Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
As a black woman who happens to be an albino, Virginia Small lives between the races, between the labels, between black and whitebetween what people hate and what people fear.
“What is it that in the Albino man so peculiarly repels and often shocks the eye, as that sometimes he is loathed by his own kith and kin! It is that whiteness which invests him, a thing expressed by the name he bears. The Albino is as well made as other menhas no substantive deformityand yet this mere aspect of all-pervading whiteness makes him more strangely hideous than the ugliest abortion. Why should this be so?”
Herman Melville, Moby Dick
Virginia Small remembers the time when she was 11 years old and her mother took her to the laundromat. They hoped for a quick in and out with the family clothes, but when you’re a dark-skinned, hard-pressed black woman toting along a whiter-than-white albino child, no errand is ever simple, no trip out of the house unharassed. Everyone along the way has an opinion about “where you got that child from” and “who the child really belongs to.” Nothing is ever simple when you’re a black woman with an albino child. Or when you’re a black child who happens to be an albino.
On this day, a white woman doing her laundry came up to Virginia and her mother and congratulated her mother for “having had the courage to adopt a white child.” Virginia and her mother both turned away to hide their embarrassed smiles. The white woman looked angry and baffled.
When Virginia Small, now 40 years old, walks down the street, no one sees her talent for art, her career as a legislative assistant, or her scholarship to a college in Illinois. They see a misfit, a black albino woman who must be a mutation, a genetic freak. She is neither one of us nor one of them. A woman between the races. Between what is black and what is white.
Virginia has gotten used to living on the racial divide, and the unsolicited advice and comment that go with it. Nasty speculations and queries about “who or what she is,” “who does she think she is?” hurled out of the windows of passing cars, spewed forth from folks walking on the sidewalk, tossed out at her from apartment windows and shouted from front porches of houses. She is Certified Public Property.
One afternoon a year ago in Alexandria, where she had an apartment, she was minding her own business and looking casual (as casual as she can ever be on the street), when an older black man came up to her. “Go to Social Security! Go to Social Security!” he said loudly to her. “You’ve got to go to Social Security right now!” The man, while not outright hostile, was emphatic, excited. Virginia, long used to the nonkindnesses of strangers, tried to ignore him, but he persisted, panting his urgent message over and over until she had to listen. After years of being chanted at, Virginia is leery in the extreme, but she’s habitually respectful of senior citizens. “OK,” she finally said, “why do I have to go to Social Security?”
The old man grinned at her sympathetically and for a long time. He pushed back his hat and suddenly looked almost shy with the weight of what he had to tell her. “Because they’ll tell you who your father is! They know who your father is!” And he will be forced to acknowledge you, claim you, love you, his unspoken addition.
Virginia has pink-hued, almost translucent skin, yellow hair, hazel eyes that can seem pink, and African-American features. She’s constantly mistaken for Creole, white, mulatto, octoroon, quadroon, “redbone,” “high yella.” Or stamped as the craven offspring of incest. Or marked as retarded, terminally ill, sickly, contagious, a harbinger of Lottoluck or ruin. She has no need to go to Social Security. She already knows who and where her father is. He’s sitting slumped in a chair, nerveless, near lifeless, in a New Jersey town near New Brunswick, having suffered a stroke a few years back. He wouldn’t cheerfully sing out paternity, even if pressed, but he has an identity known to her. Not a heart warm and open to her, no center-entrance Daddy-emoter he, even to his dark-skinned offspring. He wouldn’t hug his albino daughter in front of the masses at the Black Family Reunion. But she knows who he is.
“My father would have sold me to the circus if he could,” Virginia says calmly of the father who she says molested her sister, who bought sandwiches at a local restaurant and brought them home to taunt his hungry children. The father who once noticed that Virginia had come home at age 8 with a black eyea gift from her taunters on the school busand leaned back in his chair and shouted, “Black Eye, Black Eye, Black Eye, bring me a beer!” before collapsing with laughter. Her distance from her father is the distance she uses with many people: the natural result of years and years of teasing, catcalling, and ostracizing.
