When a black reporter turns white

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Print and radio reporters toil unseen behind desks, at crime sites, on the campaign tour. Our work is judged for the most part by, well, our work. But for those who work in front of the camera, their appearance is part of the package. I might watch a driving report on subway fares by a local TV reporter and think, Whoa, take a look at that suit. Or a rambling interview by Charlie Rose and think, What is up with that new twitch in his eye?

So I really feel for Lee Thomas, a Fox anchor and entertainment reporter in Detroit. Due to a condition called vitiligo, his black skin is turning white. To compound the horror, it’s all happening in front of an audience. According to USA Today,

His once brown, even complexion is now mottled with pale patches around his eyes and mouth, along his nose and on his ears; his arms, shoulders and chest are speckled and blotched.

Though he covers up with makeup for the camera, you can see in the photos they ran that there are Caucasian-looking splotches all over his face and torso. Apparently,

“There is no cause. There is no cure, and it’s very random,” Thomas says. “I could turn all the way white or mostly white.”

After despairing that the end of his career was nigh, Thomas instead bucked up, told his bosses and colleagues, and now has written a book titled Turning White: A Memoir of Change. He starred in a three-part documentary on his network that you can watch here.

This all got me to thinking about how appearance-oriented our culture is (see yesterday’s post on Hillary’s wardrobe). I don’t have to face the camera every day, a fact I thanked the stars for when I was hospitalized last year and pumped full of steroids. No, they didn’t give me muscles and a .350 batting average; but they did give me a moon face (they actually call it that) that didn’t completely go away for a year.

My condition was temporary, and also I don’t have as public a job as Thomas does. My bosses even let me work from home during the worst of it. But few of us can conduct our careers in complete isolation, and it often feels like the workplace culture requires us to look if not like Tyson Beckford then at least, well, normal.

I think we’re overly sensitive about our appearance on the job. I know I am. When I was sick, probably most of the people I work with just thought I got fat. They may have noticed, but I doubt they cared. I have a very dear friend and mentor, a mother figure, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s a few years ago. The shakes make her self-conscious, but instead of holing up somewhere she’s since become one of the top fundraisers for the illness. As for Thomas, his career appears to have taken off since he publicly admitted his condition, and he too has become a spokesperson for the disease.

What I’m saying is that everyone’s dealing with something. Just think of that next time you notice your colleague’s rosacea or your boss’s limp. A little sympathy couldn’t hurt, because sooner or later it could be your turn.