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Race

What Growing Up as a Black Albino Taught Me

You aren't your disability.

by Victor Varnado
Feb 15 2018, 4:47pm

All photos via the author

When the doctors delivered what appeared to be a white baby and put me in the arms of my black mother, she wasn't surprised. A year earlier she'd given birth to my sister Cynthia, who also had albinism, a congenital disorder. Because my parents had the matching recessive gene, out of three children, two of us were albino. When Mom looked down at me for the first time, I imagined her happiness mixed with concern over raising an African American child with light skin, blonde hair, sensitivity to bright light, and lousy vision.

In the sixth grade, kids began to notice the differences between one another and how to use that information to tease. I lived in Huntsville, Alabama, where black and white children mostly stayed with their own. But once I was introduced, all the races came together to make fun of me. I didn’t look like any of them, which united them all.

The Caucasians treated me like a pariah, and the black kids could be just as unaccepting. One terrible afternoon I walked outside of my immediate neighbourhood, and a boy who couldn't have been more than eight ran up to me screaming, "Get out of here, white boy!" Do you know how hard it is to convince an eight-year-old you're black when you have pale skin, light hair, and hazel eyes? It was impossible. I was 12, and the confrontation made me question my ethnicity.

The first time I remember my lack of pigment being positive was when a few of my 12-year-old friends and I turned to shoplifting. Nothing crazy. We were young, we didn’t have a lot of money, and we all wanted candy. I was terrible at it. I paced around the store for ten minutes before I crouched down in front of the chocolate bars and carefully looked both ways multiple times. I clumsily slipped the Snickers into my pocket. The clerk never noticed me because he was too busy being suspicious of my darker skinned accomplices.

While wrestling with disconnected feelings about my racial makeup and looks, I struggled with visual impairment. My mother sought the help of state-paid disability counselors to evaluate my potential ability to live on my own with my “crippling limitations.” One counselor told me that the best life I could hope for would be within a community of other blind adults. “You might even find someone you like to settle down with," she encouraged in a backhanded fashion. In America, about one-third of the blind live in poverty, as do a little more than one-fifth of African American families. So I was the poster boy for eventual unemployment.

My Family took the state's dismal portrait of my life to heart. I was outfitted with thick glasses, plenty of sunscreen and large print books to remind other kids in school I was different, to be avoided half of the time and pitied the rest. On the first day of my high school History class, my teacher stopped everything to ask me aloud if I would feel more comfortable sitting in the front of the room. Without waiting for my answer, he had another kid move a few rows back so that I could silently walk to the front with an armful of visual acuity aids. The other kids looked at me with concern, a smirk or stared at the floor until my shuffling was over.

I could see the limited trajectory of my future as a partially blind black man who looked white; I wanted to abandon it.

Gym class was a constant reminder of my disability. When an activity required hand-eye coordination, the instructor came prepared with a “simpler” activity for me to perform in the corner. Literally watching from the sidelines in Phys-ed echoed the exclusion I felt in every other area in my life. The reasons I chose that day to “rebel” are a twisted amalgam—born in part always noticing strangers checking me out from of the corner of their eye, part new friends not knowing what to do or how to act when they discovered I was visually impaired. Mostly, thought, it was fear of who I might be if I didn't “do something now.”

It was time for dodgeball. When the gym teacher suggested that I draw in the corner, I asked to play instead. To his credit, he only paused for a few seconds before cautiously gesturing for me to join the other kids. The team captains took turns picking from the crowd gathered in the center of the room. I’m sure the more frail kids were happy to have someone else get picked last for a change.

The giant red rubber ball was placed in the middle of the court. When a whistle blew, each team rushed to be the first one to grab it. I arrived at the dividing line after Pedro, the most athletic kid in class, had already grabbed a ball. I stood six feet away from him as a lone target. He hurled the ball at me. I wasn’t great at judging the depth of flying objects, but was quite excellent at stopping the rough red ball with my face. The pinging sound it made as it bounced off my skull and toward the ceiling was joined by rolling laughter from the rest of the class.

The next round I did a little better. By the end of the period I had a few noticeable welts. But most importantly, I had actually caught the ball and sent more abled kids to the sidelines. Even though I was terrible, I was hooked. Not on the game, but on pushing myself to enjoy the world the way I wanted to.

I continued to ignore the advice of protective authoritarians and bought a skateboard. My ribs broke when I missed a jump on stone steps. My wrist fractured when I hit the wood the wrong way in Taekwondo class.

I became obsessed with living a life more significant than my perceived limitations. My inspiration was trite and straightforward, but it did the trick. My love of comic books and my weird childhood obsession with Greek mythology depicted heroes who performed terrific feats, and I yearned to do something incredible, too. I haven’t accomplished all the things I feared I couldn’t (or wouldn’t be allowed to) so far, but I have surprised myself along the way with some once in a lifetime achievements and a few fulfillments of boyhood dreams [COULD WE GIVE A COUPLE EXAMPLES].

By the time I moved to Los Angeles at 32, I skipped the free public transportation most states offer disabled individuals and headed to the California DMV to get a driver's license. With a visual impairment, you can still be approved if a doctor signs a form affirming that your corrected vision is within certain limits. I went to an optometrist and passed the exam.

The answer to what might be your first question is “Yes.” I have been in an automobile accident. I totaled my Toyota Corolla. When I collided with the other vehicle during my one and only crash, every doubt I had about my ability to function in the world came flooding back. Why did I think I could get behind the wheel? Did I not see the other car pull forward? I believed I'd conquered my fears, but they were just waiting to reignite. That was what I was taught: assume everything was my fault because I was born wrong.

When we pulled over to inspect the damage, the other drivers turned out to be three teenagers who'd spent the night drinking with no insurance. A third car pulled over, and a gentleman in a tracksuit said he saw the whole thing: The kids were at fault for not yielding. They agreed. With the overwhelming evidence, I let myself off the hook.

Moving to New York a few years ago, I allowed my license to expire. Instead of dwelling on the disadvantages of albinism, I continue to focuse on the positive. For instance, most people have never met a black person with albinism before, so there are zero expectations about how one should act. I can’t be entirely sure if it’s my albinism or my personality, but people seem to put up with a large amount of nonsense from me. I pre-board every time I fly because flight attendants never question if I qualify to embark early. Second, I have never been called the “n-word.” It’s strange. People seem to forget that word even when they are racist and mad at me. I have indeed had people say it to my face, but only when they thought that I was their white, bigoted buddy. They were wrong. And unlike most black men in Manhattan, I have no problem hailing a cab. I’ve had to play point man for years when hanging out with my non-albinistic black friends while we tried to grab a taxi back to Brooklyn at the end of the night.

Although I was born to black parents, while growing up I didn't consider myself black or white. I felt I occupied an unnamed category of race that I had to discover along the way. Ultimately it was my family and the experiences that we share that solidified my personal identity. Even if the world sometimes fails to recognize it.

My bucking against the rules society has strongly suggested for people with disabilities hasn't ended. It took me most of my life to realize the truth; I’m vain. I can’t bear the thought that anyone would pity me. I don't want to do things that are great for a person with disabilities; I want to be undeniable.

When I come across a situation where most people would counsel me to be cautious or to perhaps even abandon the thought of, say, biking through the city at night, I just say to myself, “What’s the worst that could happen?” I then ignore the answer, and do it anyway.

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This article originally appeared on VICE US.