done.” Or, Relax. He’s just ask­ing you to put on boob pasties. I mean you’re gonna seri­ous­ly have to stop being so conservative.” 

Now, to be clear, female sex­u­al­i­ty and sen­su­al­i­ty are to be cel­e­brat­ed. But from a place of bod­i­ly agency and body sov­er­eign­ty, not from a place of expec­ta­tion or obligation. 

Next, Africa. Could you tell us about the albi­no killings in Africa? What are some of the super­sti­tions albi­no Africans have about albi­nos?” Or, Do you con­sid­er your­selves war­riors for your cause?” Or, Could you let us know about the most fright­en­ing expe­ri­ence in your country?”

Now, I would read about Africa as if it is one big coun­try. Not a con­ti­nent with com­plex­i­ty and vari­a­tion. I was con­sis­tent­ly asked the same ques­tions, to con­firm the same nar­ra­tive, indis­crim­i­nate­ly, with­out much con­text giv­en. And I real­ized that the much, much, much-needed albinism aware­ness was being invad­ed by endur­ing stereo­type about what Africa is sin­gu­lar­ly under­stood to be: a place of fear, vio­lence, strug­gle, and witchcraft…overlooking bal­anc­ing nar­ra­tives about fam­i­ly, com­mu­ni­ty, progress, and culture. 

I felt as though the envi­ron­ment was clos­ing in on me, and that it was not ready to receive or adapt to difference—not in con­tent, or in form. I felt like there were just too many stereo­types to jug­gle, too much prej­u­dices to counter, too much racial and gen­dered his­to­ry that was play­ing out in my every­day activ­i­ties in my career. 

Now, as a black, African, woman, with albinism, my very exis­tence attracts social and polit­i­cal con­se­quences. And all of it is sig­nif­i­cant for me. It is my world between worlds. In the same way I could not just pick one doll, I can­not just pick one iden­ti­ty. An inclu­sive cul­ture accepts that it is not this or that. It is this and that. 

The com­bi­na­tion of our many worlds is a cul­tur­al resource, and if I’ve learned any­thing from my var­i­ous expe­ri­ences it is that we are a prod­uct of cul­ture. We are a result of all the nar­ra­tives and the cul­tur­al con­structs that are pro­ject­ed onto our bod­ies, how­ev­er we can reshape these nar­ra­tives and become pro­duc­ers of culture. 

Now, I’ve learned to use my mul­ti­plic­i­ty as a cul­tur­al asset. In that I choose projects that give me var­i­ous access points to human­i­ty through my mul­ti­ple iden­ti­ties. And I find that projects that allow for con­sul­ta­tion, shared con­trol over rep­re­sen­ta­tion, cocre­ation, authen­tic­i­ty, and allow for an embrac­ing of multifaceted-ness, these projects leave an unde­ni­able cul­tur­al foot­print. But most impor­tant­ly, they bring us clos­er to inclu­sive nar­ra­tives and cul­tur­al reform. Now the next projects that I’m going to share with you are my col­lab­o­ra­tions which are kind of like my favorite anecdotes. 

Now the first one is the Audi #untag­gable cam­paign which part­nered with Ogilvy. And the cam­paign was about chal­leng­ing stereo­types and sin­gu­lar iden­ti­ty myths. 

Now that was the award-winning #untag­gable campaign. 

And the next one was the Pirelli cal­en­dar, an all-cast cal­en­dar that real­ly spoke about race and rep­re­sen­ta­tion but also it was a his­tor­i­cal adap­ta­tion of Alice in Wonderland.

And the next one was the Foschini cam­paign. This cam­paign spoke about wom­en’s sol­i­dar­i­ty as well as affir­ma­tions, and it was called the I am all woman” campaign. 

And the last one I’d like to share with you is Vogue, which not only made his­to­ry in terms of albinism and rep­re­sen­ta­tion, but also cel­e­brat­ed the beau­ty of African fash­ion and luxury. 

Now, look­ing back at the doll test, the gap that I inhab­it­ed with­in the test remind­ed me that there’s always a world between worlds. And that an unseen exis­tence does not amount to an absent exis­tence. And the reminder man­i­fest­ed in a…try­ing but infor­ma­tive media jour­ney that assert­ed that an absence of rep­re­sen­ta­tion does not trans­late to an absence of life, of tal­ent, of per­spec­tive, of com­plex­i­ty, and of value. 

Now, if we respon­si­bly access one anoth­er’s human­i­ty by redesign­ing cul­tur­al envi­ron­ments and nar­ra­tives to being more inclu­sive, then the bet­ter our chances are in build­ing an expan­sive cul­tur­al econ­o­my, but also build­ing a future of that dares to be large enough to see all of us par­tic­i­pate in it. Thank you.

Help Support Open Transcripts

If you found this useful or interesting, please consider supporting the project monthly at Patreon or once via Cash App, or even just sharing the link. Thanks.