Social media movements like #BlackOutDay were started to show that black people across the diaspora do not have to be exceptional or celebrities in order to be proud of their blackness. Around the world and across platforms, people who identify as black are encouraged to post selfies to combat Eurocentric ideas of beauty and to show that being a “regular” person is worthy of recognition as well. Alongside these movements, other hashtags take root, such as #melaninpopping, #melaninmonday, #melaninonfleek or even simply #melanin. Twitter’s 2016 Black History Month icon is three Black power fists, all in different shades of brown, meant to cover the diversity of black skin.
So many of current black pride movements rely heavily on connection to skin tone. Where does that leave those with pigment disorders like vitiligo or albinism? How can they find their place in a movement where melanin is prized?
Melanin helps determine skin, eye, and hair color. Vitiligo is what happens when the cells that produce melanin die or stop production. The disease was brought into the pop culture spotlight when Michael Jackson admitted that his fading skin color was a result of vitiligo, not skin bleaching. Many people were skeptical about Jackson’s claims because of how evenly his skin-lightening occurred, but his autopsy confirmed he did indeed have the condition. Vitiligo can be frustrating because people with the condition can be subjected to intense bullying, but thanks to models like Winnie Harlow, people are hopefully becoming more understanding.
Chantelle Brown-Young, AKA Winnie Harlow, burst onto the scene when Tyra Banks cast her in America’s Next Top Model Cycle 21. Winnie Harlow’s unusually symmetric patterns of vitiligo-affected areas made her even more of a stand-out, so much so that white women began recreating her look. Many black people took issue with the imitations, calling it blackface and cultural appropriation. Winnie Harlow accepted what these white women did as flattering, which didn’t sit well with many. Although many took exception to whites imitating Winnie Harlow’s skin, where do others affected by vitiligo fit in the black pride movements that take over social media?
Tumblr appears to be the best place to find black people with vitiligo showcasing their skin. There are beautiful photos and artwork (some NSFW) that feature people of all races and ethnicities and hopefully help break down any stigmas about the condition. Following Winnie Harlow’s ascent in the public eye, a young girl named April Star realized she, too, could be a model. She seeks to redefine what makes someone beautiful and credits Winnie Harlow with giving her the confidence to pursue her dreams of modeling. With two prominent women paving the way, perhaps it’s easier for more people affected by vitiligo to realize they are beautiful as they are and don’t have to hide. The stigma of albinism seems harder to shake.
Albinism is a condition that can happen to anyone of any race or ethnicity. It is an inherited disorder that results in little to no production of melanin. There are several different types of albinism and it can affect vision. Because albinism often results in a complete lack of pigment, it can cause social difficulties for those affected. Many communities around the world ostracize those with the condition or succumb to superstition. For example, in Tanzania, people with albinism are hunted so their severed body parts can be used in witchcraft practices. In Burundi, affected children are sent to special homes to protect them from being kidnapped and murdered. Academy Award winner Lupita Nyong’o created, wrote, and directed a documentary called In My Genes as a thesis project about albinism in Kenya.
African countries are not the only places that practice bias against people with albinism. American pop culture frequently subscribes to the “evil albino” trope, such as the mercenary twins from Matrix Reloaded or makes those with albinism have magical powers like in the film Powder. However, these antiquated notions about the disorder may soon disappear as models such as Diandra Forrest and Shaun Ross rise to the top.
If social media is any indication, it won’t be an easy battle. Many black people with albinism feel self-conscious about participating in black pride movements such as #blackoutday. Tumblr user “King Kayy” admits to feeling weird about contributing to the hashtag—she's not sure her blackness will be recognized.
It can be a challenge for blacks affected by albinism to prove their blackness in public spaces. And the ignorance about the condition can lead to hurtful and ridiculous judgments.
Brandi Darby of Pittsburgh, PA spoke to Fusion via email about the challenges she has faced as a black woman with albinism and how she hopes to disrupt the idea of connecting skin color to black pride. Brandi tries to call people out on confusing color with culture. “I don't have any color but I'm no less black than the blackest person in the room of my family members,” she says.
Brandi believes black people with albinism should speak up more often and look for more opportunities to take leadership roles and join social justice movements. She also expresses disappointment in only reading about albinism when it’s about the difficult life many have.
“We have a lot to offer, a lot of us are tenacious, resourceful, persistent and goal driven; we've had to be our own advocates since the beginning of school, basically because people don't understand our needs. Black culture can understand that. However If I'm being honest, I also don't think people remember us until they want to write about the sadder or dimmer sides of our stories. Usually when I read about Albinism or Vitiligo, I get excited and then exasperated because it turns into a somber piece about the struggle and disappointments of the condition.”
She points out that there are reality shows that help demystify stigma against little people and those with Down Syndrome and admits she would like to see a show about people with albinism in order to help educate others. Brandi doesn’t feel excluded from hashtags (and T-shirts) like #thatmelanintho and feels connected to #blackgirlmagic whether or not her skin tone is reflected because she has had “to navigate the world with blindness, traverse race issues where some white people don't know I'm black and some black people think I have white privilege and zero black struggle because my skin is white.”
Hashtag activism can be a mixed bag. There’s no denying the way people use social media sites like Twitter and Tumblr to shine a light on injustices in ways that yield change and make many uncomfortable. However, hashtags are also used as a way to connect and show pride within various communities. For the past several years, black users across the world have been using hashtags to connect with each other in times of grief and anger in order to uplift.
Within these hashtagged movements of Black pride, folks with pigment conditions like vitiligo and albinism can sometimes be overlooked. Those with vitiligo seemed to be more readily accepted than those with albinism. Yet more people are challenging the notion of beauty and its connection to culture everyday. Twitter and especially Tumblr do a lion’s share of work to spread awareness, break down bias, and confront antiquated ideas about who gets to be admired. The amount of melanin the body produces is often left up to genetic chance and shouldn’t determine his/her visibility in celebrations of culture and pride.
Nichole Perkins writes about pop culture, race, sex, and gender. Based in her hometown of Nashville, Tennessee, she wants the world to know the south still has something to say.