turning white

turningwhite.jpgturning white: a memoir of change, by lee thomas.

i brought four books with me to detroit over the christmas holiday, but picked this book up at a border’s when i took my daughter there to get a book for school. its cover grabbed my eye (great cover), and i noticed it was under a “local author” sign. lee thomas, the author, is a detroit area news anchor. this is the story of his wrestle with vitiligo (pronounced vih-til-EYE-go), a skin disease where one’s pigment disappears, over time. apparently, 1 – 2% of the population have this (according to the book), but it’s hardly noticeable on people with lighter skin tones. of course, for an african american, like thomas, it means he’s “turning white.”

it’s a compelling issue, and seems to set the mind wandering on a multitude of questions and issues, like:
– what does it mean to the identity of a black man to slowly turn white?
– what if that black man makes his living in a context that is constantly focused on his face, and broadcasting that face to millions of people?
– what role does any of our skin color play in our identity? what’s the interplay of skin color, enculturation, and other factors?
– would it be better for the author (or another with the same disease) to suddenly and completely change skin color, or to gradually change, in splotches (it’s not a gradual overall lightening, but more like growing patches of whiteness)?

unfortunately, the book doesn’t address any of these questions. to thomas’s credit, he says right from the start, that this is a book about a black man’s skin, and not at all about race. but i was frustrated, on almost every page, by his unwillingness to go there. it seemed like an opportunity squandered, to address race from a completely different place. it was either a cop-out, an overly careful political-correctness (career cautiousness), or simplicity that would lead one to omit what could have been something so central to the issue (or, at least, that’s what i was thinking as i read).

also, the book is horribly written and edited. really, i haven’t seen a book go to print in a long time that is this poorly written and edited (and i’ve come, given my role, to blame that primarily on the editing, not the author — some can write and some can’t, but an editor’s job is to not let the author reveal that he’s a crappy writer).

so, yes, the book was deeply dissatisfying on multiple levels. but, somehow, i’m still glad i read it, because it’s a real guy’s story, dealing with a real life issue, that has all kinds of implications that caused me to think (whether the author was willing to think about those issues or not).

11 thoughts on “turning white”

  1. they just had a special on tv with lee thomas. it was a great story. it might have been 20/20, i am not sure. it’s unfortunate that the book isnt as well done.

  2. my dog has vertiligo. seriously. poor little guy has transformed from the “cute little puppy”, to “what has happened to your dog?” i couldnt imagine the impact this would have on a human being.

  3. Dude, this guy is blowing up everywhere. I saw him on 20/20…then ABC news Late Night…now he’s on Larry King.

    It IS an interesting topic, although when he pulled the Michael Jackson card to validate the issue, I lost a bit of interest.

    when I worked at a gas station i’d see guys like this come in a lot. And it never seemed like it was a big deal to them. Of course I am in wichita…in the middle of nowhere…

  4. Hey, I am a youth worker and I have vitiligo. Pretty sure its not vertiligo, at least, I’ve never heard it pronounced/spelled that way. No cure at this point, but I’m white and Dutch as they come, so you can’t really tell during the winter months.

    Although kids at camp are always interested to know why my skin is two shades during the summer!

  5. great questions, marko! this has been of interest to me me since I first studied the concept of race as identity and the biological basis of race in my undergrad (anthropology). my professor asked a question that sparked some lively discussion:

    “Is there a biological basis to race?”

    She went on to say that research studies show more variation in skin tone and other physical features within a race than between races. This led to fascinating discussions about how we understand our identity.

    I have had lots of conversations with friends, family, and random people from many races and ethnicities about this idea. I would be interested to see what others might have to say about it, both from how someone understands their own identity and from how they identify (with) others.

    I wonder how Lee Thomas and others with vitiligo are understanding their identity before, during, and after this biological shift?

  6. Hi, I have this disorder and yes, I am Afro-American. It is stressful seeing your body is change in front of your eyes. I’m 25 years old and It’s hard really hard It’s not like acne that you can put some cream on and will be ok, I’m grateful it’s not Cancer or Aids. This condition hurt psychologically. Please Understand MJ took it too far but the issue really gets to you because there is not much you can do but watch your body change and except yourself for whom you are and not the way you look.

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