“My father is a truly awful, hateful man; he hated everyone and everythingbut especially he hated my albinism,” says. “But he is my father. He knows it and I know it. We both know where each other is.”
Virginia is in a far safer place. She’s now on scholarship at the University of Illinois at Springfield, getting an advanced degree in arts management. Virginia is a graphic artist who’s had numerous shows of her fantasy-inspired work, and a former legislative assistant with the president’s Committee on the Employment of Persons with Disabilities in the District of Columbia. She worked in the District for several years, and says she would never live here. The city’sand her co-workers’obsession with race wore her out. Her co-workers treated her disdainfully, thinking she was trying to pass as white in an effort to distance herself from the black majority of employees. She moved out for good in 1995. She doesn’t often go back home to New Jersey, preferring places with no memories. She likes meeting new people. She thinks, with her eternal optimism, that new people may not be so quick to jump to judgment about “who and what” she is.
In early autumn 1994, a miraculous event took place on a farm in Wisconsin: A white buffalo was born.
The last recorded birth of a white buffalo was sometime around the turn of the century. The white buffalo is an extremely important sacred symbol to Native Americans, a portent of wondrous and miraculous things to come. Throngs of people flocked to see the tiny white baby. Love offerings by the hundreds were festooned on the fence around the animal’s living area. Native American tribes gathered to sing, chant, dance, and pray.
The phenomenon of the very rare albino buffalo birth was covered worldwide by the media. Photos of the white baby were flashed around the globe. The irony of the rapture attending the buffalo birth was not lost on Virginia. No such rapture attended her birth.
Virginia won’t be going to the Million Family March this spring. She wouldn’t feel welcome or truly a part of it. She’s a black woman who’s far, far off the color spectrum of blackness, beyond the paper-bag test, beyond any shade of night. Her lack of pigment puts her out beyond the “house nigger/field nigger” historical dichotomy in black culture. Many black folksand whitesdon’t think she’s black at all. She walks in a nether-but-never-neutral world between black and white, beyond “insufficient melanin,” beyond Roots, out beyond “Chocolate City.” In her own words, she “walks between the races.”
As an albino who happens to be black, or a black who happens to be an albino, Virginia reflects and embodies the worst racial nightmares of blacks and whites, not because of who she is, but because of what people believe she represents. Virginia is a symbol beyond race, a screen on which strangers’ wildest fantasies and fears are projected. To them, she is both uppity and feckless, heartless and easy. She is a mark, and she is a perpetrator.
Her luminescent visage is remarkable as a matter of course; people always seem to have something to say about the way Virginia looks. Although the rejection she has gotten from her own race has been especially hard to bear, Virginia finds much of it darkly funny, which is a good thing when your daily life is part Monty Python sketch, part Toni Morrison novel.
“I look in magazines,” she says, “like Essence and Vogue, or any magazine, really, and I never, ever see anyone who looks even remotely like me. It’s like I’m from another planet. I’m the ultimate statistical anomaly, the ultimate woman without a ‘fashion peer group.’ How should I dress? I wonder everyday, how should I look?”
(One person in 17,000 has some type of albinism.)
“I don’t want to relax or straighten my hair because I don’t want to look like I’m passing. But if I ‘fro’ my hair, it looks like I’m trying too hard. Blacks think I’m ‘passing’ as black. Whites often think I’m passing as white. But I’m just ‘passing’ as myself.”
(Albinism affects all races.)
“And what should I wear? This is even more problematic. Should I dress more Afrocentric? I have done so and gotten nasty comments. Should I dress more preppie? Then I don’t look ‘black enough.’ What does the world want me to look like?”
(Contrary to myth, albinos’ eyes are not red. They’re light-coloredblue, gray, or hazel.)
“Almost everyday,” Virginia says, “I get the same zany questions: Were you born that way? Is there a cure? How long will you live? How often do you get sick? Before physical exams, I’ve had nurses turn out the lights in the room where I was sitting. They thought (like so many others) that albinos can see better in the dark, that we’re some kind of vampires or something.”
(Weak vision and sensitivity to light are common to albinos.)
