– by Tamara Pridgett
“What are you?” is a question most of us have either asked or have been on the receiving end of. People are naturally curious, taught from infancy to classify things—boy, girl, cat, dog, white, black. Race, as a social construct, makes identifying and classifying one another and ourselves a complex task. When unable to rely on stereotypical physical characteristics how does one define who they are? Every now and then we encounter things and people that don’t fit within any of our preconceived boxes. Such is the case with models Diandra, Shaun and Thando, who all have albinism. They’re of African descent but they lack pigmentation in their eyes, hair and skin. Black is usually used as a physical descriptor, but Diandra, Shaun and Thando demonstrate that there’s more to blackness than color.
Diandra Forrest has worked alongside Beyoncé in the ‘Pretty Hurts’ video, has walked for Jean Paul Gaultier, traveled to South Africa for Fashion Week and will be starring in her first acting role in Astronauts premiering at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. She is no stranger to the ‘black’ conversation, telling WestEast Magazine, “when I think of the word ‘Black’ I think of power and strength. My mother is such a strong black woman and not only for herself, but for my whole family. She gives me so much faith and I could only hope to grow into the woman that she is.”
Diandra has never seen being an African-American woman with Albinism as anything more than having a lighter complexion declaring, “I’ve only been me.” At a young age she found herself confused because she never noticed color as an important difference. Diandra shared her experiences with color politics, noting that people ask what she is due to her complexion and lack the knowledge and language to inquire specifically about her skin condition, being unable to see past color as a result.
Top model, Shaun Ross always knew he was going to be something great, he revealed in an interview with Elle. He never considered modeling as a career, pursuing dance with the world renowned Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. At the age of 16 photographer Shameer Khan discovered him on Youtube. Since then he has graced the covers of British GQ and Vogue Italia, walked in Givenchy and Alexander McQueen shows, and was recently featured in Beyoncé’s ‘Pretty Hurts’ video, Katy Perry’s ‘E.T.’ video and Lana Del Ray’s short film ‘Tropico’.
A confident Ross told CNN that he never questioned his Albinism and did not know what it was until the sixth grade. He recalled always wanting to be the one who wanted to stand out, and he has done just that. In an interview with Life + Times, Shaun explained that growing up he was a confident outcast, being brought up no different than that of his brothers and sister, with the arts and music allowing self-expression, manifesting who he is today. Shaun’s Instagram campaign #inmyskiniwin promotes this self-acceptance.
He told westeastmag.com that it was difficult growing up in a black and brown community because everyone looked somewhat the same, yet different, making it hard because children did not understand his condition. What does Black mean to Shaun? “Black to me is a color. But being of the African decent is another feeling. I think of culture and for some reason a lot of body movement. The energy we call “Black” flows through me and I am fascinated with African dances and the way you move all of the parts of your body.”
Thando Hopa is not your everyday model, breaking down the stigma of being just a pretty face by wearing two hats—model and lawyer. Thando faced similar difficulties as Diandra and Shaun did growing up being teased, called names, and dealing with superstitions produced from a lack of education. She credits her parents for her self and fortifying every aspect of her character with their positive affirmations. Thando identifies as multiple things, growing up in Johannesburg with a Xhosa father and Soto mother. She proclaims that black is “the most appropriate umbrella for all the aspects that I am.” (Read more about Thando and her take on beauty).
The experiences Diandra, Shaun, and Thando have shared reveal that Black is more than the amount of melatonin in a person’s skin, the curl of their hair, and the structure of their features. Being black is deeper than where we lie on the color spectrum. We connect with one another based on our enviroments, lived experiences, our language, our cultural traditions and the arts. When challenging the prevailing definition of Black—based on physical appearance— Black becomes open to everyone who relates to the core themes of “Black”: spiritual, cultural, and environmental.
The one-drop rule is no longer the sole determinant on who is and who is not black. The conversations with Diandra, Shaun and Thando reveal the possibilities of black being more than your genetic makeup. It’s an innate spirit, strength, rhythm, and culture that flows through us.
Is black simply a color to you? How do you identify?