A whiteness that's only skin deep : Code Switch We use words related to color to describe different racial categories all the time — Black, white, brown. But how much of race and identity actually has to do with the color of your skin? What if what appears to be "whiteness" is only skin deep? Today we're sharing stories from people of color with albinism whose experiences challenge what many people think they know about race.

A whiteness that's only skin deep

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KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, HOST:

I'm Karen Grigsby Bates, and this is CODE SWITCH from NPR. OK, so we all know race is a social construct, right? We sound like a broken record repeating that over and over and over again. But it's true. And it's meant a lot of different things over the generations. But even as it's evolved and changed, one key component has always been the color of a person's skin - black, brown, white, red, yellow. We keep lumping people together who look all kinds of different ways under limiting labels. So the actual color of our skin becomes a proxy for race, ethnicity, identity. Even today, with a nationwide movement for racial justice, as widespread as discussions of race may be, it's still largely skin deep. Well, for the past six months, we've been working with our very first cohort of CODE SWITCH fellows to report out their own stories about race. And today, we're going to share the first one from CODE SWITCH fellow Kamna Shastri, who's going to shake our ideas about race right on up. Here's Kamna.

KAMNA SHASTRI, BYLINE: I wanted to actually start out by asking you, like, if you - if I hadn't introduced myself to you, if I just walked up to you right now, what would you assume my race is?

RALINA JOSEPH: Oh, gosh, this is - that's such a hard question and particularly because we're wearing masks, right? And so, so much of race, I think, is read through noses and mouths.

SHASTRI: This is Ralina Joseph. She's a critical race scholar and professor of American ethnic studies at the University of Washington. So, obviously, my first question to her was a bit scientific.

JOSPEH: I probably - I would probably racialize you not as white but either as somehow multiracial, probably as - maybe as Latina. But yeah - and I would not think that you were 100% white.

SHASTRI: That's actually the first time I've heard someone say that. I personally appreciate it. Yeah, thank you.

No one ever thinks that I'm anything other than white. When I say that I'm actually Indian, like from India, they look at me confused. Ralina says that's normal.

JOSPEH: There's neuroscience behind our brains kind of tapping out when we don't know how to categorize, right? And so for those of us who don't fit into easily categorized, racialized looks, we're constantly confronted by the confusion of other people. And it's not necessarily that we are confused ourselves, but we have to deal with their confusion and then sate their curiosity.

SHASTRI: I can hear the anxiety in people's voices when they hesitate. Then, after a while, they'll slowly ask me, are both your parents Indian?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yes.

SHASTRI: That's my mom.

Like, why do people look at us when I'm with you?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Because you have lighter skin compared to me and appa. We are brown colored, whereas you're not.

SHASTRI: Can you just try to describe me one more time?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yeah, you are lighter skinned, brown haired, hazel eyes and you look like me.

SHASTRI: But I kind of don't. I have a genetic condition called albinism. People like me have little to no pigment in our hair, skin and eyes. Albinism always comes with visual impairment. It's kind of like a two-for-one deal. We're also more likely to have skin cancer and other health conditions, too. For me, living with albinism feels like perpetual impostor syndrome. I am Indian. I feel very Indian. But when I meet new people or if I'm in a new place, I get in my head about how I'm going to be perceived. I really don't like that I pass as white because I'm not white. I have a different cultural experience, a different history. I mean, my parents immigrated here from a former British colony.

I found myself wondering if in some weird, complicated, messed up way, albinism was equal to whiteness. And there's the tension of being a person of color with albinism. Is there a place for that in our discussions about race? Am I white because of how I look? Do I get to claim myself as a person of color? Like, where the heck do people like me fit in? A few years ago, I heard Meredith Talusan on a podcast. She has albinism and she was grappling with some of the same questions that I was.

MEREDITH TALUSAN: Because of the fact that my consciousness was formed in the Philippines, it just never really occurs to me that I'm white or that I have a relationship to whiteness until something external happens (laughter).

SHASTRI: Meredith is an artist, an editor, an author and...

TALUSAN: A first-generation Filipino immigrant. And I'm trans, so I feel like I've covered every base. Maybe. I can't remember. I'm left-handed, too.

SHASTRI: Last summer, Meredith attended a dance performance in New York. It featured a couple hundred dancers that were all of color, and they were telling stories about the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the history of racial minorities in the U.S. The audience was almost completely white. Sitting there, Meredith knew she was going to be seen as one of those people.

