…I don’t know what the number of people with Albinism in Turkey is but I could tell that this was the very first time that he saw a Black woman who looks white. And he argued with me. He argued with me. He said: I’m telling you you are white. And I said: no, I’m not; I’m black. And he said: listen, I promise you; you are white. And I said: no my father is Xhosa. My mother is Sotho. So, I am definitely Black. And he said: are you sure you’re not adopted? And I said: I promise you I’m not adopted. So we just had a continuous exchange. And when (this is why I say I identify with black people, because I was wearing a hat) and when I took off my hat, he saw my hair and then it dawned on him that this is possible. And he touched my hair. And he felt it and I said: see, this is not white people’s hair. And I think that’s the only time he actually understood.
Thando Hopa told me this story when I asked her if she’d ever been mistaken for white. At only 25 years old this public prosecutor and part time model already demonstrates a precocious collectedness and understanding of people and a thorough understanding of herself.
I spoke to Thando because I’ve been thinking a lot about being “confident despite,” confident despite not getting the little affirmations we seem to need to feel valuable in our communities—a pat on the back from the boss, a compliment from an acquaintance, a wink from a cute guy. There’s a sector of popular thought that tells us that we should just be able to be confident and love ourselves despite what anyone says and not need any validation. But that directive is a tall order and very few of the messages touting self-love and celebration are coupled with how exactly we do that. But in exploring Black identity alongside confidence, I stumbled upon Thando’s story. Thando shares that an unyielding support systems and an opportunity to explore her beauty in a way she never considered were integral in her feeling secure about her appearance. Her story is not one of being confident despite being different; it’s one of understanding difference in a larger unifying context as well as tuning into our innate ability to decide who we are.
Early in my conversation with Thando I immediately noticed how at ease she was about speaking about living with albinism, an inherited condition where a person is unable to produce colouring of the skin, hair and eyes:
My parents had raised me to feel comfortable about being who I was and made me open to even talking about it. Because we were in a situation where—even though my parents were quite liberal (and I suppose they had to be because they had a child who was different)—but a lot of people around us weren’t as liberal and they needed me to be vocal and unashamed in order for me to educate anybody who never quite understood the condition. So from a young age I was very vocal about it and I never shied away from it.
Naturally, Thando’s childhood had its challenges, especially in South Africa where having albinism often means living with superstitions and stigmas that isolate you. “I was teased, called names, people didn’t want to touch me,” Thando recounted. “And as a child, you don’t quite know how to articulate what is going on in your head or how to reason it out in a mature way. So you begin resenting the way you look.” Luckily, her parents relentlessly tried to instill as much confidence in her as possible, despite outside forces counteracting their efforts. “If it wasn’t for my parents. I don’t know how I would have turned out. They really fortified every aspect of my character.”
It’s very easy to feel beautiful at home or when you’re around friends or family because they can see you for everything that you are. But how does that self-assurance carry over when you leave the safety net of loved ones and the outside world not only fails to see you but negates all the wonderful things you were told? To get some perspective on this, I asked Thando what exactly her parents did that had such a lasting impact:
Basically, it was affirmations and you know what, repetition has far more power than people would like to give it credit for. My father would tell me all the time how beautiful I was. He would tell me I was the most beautiful girl in the world. And I would cry and tell him that I don’t believe him. And he said: I don’t care if you don’t believe me. But I’m telling you, I’ve seen a lot of little girls and I’ve never seen a little girl that’s more beautiful than you. And my mother on the other hand, she was more practical. She would make me look like the prettiest thing. She would put all sorts of ribbons on me as a child and she would make sure she meticulously took care of my skin.
…I really made strong efforts not to believe them because I thought those are my parents and of course they think I’m beautiful. But as time went on, they shaped my psychology. Then being beautiful stopped being something where I had to hear it from somebody else. It was a decision I had to make. I had to decide that from now onwards I would be beautiful. It got to a point where they had said it so much and made so much effort around it that as I grew older, it became a decision that I made. So, if somebody tells me that I’m not beautiful. It’s quite fine. Because it’s a decision I made for myself, therefore I don’t need them to tell me anymore. Not like then when what [people] said affected me and affected my confidence.
Although one wouldn’t expect it but modeling also played a role in shaping Thando’s view of herself. Thando had previously been scouted as a model, but it wasn’t until fashion designer Gert-Johan Coetzee approached her did she decide to go down that path. She explained that Coetzee wanted to help redefine beauty and she wanted to be part of that effort. As she delved into the fashion world, she found at times photographers wanted to photograph her completely natural, with no make up on at all, which at first made Thando uncomfortable, as she would normally color in her eyebrows and eyelashes. But one of the first times she saw photos of herself with a “purely clean look,” it hit her:
I think it was a moment of enlightenment… and perhaps it was because by the time this enlightenment came, it came at a point in my life when I was ready for it. I might not have explored the avenue of how confident I was [without makeup] and this was one of the ways I had been given the opportunity to explore it. But had this happened maybe five years ago, I would probably not have had the same reaction because I was deeply conscious of everything and nothing felt right.
Now, it seems, that quite a lot is right for Thando. She’s not phased by stares, which she says happens every 15 minutes, so its useless to be bothered by them. And she welcomes conversations about albinism (although they happen rarely) as she sees them as opportunities to remedy uninformed thinking. She also sees her difference as the thing that unites her with everyone else:
The reason why [another shade of normal] is sort of a saying that you continually see used is not because being different is a bad thing it’s because everybody is different just like everybody else. …I might be different, but I’m different just like you and that actually makes us all normal because we are all different… [if you] confine me in a space where you make me loathe my being, then I have to articulate things in a way where you understand that I am just like you, different just like you.
As if our conversation hadn’t already been full of TONS of insight and words of wisdom, I asked Thando what advice she would give to anyone struggling with any kind of difference, to which she responded:
I’ve said this before and I only repeat it because I believe it as an absolute truth. It is extremely important for you to define who you are… I’m also growing in my own advice because I’m trying to define myself in every aspect of my life and it’s not easy. But when you get to that point, when you get to a point where you have thoroughly defined who you are, then people have no option to but to yield to the definition that you have of yourself. So that is honestly the most sincere advice that I can give from my experience.