Marlon Brown is not unlike the vast majority of educated, ambitious and twenty-something African-American men.
He excelled at school, gained a degree in political science followed by a Masters, and now works as a budget and policy analyst for the State of Michigan.
What makes him stand out is that he is an albino.
He says around the age of five or six he started asking his parents why he looked different. “They explained I was African-American but my skin wasn’t the normal pigmentation,” says 27-year-old Brown, who was born in Detroit but raised in suburban Michigan. “They taught me my albinism made me special and unique.”
But Marlon Brown is not alone. Albinism is a rare, genetically inherited condition that affects roughly 17,000 in the United States. Those with the condition have a lack of pigmentation in the hair, skin and eyes and the vast majority are visually impaired.
Brown, who is an only child, says it was his parents’ positive outlook and their desire for him to succeed that gave him a good start.
But he admits children have a knack for being cruel and he did get teased, they would come up to him and ask why he didn’t look like his parents. “Kids would call me Powder, Whitey and Casper,” he says.
From high school onwards there was gradual improvement and general acceptance, Brown says. “Although I’m not sure if this was reflective of me and my talents or that society is becoming more open, I probably think it’s a combination of both,” he says. “When I meet albino children I tell them the most difficult time is before they are 12-years-old.”
There are a handful of African-American or black albinos who have gained notoriety such as stand-up comedian Victor Varnado, musician “Yellowman” and models Shaun Ross and Diandra Forrest, which has inadvertently raised the profile of the condition.
For some albinos the biggest hurdles are social and cultural. The issue of “being black in white skin” complicates their racial and cultural identity.
In an article in Marie Claire magazine, albino Kenosha Robinson, writes, “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.”
Brown says he has never had a problem trying to figure out who he is and it has not crossed his mind to “try to pass at white.”
“I have never had any issues with racial identity” says Brown, who has recently married a woman he describes as a “caramel complexion” African-American. “I was brought up in a black church, grew up listening to Motown and was active in black student groups at college.”
Brown, an accomplished musician, who plays the trombone and piano, says he is still heavily influenced by gospel and jazz and performs in a Jazz Ensemble and plays at his church.
He admits even with his African-American facial features, he is sometimes mistaken for a white man. He recalls a time during his freshman year at college in an English Honors class when he and a group of other students were discussing Kozol’s book Savage Inequalities. He says one of the students said, “I wish we had an African-American student in the class so we could get their viewpoint,” says Brown, who has blond hair and blue eyes.
His biggest challenge has been his health, especially because his albinism means he is visually impaired. “My concern is how strong my eyes will be as I get older and what technological advances will be available in the future to help my sight,” says Brown, who has worn prescription glasses since the age of five.
His lack of skin pigmentation means he is susceptible to sunburn and skin cancer, whenever the sun is out he has to “wear sun cream, baseball hats and take really good care of his skin.”
Despite his setbacks, Brown has a high self-esteem and a positive attitude. “I don’t live life thinking I’m an albino” he says. “Every person has to get to a place where they accept who they are”.
He is fiercely ambitious and his ultimate goal is to run for political office. Brown has served as an intern for U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, and Congressman John Conyers. He has also worked in the Delaware Senate and for Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon.
In 2008, he ran in the Democratic primary for the Michigan House of Representatives. As a first-time candidate, he received just 8 percent of the vote, but he says the exposure paid dividends.
“One of the best things about being an albino is people remember me, which is great, because my goal is to forge a career in politics,” Brown says. With his determination and inner confidence there is a good chance he will become one of the few, if not only, African-American albino politician.