My True Colors? ‘I am a Black African Woman’, Albinism is Not a “Defect” – The Thando Hopa Story

by Joseph Omoniyi
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Model and activist Thando Hopa sees a world filled with vibrant hues, even though the medical establishment would label her “melanin deficient.” Living as a Black African woman with albinism, Thando embraces her intersectional identities, navigating the complexities and challenges they bring. Her story is part of The Melanin Edit, a platform by Allure exploring the rich and diverse experiences of melanin-rich lives, addressing both innovative treatments for hyperpigmentation and the social realities while spreading Black pride.

When Thando was born, a doctor confidently told her mother that her fair-skinned daughter would likely never see color. Her mother, a young Black filmmaker in pre-liberation South Africa, responded with quiet defiance, deciding to wait for her own child to tell her what she could or couldn’t see. As Thando grew, it became clear that she could indeed see color, although not always in fine detail. She could see the hues and shades around her, from her light-skinned parents to her dark-skinned grandmother, each contributing to the vibrant tapestry of her world.

Growing up, Thando learned about the politics of her body and the loaded meanings attached to her identities. As a Black female with albinism, she faced disproportionate scrutiny and harassment over her skin color. Albinism, she learned, was not just a medical condition but a socio-political experience, affected by how inclusive and accommodating society could be. She took issue with the perception that albinism was a condition to be suffered from or that it failed to meet some human standard.

Albinism is often framed negatively, seen as a deficiency or absence rather than a genetic characteristic. This language positions albinism as something to be cured, creating cultural and political implications. Historically, the term “albino” was used by Europeans to describe Black Africans with white skin, a label rooted in ignorance and prejudice. This legacy ensured that white skin would always be seen as a defect when found on non-white bodies.

In her modeling career, Thando faced stereotypes and prejudices linked to her appearance. Her blonde hair and blue eyes, features typically idealized, were viewed differently on a Black African woman with albinism. Despite this, she worked to gain control over her representation and her story. Seeing herself on the cover of Vogue Portugal, she felt a sense of relief and accomplishment, knowing she was helping to reshape narratives and perceptions.

Thando’s experiences in the media and activism have given her an expansive intersectional lens. She navigates the unique prejudices faced by Black people with albinism, struggling with language to convey these complexities. There isn’t a specific term for the intersectional prejudice she faces, similar to how “misogynoir” notes prejudice against Black women. Despite the challenges, her journey has gifted her with resilience and a drive to create inclusive and equitable cultural environments.

When Thando saw herself on the cover of Vogue Portugal, she felt a sense of relief. She had worked hard to gain control over her representation and her story, and the cover symbolized a temporary dying of tension. It represented a struggle to allow all her identities to build an alliance, for her gender, race, nation, and albinism to feel safe, secure, and beautiful inside her body.

Albinism has taught Thando about the diverse politics of color, how a person can be hypervisible yet unseen in their humanity. Moving from magazine covers to policy discussions and global platforms, she remembers the essence of what her mother gave her at birth: the independence and agency to see the world for herself. Despite the dimness the world can sometimes present, Thando finds allies, solidarity, and collaborations that help her re-inscribe narratives, filling her life with vibrant colors.

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