Black folks have had a long love/hate affair with melanin. We have desired to crush it under our feet, to deny its existence, to cover it up with makeup or just languish in resignation as it followed us around our entire lives. Or we have desired to brag about its super powers, set it up on a mighty pedestal, or write odes to the joy of its brown beauty and black strength! Melanin, How I Love Thee!
While we wax philosophic and melodic about the beauty of melanin and how it’s way past time for us to fully embrace its wonderfulness, did you know that there is so much more to melanin than its sultry, sexy and beautiful surface appearance?
Which brings me to the topic of this post: the condition of albinism in black people. As we know, this is a condition in which the affected person has a lack of melanin in the skin, eyes and hair. Albino people exist in every ethnicity, but their colorless skin stands out more in darker melanated races. And depending on the culture in which they are born, albino people are treated in a range of ways: from exotics who are considered beautiful, to demons who are treated as accursed.
African Albinos in particular are those people that we have seen from time to time and looked at out the corner of our eye. We were fascinated and confused by their creamy yellowish or pinkish skin tones and their pale golden hair color and light eyes. All we knew was that they looked white, but not really, and we did not know what else to make of our weak assessments. (Or should I say “I”)
Well here’s a little bit of the deal: Albinism is a congenital disorder in which there is a defect or absence of an enzyme necessary for melanin production. This happens because of recessive gene alleles in the affected person. A person cannot get albinism unless both of his or her parents carry this recessive gene. The parents can carry this gene and be unaffected by albinism themselves.
Albinism manifests itself in different ways. There are four recognized major “types” of albinism, and three lesser, and more rare and dangerous types. The term “Oculocutaneous” is used as a descriptor because albinism is determined not only by skin color – (cutaneous) or lack thereof, but also by visual acuity -(oculo) or lack thereof.
Types of albinism
The system for classifying types of albinism is based on which gene mutation caused the disorder and not on the visible signs of the disorder. Most typess of albinism have features that differentiate them one from the other. The following are types:
- Oculocutaneous albinism. Oculocutaneous albinism is caused by a mutation in one of four genes, and manifests itself in vision issues and skin issues–(ocular and cutaneous) and hair and eye color.
- Oculocutaneous albinism type 1 is caused by a mutation in a gene on chromosome 11. People with type 1 albinism have very white skin, white hair and blue eyes. Some people can begin to produce melanin in childhood and adolescence. Their hair may turn blond or brown. Their skin may develop and ability to tan. Their irises may also change color and become less translucent.
- Oculocutaneous albinism type 2 is caused by a mutation in a gene on chromosome 15. This albinism in found in Native Americans, Sub-Saharan Africans, and African-Americans more often than in other races. Their hair may be auburn, red, ginger or yellow and their eyes may be tan or blue-gray. Their skin is white at birth. In African people, the skin may be light brown, and in Asian or Northern European people, the skin is usually white. The skin color of these people is usually close to their family’s coloring, just slightly lighter. With sun exposure, these black albinos’ skin may develop freckles.
- The rarer oculocutaneous albinism type 3 is caused by a gene mutation on chromosome 9 and occurs in black South Africans. These people usually have reddish-brown skin, reddish or ginger hair, and brown eyes or hazel eyes.
- Oculocutaneous albinism type 4, caused by a gene mutation on chromosome 5, is a rare form of the disorder with symptoms similar to type 2, and is the most common form among East Asian people.
- X-linked ocular albinism. The cause of this albinism, which is almost exclusive to males, is a gene mutation on the X chromosome. People who have ocular albinism have the developmental and functional vision problems of albinism. Their skin, hair and eye color are in the normal range most often, or slightly lighter than that of others in their family.
- Hermansky-Pudlak syndrome. Hermansky-Pudlak syndrome is a rare albinism disorder caused by a mutation in one of at least eight genes associated with this syndrome. People with this disorder have signs and symptoms like those of oculocutaneous albinism, but they also develop lung and bowel diseases and a bleeding disorder.
- Chediak-Higashi syndrome. Chediak-Higashi syndrome is a rare form of albinism that’s associated with a mutation in the LYST gene. Signs and symptoms are similar to those of oculocutaneous albinism. The hair is usually brown or blond with a silvery sheen, and the skin is usually creamy white to grayish. People with this syndrome have a defect with white blood cells that results in a susceptibility to infections.
Above excerpted from www.mayoclinic.com
So we learn quite a bit from the above excerpt. But there is more. Albino people usually have many medical conditions and problems with their eyes. As it turns out, the presence of melanin is highly important in our eyes’ proper functioning. When there is a lack of melanin, numerous things can go wrong with the person’s vision.
Development of the optical system is highly dependent on the presence of melanin, and with a lack or lesser amount of this pigment in albinistic individuals may lead to
- Misrouting of the retinogeniculate projections, resulting in abnormal crossing of optic nerve fibres
- Photophobia and decreased visual acuity due to light scattering within the eye
- Reduced visual acuity due to foveal hypoplasia and possibly light-induced retinal damage
Eye conditions common in albinism include:
- Nystagmus, irregular rapid movement of the eyes back and forth, or in circular motion.
- Refractive errors such as myopia or hyperopia and especially astigmatism
- Amblyopia, less visual acuity of the eyes due to poor transmission to the brain, often due to other conditions such as strabismus.
- Optic nerve hypoplasia, improper full development of the optic nerve
above excerpted and edited. from Wikipedia
So we learn just how important our melanin truly is. It seems to be right up there with the digestive system, the nervous system, the respiratory system, and the rest.
And we thought it was just a surface thing.
- Nigerian couple’s white baby for genetic tests (vanguardngr.com)
- How do hypopigmentation and vitiligo differ? (zocdoc.com)
- Albinos have suffered neglect, says Shagari (vanguardngr.com)