TALUSAN: I just remember, especially with a mask on, how I was so identified as being like the rich white lady rather than, you know, like one of the minorities in all of the social interactions, right? And I remember, you know, like passing by one of the dancers as I was leaving and I said something like, congratulations. And she just had, you know, kind of like such - and it's possible that I was projecting. But I just felt like, you know, her expression or like the way that her body language read to me as kind of dismissive in a way that I imagine it wouldn't have been had I been visibly brown.

SHASTRI: After the show, Meredith wanted to talk to the Filipino dancers, but because of her eyesight, she couldn't identify them. And because of how Meredith looked, she assumed that they couldn't identify her as Filipino, either. And that was really hard.

TALUSAN: I just always feel like I'm in between, right? I can never fully identify with white people. I just, like, will never be fully comfortable inhabiting white culture. And yet at the same time, when I'm in minority spaces, it just really hurts, you know, being perceived as white. But at the same time, like, objectively, my experiences are distinct and different from other BIPOC folks.

SHASTRI: Meredith straddles multiple worlds - with gender as a trans person, with immigration and culture as a Filipino immigrant and with race.

TALUSAN: Albino people are just caught in the crosshairs of that. Our psyches are another form of collateral damage from the rest of the enormous, enormous damage that racial division has brought onto America because of white supremacy. At least for me, the major problem with that is the fact that I feel implicated. Like, simply by existing, I become part of the problem because I, you know, involuntarily benefit from white privilege. But it's still - I still benefit from it.

SHASTRI: Meredith moved to the U.S. when she was 15 years old. With her accent and because of her albinism, people assumed she was European. And she couldn't escape being seen as a foreigner. She just wanted to fit in. She ended up picking up an American accent by watching TV and acting in plays at school.

TALUSAN: By the time that I was maybe, like, 17 or 18, people couldn't tell that I was albino or that I was an immigrant unless they probed, and that kind of gave me a certain amount of protection from the things that I would have otherwise experienced had people been aware that I was a foreigner.

SHASTRI: When you think of who your people are, who's your community and where you feel like you most belong, who or where would that be?

TALUSAN: Unfortunately, I don't feel like I fully belong anywhere. I don't feel fully comfortable being part of any distinct community. But at the same time, I also feel a much more expansive sense of community than I feel like other people do because I feel like I belong to so many communities. So it's - again, you know, as is typical of the albino experience, it's a paradox, you know? It's both and none (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHASTRI: After the break...

TOREY ALFORD: So I said, hey, I don't know if you know this, but I have albinism. And she's like, are you sure about that? I don't think you do.

DESTINY O BIRDSONG: I live in this body. I exist in this body. And in spite of all of the things that people told me about being unpretty, unlovable, unvaluable, I have still built a life for myself.

SHASTRI: Stay with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHASTRI: Kamna - just Kamna - CODE SWITCH. People decide my story before they know anything about me. When people can't figure me out, it feels heavy and frustrating. I feel on edge about how they're going to judge me. Can I claim my identity? Will people believe me? When you're a person with albinism, asking those questions for yourself, that's one thing. But it gets even more complicated when you have to ask them for someone else.

ALFORD: I am concerned about what it means to raise a Black child.

SHASTRI: This is Torey Alford. He's Black. Both he and his wife have albinism. They had their first daughter in 2020.

ALFORD: My concern is probably some stuff that my parents had, as she's about my complexion, and she looks like a white kid, which I will admit, I was a little disappointed by (laughter). But she's beautiful. Don't get me wrong. But I just - I wanted her to, like, not have to question because, as it is, you know, like, Mom and Dad are light skin, and, you know, my parent's grandma is darker.

SHASTRI: Torey has much lighter skin than his parents and younger brother. He was even lighter than the white kids at school. And as a kid, he was bullied a lot. He grew up with a bunch of questions. His mom told him his appearance was because of white ancestors in the family, and Torey lived with that explanation until he was 14. That's when he failed his driver's test. Remember, albinism and visual impairment go hand in hand. Torey was frustrated and posted about it online. Someone suggested he might have albinism and offered to mail him some information.

ALFORD: And I agreed. I gave out my address over the internet - you know, as a 14- or 15-year-old seems really dangerous nowadays.

SHASTRI: Every day, Torey raced down the winding driveway, hoping to find that packet. One day, he reached into the mailbox and there it was, a thick envelope addressed to him.

