Representation Matters

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Representation matters


Who better than Thando Hopa, model, lawyer and activist, to explain why?

Whether it’s adapting to disruptive technology, or meeting the expectations of a changing workforce, the workplace must keep evolving. Successful employers adapt, others flounder. Over the past few years, global conversations around injustices (such as the #MeToo movement) have been significantly changing the way we think about many wrongs: racism, sexism, ableism, gender violence, homophobia, xenophobia, climate denialism… even at work.

It’s become trendy to dismiss so-called armchair activists and keyboard warriors. But thanks to them we know more about diversity and inclusion than we used to and the world of work is also adapting to reflect these newer attitudes.

Profmed Medical Aid Scheme has been investigating how the world of work is changing in a new podcast series called The Professional. In the second episode, Talk Radio 702 host Bongani Bingwa interviews Thando Hopa, a lawyer and activist who is currently working as a professional model.

If this seems an unlikely choice in terms of career development, park your prejudices and read on.

Thando Hopa has a variant in her melanin-producing genes. As a result, her skin, hair and eyes lack pigment and are very light. Yes, Thando Hopa was born with albinism, a small genetic variant, but one that can be a disproportionately heavy burden.

In several countries in Africa, life for people with albinism is risky. According to United Nations, an estimation of 80 people with albinism have been murdered in Tanzania, the country with the highest overall population of people with albinism, since 2000. People with albinism are also persecuted in the DRC, Burundi, Malawi and – to our shame – South Africa, because a small number of people believes that the body parts of people with albinism carry particular powers in muthi. (Don’t fall for the myth that stigmatising people with albinism is only an “African” thing, though. Check out what the lazy typecasting Hollywood is prone to when moviemakers cast “evil albino” characters in films such as Cold Mountain, Da Vinci Code or The Matrix Reloaded.)

Hopa says she felt like any other little girl, unaware that she was different, until she started school and heard another child whisper, “Don’t sit next to her.” The labels came next: inkawu (monkey), albino, . Before she knew it, she was being defined by others before she had a chance to control the narrative.
Labels can define us, and Hopa says she suffered in adolescence. She recalls: “My mother had done everything she could to make me feel like I was enough. And she didn’t understand why I didn’t feel like I was enough. When I was 12, I told my father, ‘I don’t want to look this way anymore.’ And he said, ‘You’re the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen.’ Even though I had detours in terms of self-esteem, my parents really brought in a resilience that kicked in when I had to go into the modelling industry.”

Hopa wanted to become an actress, but her father had sacrificed much to attain a professional qualification as an engineer and wanted career security for his daughter. Hopa was to study law – where, she says, formative experiences consulting with young prison inmates nurtured a budding activist. “I started asking myself questions about power dynamics,” she says. She became a prosecutor at the NPA.
And that would have been that, but for a chance, Charlize Theron-like encounter in a shopping mall. In Hopa’s case, the celebrity who spotted her was South African uber-designer Gert-Johan Coetzee. He stopped Hopa and asked her, point-blank, if she would do a photoshoot for him.

Hopa takes up the story: “And I thought that that was the craziest thing I’ve ever heard. Because I was like, excuse me, I’m a lawyer, you know. There’s no way I’m going to do this modelling thing. But my sister said to me, ‘This would be such a wonderful platform for you to change the narrative about albinism.’ Still, in no way did we think that it would take the direction it did. I said I wanted to represent albinism in a positive way. I had no idea how complex what I was saying was. And he said, ‘Okay, now let’s do this thing. Close my show.’ I was like, close your show? I can’t even walk in heels!”
Reader, she did the show’s closing showstopper. “That was the start of a quite remarkable, but also a difficult, heavy, emotional journey,” Hopa says. She’s since gone from strength to strength, becoming the first black South African to be featured in the prestigious Pirelli calendar in 2018, and the first ever woman with albinism to get a Vogue cover in 2019.

Modelling is not traditionally known as an industry that recognises diversity. It worked with a highly constructed image of beauty and demanded the standardisation of the female body to within tiny margins. But – the world of work is changing. People are recognising that representation matters, that people want to see people they can identify with advertising the products we buy.
Hopa says that by choosing to put herself out there in the world reserved for the beautiful people, she’s become an embodiment of self-love, almost as an act of political warfare, a way of taking back her own power. As new narratives take hold in the fashion industry and in society as a whole – ones that centre around authenticity, body positivity and empowerment – Hopa is helping to challenge accepted notions of normal.

She says much “difference” is just a story we tell ourselves: “Nature is embedded with diversity. We are supposed to be different. But we tend to label our brand things normal or abnormal. It’s completely a figment of our imagination.”

Labels such as “albino” affix a diagnosis onto a person – so you’re not someone whose body works in a different way, you’re disabled. You’re not someone who lacks pigment in the skin, you’re an albino. Research has shown that language can do real harm. Using language that describes who a person is, rather than the condition she has (“an epileptic, autistic, albino”) is stigmatising, and stigma demonstrably leads to persecution, as anybody living with albinism knows only too well.

It’s also a reason Hopa favours people-centred language: language that describes what a person has rather than who a person is. So, “a person with epilepsy, autism or albinism” instead of the former examples – because people are more than one, defining thing.

By placing herself front and centre in an appearance-obsessed industry, Hopa knows she bears scrutiny. Doing so, she tries to centre the conversation on inclusivity – not as a “poster child”, not as a novelty, but as an intelligent woman who has intentionally taken her career in a direction where, she hopes, she can use the accident of her birth to make South Africa, and Africa, a safer place for people with albinism.

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