Emily Urquhart: The Meaning of White

Urquhart searches for an understanding of her daughter’s albinism, inside and outside of science @ The Walrus.

The visitors come from all wards of the hospital. There is an audiologist, a social worker, a lactation consultant, a rotating cast of doctors, and an endless stream of nurses. We have a private room, but our newly formed family of three is rarely alone. This is not unusual in the maternity wing. What is curious, however, are the nurses who visit with no service to offer. They arrive at my side, somewhat apologetically, to catch a glimpse of our newborn daughter. “Some white,” they whistle and coo into her plastic bassinet, using the vernacular emphasis that has become so familiar during my five years in Newfoundland. They say it to me, and they repeat it to one another: “That hair is some white.”

Sadie Jane is born in the usual excruciating manner on Boxing Day 2010. Overdue, she is unwrinkled and chubby, with perfectly formed features and a shock of white hair on her head. Her mouth a tiny O and her arms flailing, she reaches constantly for my arms, my milk, my warmth. Her eyes flutter open occasionally, but mostly they’re shut. In a fleeting moment of wakefulness, the ward pediatrician probes her pupils with a tiny flashlight. Afterwards, she looks past me and my husband, Andrew, past my parents, fixing her gaze on the spruce-clad hills behind the hospital. “You have a very fair, very healthy baby girl,” she says. We never see the doctor again.

My child is the fairest of them all. The weight of my pride is unbearable, too big for our tiny room in the maternity ward. I stage a photo shoot on my bed, and Andrew takes the picture that will become Sadie’s birth announcement. I beam the image across the globe.

The next day, Andrew takes Sadie in his arms and goes for a walk down the hall. The nurses crowd around, making a fuss over her white hair and scolding him in the same breath. “No walking with babies in the hall! That hair! The liability!” He is heading back to our room when he overhears one of the nurses ask, “Is that baby an albino? ”

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