“You’re adopted, people say to me. Your mother didn’t take enough vitamin D. You’re the result of inbreeding. Your father raped your mother. A white man raped your mother. You’re blind. You’re retarded. You’re dead. You’re dumb. You must stay indoors for the rest of your life. In the attic. In the garage. Away from sight.”
(Albinism is passed from parents to children through the genes. For nearly all types of albinism, both parents must carry the gene to have a child with albinism.)
“You bring bad luck. You bring good luck. You have a virus, a sickness that stole your color. You must be white. You can’t be a black person at all.”
Albinism is a group of inherited conditions, “not a death sentence, not a disease,” says Dr. Rafael C. Caruso of the National Eye Institute at the National Institutes of Health. Persons with albinism have little or no pigment in their eyes, skin, or hair. They have inherited genes that do not make the usual amounts of melanin.
“Oculocutaneous” albinism involves the eyes, hair, and skin. “Ocular” albinism involves primarily the eyes. Persons with ocular albinism may have slight lightening of hair and skin compared with other family members. The most common types of oculocutaneous albinism are “TY-negative” and “TY-positive.” TY is short for Tyrosinase, an enzyme critical to the production of pigment in hair and skin. TY-negative persons have no melanin pigmentation and more vision problems. TY-positive people have very slight pigmentation and less severe visual problems. Eye conditions common in albinism are “nystagmus” (irregular, rapid movements of the eyes, usually from side to side) and “strabismus” (muscle imbalance, or “lazy eyes”).
Virginia is a black, oculocutaneous, TY-positive albino, practically a category unto herself. Her albinism is less disability than identity, although it often makes reading for more than half an hour impossible. There are aids to enhance visual abilities, including magnifiers, telescopes, microscopes, and lamps. At work, Virginia uses a closed-circuit TV; she also uses more “traditional” tools for the blind: talking books and other cassettes.
Apart from vision complications, albinos have no other physical problems resulting from their albinism. The challenge to most albinos arises not from how they see, but from how they are seen. In response to the isolation and discrimination that many albinos (both black and white) experience, a national information and support group was started in 1982. The National Organization for Albinism and Hypopigmentation (NOAH) was started in Philadelphia in 1982. The organization now has a mailing list of more than 1,200 people.
The local roadside café, a gathering place for the segregationist, had a new sign. For some time it had carried a sign reading: We Don’t Serve Negroes. This sign was replaced by a larger sign: Whites Only. Now another sign had joined it: No Albinos Allowed. This sign that so disgusted my parents greatly amused me. I was surprised and pleased to discover that Foy Curry, the café owner, was, after all, a man of some wit.
John Howard Griffin, Black Like Me
Thoughtless invective from people who will never know her stings less and less; Virginia believes she comes from a noble and rich tradition. At Montezuma’s court, albinos were kept near the Aztec emperor as a good luck symbol. She finds sustenance in the Native American myth of the “golden twins,” paired albinos fathered by the sun, their hair and skin burnt white. She finds her reflection in the Egyptian cat goddess with platinum hair and hazel eyes.
She wants, more than anything, to have a child. An albino child. Many albinos fear reproducing their “own,” imposing on a child all the pain and rejection they went through as children, but Virginia feels beautiful most of the time and thinks her child would be beautiful, too. She is proud of who and what she is, and doesn’t allow the misconceptions about albinism, along with the stares, jeers, and taunts, to rule her life. It’s a lesson she thinks she could teach a child.
Ideally, she wants to find a black albino man, marry, and have a baby. But it isn’t easy. Albinosespecially black albinosdon’t often reach out to each other, she says. They shy away from each other in public places, not wanting to attract any more attention by multiplying their oddity. Virginia isn’t insistent on marrying a fellow albino, and she isn’t getting desperate, but she knows that the full weight of culture is against her and her albinocentric dream for the future. Virginia is tired of being alone. She’d like to find a place where she fits.
