Correspondent Phillip Martin continues his series on the plight of albinos across many races and cultures. Yesterday he reported on the sometimes deadly prejudice against albinos in West Africa. Today, he surveys global efforts to combat discrimination against albinos.
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LISA MULLINS: I’m Lisa Mullins and this is The World. Albinos lack pigmentation in their skin and their hair. It’s for this reason alone that Albinos have been the victims of mutilations and ritual crimes, especially in Africa. Human rights advocates have documented the slaughter of more than 40 Albinos in Tanzania, Burundi and Kenya. Philip Martin reported yesterday on the sometimes deadly prejudice against Albinos. Today he surveys global efforts to show Albinos in a more favorable light.
PHILIP MARTIN: For years, Manhattan based Rick Guidotti made his living as a fashion photographer, shooting pictures of beautiful women who are known by their first names only – Cindy, Claudia and Tyra. Then one day he was introduced to a young Albino woman named Christine.
RICK GUIDOTTI: She walked into my studio with her head down, shoulders hunched, eyes down as well, one word answers, no eye contact. This kid had zero self esteem because of her being teased her entire life because of her albinism. So I thought well I was going to photograph her with respect the way I would photograph anyone, Cindy or Claudia. And so the lights went on, the music, the fan. I grabbed a mirror and was like, Christine, look. And this kid looked in the mirror and for the first time saw a beautiful girl.
PHILIP: That photograph became the centerpiece of a 1999 award winning photo essay in Life Magazine called “Redefining Beauty”. Soon Rick Guidotti was being asked by people all over the world to photograph their Albino children, families and entire Albino communities.
RICK: So I started traveling.
PHILIP: Guidotti became an advocate for people with albinism, and formed a nonprofit called Positive Exposure. He visited places round the world where Albinos were shunned and persecuted. But he also discovered places where they are deified. And in the Cook Islands of New Zealand for example, he found that Albinos are revered in legend.
RICK: And it’s a legend about hate turning discrimination into prejudice. I mean awareness, education, acceptance, friendship, then love, and out of that love comes this first person with albinism.
MALE: [SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE]
PHILIP: This recording made by Rick Guidotti, is of a tribal leader in the islands of the Atlantic coast of Panama. It’s home to the Kuna, an indigenous people with one of the highest rates of albinism in the world. More than one in 200 of the islanders are Albinos. This man is a Kuna spiritual leader. He says Albinos are Godlike children of the moon, and they face no discrimination because they are his brothers and sisters.
PETER ASH: Panama is a rare example and we’ve heard of this and a few other indigenous tribes, where people with albinism are worshiped and revered.
PHILIP: Peter Ash is a successful businessman in Vancouver. He’s also a person with albinism. His Canadian nonprofit, Under the Same Sun, advocates for Albinos worldwide.
PETER: Obviously I’d certainly prefer that than having them killed. But I mostly just prefer that you treat us as anybody else. Because the problem with having them worshiped and revered is that if the chief of that tribe changes or the tradition of that tribe changes, it’s still undergirded by this notion that they’re somehow magical or different.
PHILIP: Ash blames popular culture for this widely held perception. For example, he believes African films that glorify witchcraft have fanned anti Albino superstition and violence in East Africa. And he says Hollywood is also to blame.
PETER: Even in North America, every single Hollywood portrayal of a person with albinism – think of Da Vinci Code, The Princess Bride, The Matrix Reloaded, Powder.
MALE: Afraid you’re going to get a little color on that marshmallow ass of yours.
MALE: Look man, you better get out of here. Johnny. How about it, huh?
PETER: Think of them all. When have you seen a person with albinism portrayed in a positive way? In every single instance the person with albinism is a villain, they’re evil, they’re twisted, they’re odd.
PHILIP: The portrayal of Albinos in popular culture including in film, is the focus of a recent documentary from South Africa called “White Negro”. [MUSIC]
FEMALE: I’m also what they call an Albino. It means that I have no pigmentation, but believe it or not, both my parents are black. My father was shot when I was four. He did not accept me as his child.
PHILIP: In South Africa, which has a relatively large Albino population, anti Albino prejudice including job discrimination, is widespread. Not according to Thabo Leshilo. Leshilo is editor of the Sowetan newspaper, which has led a campaign against anti Albino bias in this self-proclaimed racial democracy.
THABO LESHILO: Every year we run a writing competition, with the South African Albinism Society. This competition is aimed at helping people understand albinism, and also to help eradicate in a small way ignorance about albinism in Africa, and also in South Africa specifically.
PHILIP: Alberto Pascoal, the Brazilian jazz instrumentalist, is an Albino. Like other famous Albino musicians, notably Salif Kieta of Mali and King Yellowman of Jamaica, Pasquale sees himself as a global ambassador for people with albinism, even in places where anti Albino prejudice runs deep.
HERMETO PASCOAL: Because even in Africa, two years ago when we were on tour in Johannesburg, I was treated with great respect, even as the audience acknowledged that I was an Albino.
PHILIP: As a teenager growing up in Caru-aru, Perhambuco in Brazil’s northeast, Pascoal says he was always being stared at, and sought comfort in the company of other Albinos.
HERMETO: The name of the street where I lived was Black Street, and there was one section where only Albinos lived. There’s a black drummer I love who also lived on Black Street, who now lives not far from here in Curitiba. We used to hang out on Black Street and play music all night. Blacks and Albinos on Black Street.
PHILIP: Pasquale says he has no problem with any race, and believes Albinos can do pretty much as they please in Brazil. They also have one clear advantage, he jokes. They’re all beautiful. As internationally acclaimed artists like Hermeto Pascoal talk openly about their lives, they’re challenging popular notions of what it means to be Albino.
MURRAY BRILLIANT: Albinism teaches us I think a lot about our assumptions about race.
PHILIP: This is Dr. Murray Brilliant, a geneticist and expert on albinism at the University of Arizona.
MURRAY: We define race primarily by pigmentation, and so any change in that pigmentation could change our perception of race, because when we see people who have different skin pigmentations and hair color, we make certain assumptions about them. And then when you see people with albinism those assumptions are not there anymore.
PHILIP: Thabo Leshilo, editor of the Sowetan newspaper of South Africa, agrees.
THABO: It also shows you I mean just how ridiculous it is, an obsession with color. To find some people with albinism, actually being whiter than a lot of white people that I know.
PHILIP: In fact, many non Albinos still don’t understand the truth of albinism, which explains why anti Albino prejudice remains pervasive in many parts of the world. But human rights advocates say education and the promotion of positive images of Albinos in popular culture is slowly helping to turn that prejudice around. For The World, I’m Philip Martin.
LISA: Our reports on Albinos were edited by Anthony Brooks. You can find photos and more on Albinos worldwide at our website. Just visit theworld.org.
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