ALFORD: I ran upstairs to my room, and I open it up and the first thing I noticed was the large print of everything, which was quite nice, actually, because I didn't have any special accommodations at all growing up in school. And yeah, it just kind of felt like someone was writing something about me but hadn't told me about it.

SHASTRI: After reading that pamphlet, Torey realized for the first time he had albinism. It was a lot to take in, and it was confusing, so confusing that he didn't share that information for almost a decade. And then in college, he laid everything bare in a manifesto he posted online.

ALFORD: Around this time in my life, I began to question who and what I really was. I found it rather strange that I was as light as, if not lighter than, a lot of my white friends. Yet I was still labeled as Black...

The explanation my parents gave me...

After I saw my birth certificate, I dismissed this idea.

One stage I recall was when I believed I was...

The questions regarding what I am and why I am the way that I am continued to linger in the back of my mind.

SHASTRI: A year later at 23, he finally told his mom he had albinism. The whole family was sitting around the kitchen table for Christmas.

ALFORD: So I said, hey, I don't know if you know this, but I have albinism. She's like, are you sure about that? I don't think you do. She then told the story about when I was born, she had said, like, she didn't see me when I was removed. Like, I was born by C-section, but she didn't see me. And when they brought me in - in her kind of, like, telling the story about this, she said, oh, that's not my child. Like, where's my kid? Because I was, you know, blond hair, white skin, and my dad was like, no, no, that's our son. And my mom said, oh, well, he's not albino, is he? And the doctor said, no. Like, the way my mom had said it was very, like, judgmental, and I was like, this is not what I need to hear right now. I'm trying to have this personal conversation about it.

SHASTRI: When he got back home, he shared that online manifesto with his mom. A few days later, she called him to talk about it. She told him she cried for two days after reading it.

ALFORD: I felt bad for her having that response, but at the same time, I'm like, this is what I - you know, the stuff I didn't tell you about, I couldn't tell you about. Yeah. For me, like, my experience of being Black is far different than hers or most other people's because of not having pigment.

SHASTRI: Torey wants his daughter to feel comfortable talking about anything, especially race, and he knows it's going to be complicated. Having family to talk about it is really important.

ALFORD: I mean, she is half Black. I do want her to be engaged with that. But what that looks like, I don't know yet, which I am still trying to navigate. I mean, I am concerned that it could be a battle for her to understand and learn and accept that she is Black, whereas it's kind of the opposite - I knew that I was Black, but it was confusing for me, too. And it could very well be confusing for her as well, given, you know, well, Mom is white. You look white. I am white. How - what do you mean I'm Black? I do understand this. Like, I feel like it's still going to be a confusing and complex set of discussions with her as she grows up.

SHASTRI: And Torey's been having more conversations with his mom as he figures out how to be a better father.

ALFORD: I think kind of the conclusion that she and I both had was what does it mean to be Black? And we didn't have a definitive answer.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIRDSONG: I say this with a lot of kindness, but the only times I have been white passing to people are just people who are just racist white people who don't actually understand that there are Black people in the world who look in very different ways.

SHASTRI: This is Destiny Birdsong. She's an author and a poet. She has albinism. Her book is called "Nobody's Magic" and tells the stories of three Southern Black women with albinism as they explore ideas of beauty, desirability and their own agency. Here's an excerpt.

BIRDSONG: (Reading) You white as a sheet. You must be the KKK, said Dennis Drummond (ph) on the fourth day of classes during their freshman year. By the end of the second week, everyone knew her as KKK, including the seniors, most of whom were friends with Agnes' (ph) sister, a cinnamon-colored spitfire named Bernice (ph). Agnes wasn't sure if Bernice ever used...

SHASTRI: The book is inspired by Destiny's own experiences. I have never seen such nuanced characters with albinism in my life.

BIRDSONG: When people ask me how I identify, like, you can just say I'm a Black person. You know, my mom was always very clear. You are a Black person.

SHASTRI: When she was little, Destiny prayed to be darker. Sometimes, when it felt too hard to be in her body, she wished she had been adopted by a white family and raised as a white person. Then maybe it would all be easier. But...

BIRDSONG: As I have come into adulthood and also come into myself as an artist, that is such a valuable part of my identity. I was raised in a culture where there's so much value placed on bodies, a beautiful self, well-dressed self, you know, wealthy self, whatever, all of those things. And I think I live a life in contrast to that. And it's more interesting because of it.