“In American society, while the ‘inscrutable Oriental’ has been the stereotype for the Chinese and, by extension, for all peoples of Asian ancestry, one can also find the flip side of this popular image. There exists in both canonical European American and contemporary ethnic American literature the stereotype’s counterpart: the ‘inscrutable albino,’ ” writes Bonnie TuSmith, associate professor of English at Northeastern University in Boston, in her essay, “The ‘Inscrutable Albino’ in Contemporary Ethnic Literature.”
TuSmith points to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick as perhaps the archetypical usage of albinism as the symbol of the unknown evil. As Ahab says, “I see in him [Moby Dick] outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing in it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate….”
In general, TuSmith writes, “…the lack of coloring in albino humans engenders great fear in people of all colors including Whites. Historically the albino has evoked feelings of revulsion and horror in agrarian and industrial societies alike….”
Popular culture is rife with the demonization of albinos. In books like Erskine Caldwell’s God’s Little Acre and Peter Benchley’s The Island, albinos lurk as golems of iniquity. Films are filled with the albino as evil harbinger: The Eiger Sanction, a Clint Eastwood film, has an albino boss who says, “I’m a total albino. The slightest amount of direct light is painful to my eyes”; The Princess Bride features a lumbering hunchback of an albino villain who is referred to in the closing credits as “The Albino”; Albino, a Christopher Lee film, stars a hideous-looking albino who leads a group of terrorists in search of female victims to kill.
The use of albinos as freaks and oddities in circuses has a long and dark history. As recently as the 1920s, there were “Eko and Iko,” two albinos who simply stood on stage (no true performers they!) as their savvy promoter described them to the open-mouthed masses as “ambassadors from Mars who were rescued from their space capsule wreckage in the Mojave Desert.” One of the very last images photographer Diane Arbus took before her suicide was “Albino sword-swallower,” a circus performer of the 1970s. Andrew Leibs, a 32-year-old sportswriter with albinism who lives in New Castle, N.H., has come up with a list of albino demonization, including this material and more.
Albinos may be anomalous, but there’s no shortage of wacky theories on albinism. Washington, D.C., psychiatrist Dr. Frances Cress Welsing has her own unusual theory on the existence of albinos. As she writes in her controversial book The Isis Papers: The Keys to the Colors, “White skin is a form of albinism. There is no difference, microscopically, between the white skin of a white person and the skin of a person designated as an albino. My central thesis here is that white-skinned peoples came into existence thousands of years ago as the albino mutant offsprings of black-skinned mothers and fathers in Africa. A sizable number of these Black parents had produced, rejected and then cast out of the community their genetic defective albino offspring, to live away from the normal black-skin pigmented population, with the awareness of their rejection and alienation (as in leper colonies).”
Welsing’s theory is not one accepted by mainstream anthropologists, and doesn’t seem to hold up genetically, either. According to geneticists, white skin is not “a form of albinism”white skin has pigment in it; albino skin, by definition, does not. Secondly, it’s widely accepted that white skin arose from gradual evolutionary forces having nothing to do with albinism and everything to do with genetic adaptation to lesser amounts of sunlight as populations moved north out of Africa. (Interestingly, geneticists report a slightly higher incidence of albinism in warmer-weather countries such as Panama, Puerto Rico, and several African nations.)
Albinos also don’t fare too well with the “melaninists”: proponents of the theory that melanin bestows not only protection from the rays of the sun but also, more significantly, intellectual and spiritual benefits. Carol Barnes, author of Melanin: the Chemical Key to Black Greatness, and Michael Bradley, author of Ice Man Inheritance, have both suggested that the amount of pigment in the skin is a window on the soul and the intellect. Pigment-free albinos obviously aren’t too thrilled by this particular take on human development.
Anti-albino sentiment, though, is hardly unique to the United States. Albinos are held in disregard around the globe. In 1980, Dr. Alfred L. Goldson, a cancer specialist at Howard University Medical School’s radiation oncology department, flew to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, to set up a project to determine if skin cancer among the local albino population could be prevented by education about the harmful effects of the sun, and the use of retinoids and carotinoids. Goldson arrived in Tanzania along with his research partner and found that the local albinos were treated like untouchables, the lowest caste on the socioeconomic totem pole. They were routinely given menial jobsstreet-sweeping and cleaning jobs, out in the hot sun, unprotected: a death sentence for people who can’t tolerate the sun.
