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July 13, 2007

Black Woman, White Skin

Her parents were black, but she looks white. Kenosha Robinson on trying to figure out where she fits in.

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kenosha robinson

Kenosha Robinson

Photo Credit: Taghi Naderzad

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Growing up in Jackson, MS, I gravitated toward white people. It felt natural, I suppose, because I looked like them. While my cousins got black baby dolls for Christmas, mine were always peaches and cream. Once, during playtime in elementary school, one of the black girls told me I couldn't join her group. My doll, she said, was the wrong color.

Later, I understood what she meant was that I was the wrong color. Like my doll, I was blonde and green-eyed-the only one in a mass of brown skin. I am African-American, born with a genetic abnormality called albinism, meaning I've got little to no pigment in my skin. Albinism is a recessive trait, so both parents must carry the gene in order to conceive a child with it. It's more common than you'd think-one in 17,000 children is born with albinism.

My mom was only 16 when I was born. She did her best to protect me, but I knew early on that I was different. Everywhere we went-the mall, the grocery store-people stared at me. You could see the question on their faces: "Is she really yours?"

My dad died from pneumonia when I was 7. Mostly what I remember about him is the way he stood up for me. One day I asked him, "Why do people always look at me?" He said, "It's because you're so beautiful."

But some of my extended family were less charitable. Most of my relatives are from the Mississippi Delta, where blacks and whites still live separately. The notion of forming a friendship with a white person is foreign to my relatives, so how were they supposed to treat me? The only way, it seemed, was by singling me out and teasing me. "White girl!" they'd call me. I felt like I was a betrayal to my race.

My mom had more practical fears, like whether I'd get sun damage if she let me go outside. The complete absence of melanin in my skin means I don't tan-I just burn, baby, burn. Any time I went to a family reunion or church picnic, she'd slather me with sunscreen and make me wear a hat. During recess, I had to sit in the shade. When I was in fourth grade, my mom wrote a note to excuse me from field day, but I didn't give it to my teacher. Instead, I played all day under the hot sun. When I got in the car after school, my mother noticed that my face was red. I tried to lie my way through it, but my face kept getting redder, and my body started blistering. I didn't go to school for a week because I was so sick.


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