WARNING: Spoiler Alert!
This film tells the true story of Sandra Laing, a South African woman born to Caucasian parents. However, Sandra disrupts the white community because her appearance suggests that she is of Afro descent/black but she behaves as if she is white. For example, she sits down not realizing that she is seated in a “whites only” section, she goes to a “whites only” store where she must stand outside while her mother is allowed inside to hold up clothes at the window for Sandra to choose, she even goes on a dinner date with a white boy and is glared at. Throughout her childhood and teenage years Sandra’s parents argue that she is white, even taking their case to court to have Sandra officially classified as white.
I found her parents’ desperation to have Sandra classified as white problematic and unsettling. Just as nobody wanted to buy “authentic black hair” from Chris Rock in his film Good Hair, nobody desires to be labeled as black…hmm interesting. Anyway, as the story progresses the racist tendencies of Sandra’s parents is revealed. Sandra eventually finds temporary solace when she falls in love with a black man, but eventually her “whiteness” becomes a problem for him. Set during the era of apartheid in South Africa, Sandra’s story says something that I already believe: race is imagined. Race is not a concrete object with clear visible lines of separation, you cannot differentiate race like you can the sky and the earth. And, actually, if you go far enough out to sea it almost seems like the sky and the earth meet. Everything is based on perception, perception is reality.
What I am saying is, there is more to this issue than meets the eye. People do not despise Sandra simply because of what they perceive as her blackness/whiteness. Even her older brother says to their mother, “I love Sandra, but sometimes it’s hard.” Why is it hard? Apartheid literally means “apart”/separate, and is based on racism (the notion that people can be grouped and judged by their appearance–if they look the same, they must all be the same). Then we have Sandra who embodies racism’s greatest fear: we are all more alike than different. Racism thrives on the principle that there are distinct differences between the racial categories. In the words of Frantz Fanon, black and white have no meaning without the other.
Or, if you prefer a more simplistic example read Dr. Seuss’s Sneetches on the Beaches. Racism is all about the haves and the have-nots, it’s economical. Europeans (just like other imperial groups–the Mongolians, African Kingdoms) went into so-called “new worlds” and took control of their precious metals, natural resources, and the physical labor of the inhabitants. Now, getting back to the subject of European Imperialism, in doing so Europeans gained control the ability of these people to acquire wealth (it’s not a coincidence that certain groups of people are among the poorest in the world today).
However, that is another subject. What I really wanted to get to is that–in the case of European Imperialism–Europeans justified their actions by citing the inhabitants of these new worlds as barbaric, stupid, evil, in need of “rescue”. Why is this important? Well, if those characteristics are associated with blackness then what is whiteness? Whiteness became the opposite of those things. Even today white is associated with: civilized, intelligent, goodness, and–therefore–very capable of controlling these barbarians (think Africa, North Korea, the Middle East, and most recently and more specifically, Syria).
So, for Sandra Laing to blur those well-established lines that allowed systems like apartheid in South Africa (and its U.S. counterpart “Jim Crow”) to remain in place for so long, her presence was indeed–as the school teacher tells her parents–“a disruption.” Now I’m not here to blame anyone for anything. I am simply discussing race and the social system of racism. Remember, each group of people has enslaved, harmed, and committed injustices against another group at some point in time. I’m not here to count the amount of blood spilled or suggest that anyone’s hands are clean. I’m saying that we have to first understand how these systems work and how they are being upheld so that we can dismantle them. We can’t control what others do but we can choose to change our own thinking. As Sandra’s mother says in the film: “You can’t help what you were born with but you can help what you become”…I am sure she meant it differently but it is true. I was born with brown skin but I never for a second believe it had anything to do with who I am, only that I love how it glistens in the sunlight.
Now, food for thought:
1) Would Sandra’s experience been the same had she been a man?
2) At one point in the movie Sandra’s father nails boards to her bedroom window. He tells her love interest to stay six feet from her when speaking to her. When Sandra runs away, the police break into her lover’s home to recover “the white woman you have stolen.” But yet, when they bulldoze the village in which Sandra later lives with her lover, the workers tear down homes announcing “you were given enough time, this is now a whites only area” and plow with no remorse as women and children scatter. Why is Sandra no longer well-protected, why has her acceptance of her blackness decreased her value?
3) Throughout the movie several characters try to manipulate Sandra’s identity as a South African and a woman, including Sandra who at one point tries to bleach her skin and (after several failed dates with white men) marries a black man to gain a sense of belonging. When Sandra steps in front of the bulldozer and faces off with the white male operator do you get the sense that she is starting to own her identity? If not, at what point do you think she starts to or does she ever own it? Can we ever own our identity since identity is based as much on who people think you are as who you believe you are?