“I can’t speak for the rest of Africa,” Goldson says, “but in Dar es Salaam, for a black person to have a white child was like the woman had sex with the devil.”
In one of the novels of celebrated Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, albino adults are killed by stoning, and newborns are placed in glass bottles to die under the hot sun, so undervalued and feared are they.
In Swahili, the slang for albino is “zero-zero,” as Goldson explains: “An albino is seen as less than nothing.” In other parts of Africa, albinos are treated as freaks and harbingers. “In Senegal,” says one exchange student at George Mason University, “if you want to remove a curse or change your luck, you go find an albino beggar and give him a bag of sugar or rice. They’re seen as bizarre, as abnormal, in a special category.” In Jamaica and other tropical countries, there are many derogatory terms for albinos, including “white-cockroach” and “side-pork.”
One could make an animala tissuetransparent! One could make it invisible! All except the pigmentsI could be invisible!” I said, suddenly realizing what it meant to be an albino with such knowledge. It was overwhelming.”
H.G. Wells, The Invisible Man
Why have albinos come to be viewed as pale vessels of evil? Where does the aberrational vilification spring from? Howard University psychiatrist Dr. William D. Richie says that the mystery albinos present is a template for broader anxieties: “The first thing people think on a gut level when they see an albino is: No sunlightthis person can’t take any sunlight or doesn’t get any sunlight [a myth], so the mind wanders. Then we might begin to imagine other types of precautions albinos have to take.”
“Our gut feeling is: How fragile is this person physically? How fragile are this person’s genes? How fragile is their sexuality? As humans we like to pigeonhole people and things,” says Richie. “Albinos don’t fit into a ‘neat’ category.”
Albinos have begun to show up in more complicated ways in the work of certain contemporary ethnic writers. In her essay on the inscrutable albino, TuSmith points to four novels written by ethnics: Native American writer N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn, Chinese-American writer Frank Chin’s The Year of the Dragon, Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, and African-American writer John Edgar Wideman’s Sent for You Yesterday. All four novels have albino characters described in typically unflattering fashionChin uses the phrase “the Chinamanalbino the color of Spam” repeatedlybut the albino characters are more fully realized, less evil mascot than mythical emblem.
In Momaday’s book, TuSmith sees “the potential for ambiguity and transcendence lodged in the figure of the albino.” Albino characters are used by these writers in place of traditional and perhaps racist stereotypes to throw the reader off a bit with respect to what is “really” white, black, or Asian. TuSmith says, “In using albino symbolism, ethnic writers seem to be exploring the idea that if each of us could bring ourselves to call the albino our brother, then we might have the beginnings of a new society which is beyond black-white racial hatred.”
Virginia Small has grown used to serving as a mirror of people’s hates and conceits. She remains remarkably unembittered, although her sui generis status makes her depressed from time to time. She reaches out to black albinos where she finds them: on the streets, on the subway, and on Sally Jessy Raphaelshe is not one to keep her light or her identity under a barrel. But more often than not, though, albinos will turn away from her, as if they cannot stand their reflection. Virginia understands the reaction of albinos who cannot meet her eyes, who shy away from contact. Folks on the margin of acceptance aren’t generally big on eye contact. It took Virginia years and years to muster up her own self-esteem, to bring her gaze to meet the eyes of those who would stare at her endlessly.
For Virginia, racial identification has been especially sticky. A black woman by birth and being, she often finds herself gravitating to and identifying with white people.
“I don’t have any of the racial-unity feeling that other black people have,” she admits. She’s tired of constantly being on the color defensive, walking the color line.
“I feel like I live between two worlds,” Virginia says. “Black and white.”
Both worlds seem to believe that albinos are the devil’s handiwork, but some albinos secretly wonder whether God might be one of them. The Godhead as Albino is not so farfetched, after all. In the New Testament, Revelations 1:14 describes Jesus thusly: “His head and His hair were white like white wool, as white as snow, and His eyes flashed like a flame of fire.” Virginia thinks God sounds beautiful.CP