SHASTRI: Even though Destiny has light skin, she doesn't fit Eurocentric beauty standards. She doesn't fit Black beauty standards either. And Destiny wants people to remember that Blackness is much deeper and richer than physical appearance.

BIRDSONG: It has its phenotypical elements, but it is also an experience. It is a set of experiences. It is a set of vulnerabilities. And I think it - I think it's just really fascinating - right? - that, like, so much depends on all of these phenotypical things for people who want to sort of define a racial category. And in all of those categories, every single one of those categories, there's a person with albinism who just completely debunks all of that stuff.

SHASTRI: People from all over the world, all racial and cultural categories, have albinism, and that's sort of a reminder that melanin and color scientifically don't follow the, quote-unquote, "rules of race." Destiny says that terms like Black Girl Magic and Melanin Magic are meant to be empowering, but...

BIRDSONG: That doesn't include us, right? It doesn't. There's a kind of presumption that's happening when people conflate Black Girl Magic and Melanin Magic, right? Like, that - like, that's a presumption. What I hope happens in my work is that I present people, Black women, who are powerful, who are capable, who do Black womanhood in dynamic and interesting ways, but that also makes space for different kinds of Black Girl Magic.

SHASTRI: This word here, magic, is really important. Some communities have long-held beliefs that people with albinism have magic powers. Like in Tanzania, for instance, people with albinism have been hunted and killed for their body parts, which are believed to be lucky. In many parts of the world, people with albinism face social discrimination. They aren't accommodated in school. They don't have access to sunscreen, and they don't always have the support for their other health-related needs. So when Destiny titled her book "Nobody Is Magic," she thought about all of those things.

BIRDSONG: How hard it is to live in a world where people will both presume that you have some kind of, like, supernatural capabilities, but will also deny you the very basic courtesies of being a human being. I ended up choosing the title because I was like, right, like, nobody, no matter their differences, is powerful enough to escape that stuff. And that's OK, because you can still be great, right? You can still be talented. You can still build a life for yourself. But the building is not magical in any way. It takes work. It takes sacrifice. It takes, you know, challenging these notions, all kinds of notions about who you are.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIRDSONG: That is my very specific Black Girl Magic, is that I live in this body. I exist in this body. And in spite of all of the things that people told me about being unpretty, unlovable, unvaluable (ph), I have still built a life for myself. That's where the magic is. And that magic doesn't belong to anybody except me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHASTRI: The question that started this whole project for me was this - where do people like me fit in? And I didn't mean to, but I guess I was operating on the assumption that we have to fit into the super messed up racial categories that already exist. And for sure, those categories have real impacts. But that doesn't mean that I need to fit some reductionist understanding of race to have a voice or a community. Remember that question Torey and his mom were grappling with?

ALFORD: What does it mean to be Black?

SHASTRI: That, for me, is the real question. What does it actually mean to be Black, to be Asian, to be Indian? What does it mean to live out the vastness of the identity that you claim? And for me, what does it mean to claim myself, my Indian-ness (ph) and my albinism in this complicated country?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRIGSBY BATES: And that's our show. You can find more on our website, npr.org/codeswitch. And don't forget, fam, we want to hear your honest feedback on our podcast. We do. So go to npr.org/podcastsurvey to fill out an anonymous survey. We don't take any of your personal information. It just takes a few minutes, and it really helps us out. Check out the link in our episode notes as well.

SHASTRI: This episode was reported by me, Kamna Shastri, and produced by Alyssa Jeong Perry, edited by Christina Cala, with help from Leah Donnella and Alyssa.

GRIGSBY BATES: Shoutout to the rest of the CODE SWITCH fam - Kumari Devarajan, Jess Kung, Summer Thomad, LA Johnson, Steve Drummond and Sam Yellowhorse Kesler. Our intern is Nathan Pugh. A special thanks to Lily Shai (ph), who made this CODE SWITCH mid-career reporting fellowship possible.

SHASTRI: Special thanks also to Meredith Talusan, Ralina Joseph, Destiny O. Birdsong and Torey Alford for sharing their stories with me so graciously. Meredith is the author of "Fairest." Destiny's book, "Nobody's Magic" is out in February. And Torey Alford is a board member for the National Organization for Albinism and Hypopigmentation. I'm Kamna Shastri.

GRIGSBY BATES: And I'm Karen Grigsby Bates. See you.

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