06/17/2014 05:07 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Thando Hopa: Choosing Pretty

...I don't know what the number of people with Albinism in Turkey is but I could tell that this was the very first time that he saw a Black woman who looks white. And he argued with me. He argued with me. He said: I'm telling you you are white. And I said: no, I'm not; I'm black. And he said: listen, I promise you; you are white. And I said: no my father is Xhosa. My mother is Sotho. So, I am definitely Black. And he said: are you sure you're not adopted? And I said: I promise you I'm not adopted. So we just had a continuous exchange. And when (this is why I say I identify with black people, because I was wearing a hat) and when I took off my hat, he saw my hair and then it dawned on him that this is possible. And he touched my hair. And he felt it and I said: see, this is not white people's hair. And I think that's the only time he actually understood.

Thando Hopa told me this story when I asked her if she'd ever been mistaken for white. At only 25-years-old, this public prosecutor and part-time model already demonstrates a precocious collectedness and understanding of people and a thorough understanding of herself.

I spoke to Thando because I've been thinking a lot about being "confident despite," confident despite not getting the little affirmations we seem to need to feel valuable in our communities -- a pat on the back from the boss, a compliment from an acquaintance, a wink from a cute guy. There's a sector of popular thought that tells us that we should just be able to be confident and love ourselves despite what anyone says and not need any validation. But that directive is a tall order and very few of the messages touting self-love and celebration are coupled with how exactly we do that. But in exploring Black identity alongside confidence, I stumbled upon Thando's story. Thando shares that an unyielding support systems and an opportunity to explore her beauty in a way she never considered were integral in her feeling secure about her appearance. Her story is not one of being confident despite being different; it's one of understanding difference in a larger unifying context as well as tuning into our innate ability to decide who we are.


Thando Hopa by Justin Dingwall

Early in my conversation with Thando, I immediately noticed how at ease she was about speaking about living with albinism, an inherited condition where a person is unable to produce colouring of the skin, hair and eyes:

My parents had raised me to feel comfortable about being who I was and made me open to even talking about it. Because we were in a situation where--even though my parents were quite liberal (and I suppose they had to be because they had a child who was different)--but a lot of people around us weren't as liberal and they needed me to be vocal and unashamed in order for me to educate anybody who never quite understood the condition. So from a young age I was very vocal about it and I never shied away from it.

Naturally, Thando's childhood had its challenges, especially in South Africa where having albinism often means living with superstitions and stigmas that isolate you. "I was teased, called names, people didn't want to touch me," Thando recounted. "And as a child, you don't quite know how to articulate what is going on in your head or how to reason it out in a mature way. So you begin resenting the way you look." Luckily, her parents relentlessly tried to instill as much confidence in her as possible, despite outside forces counteracting their efforts. "If it wasn't for my parents. I don't know how I would have turned out. They really fortified every aspect of my character."

Thando Hopa by Justin Dingwall

It's very easy to feel beautiful at home or when you're around friends or family because they can see you for everything that you are. But how does that self-assurance carry over when you leave the safety net of loved ones and the outside world not only fails to see you but negates all the wonderful things you were told? To get some perspective on this, I asked Thando what exactly her parents did that had such a lasting impact:

Basically, it was affirmations and you know what, repetition has far more power than people would like to give it credit for. My father would tell me all the time how beautiful I was. He would tell me I was the most beautiful girl in the world. And I would cry and tell him that I don't believe him. And he said: I don't care if you don't believe me. But I'm telling you, I've seen a lot of little girls and I've never seen a little girl that's more beautiful than you. And my mother on the other hand, she was more practical. She would make me look like the prettiest thing. She would put all sorts of ribbons on me as a child and she would make sure she meticulously took care of my skin.

...I really made strong efforts not to believe them because I thought those are my parents and of course they think I'm beautiful. But as time went on, they shaped my psychology. Then being beautiful stopped being something where I had to hear it from somebody else. It was a decision I had to make. I had to decide that from now onwards I would be beautiful. It got to a point where they had said it so much and made so much effort around it that as I grew older, it became a decision that I made. So, if somebody tells me that I'm not beautiful. It's quite fine. Because it's a decision I made for myself, therefore I don't need them to tell me anymore. Not like then when what [people] said affected me and affected my confidence.

interview on Un'ruly.