Sandra Laing was born in the wrong place at the wrong time. South Africa was in the midst of apartheid, and the little girl didn't fit in to the country's strict classifications of white, black and Coloured. Instead she baffled family and neighbors in Eastern Transvaal by sprouting kinky hair that shaped her dark complexion, much to the dismay of her ethnically Dutch, Afrikaner parents. Judith Stone writes the history of this troubled girl, from her first encounters with racism all the way to her middle-aged life in the present day.
Sandra's parents tried to turn a blind eye to their daughter's physical differences, but the white boarding school she attended would do no such thing. Parents and faculty were outraged that an obviously non-white student was being admitted to their school and mingling with their fair-skinned children. Apartheid was about separation and segregation, and Sandra was getting in the way of their long-established system. Her mother was accused of sleeping with a black man, and her father had to constantly defend his paternity. Admitting to some "color-mixing" in their ancestry was not acceptable in such a polarized climate, even though this had gone on unspoken in South Africa for decades.
When Sandra was finally escorted off the grounds of her school, she had no idea what she did wrong. Her father was launching his own private campaign to keep her white; Sandra didn't see things in color yet, and her mom and dad were determined to keep it that way. But she did see that her parents treated her differently from her brothers, and she did notice the disgustful looks of those who had been in charge of her care. She knew that something about her was just not right. At the hands of government officials, Sandra's official race changed from white to Coloured to white again. She realized that she must take her fate into her own hands, creating an identity for herself that no one would be able to take away from her.
WHEN SHE WAS WHITE isn't a traditional biography. It chronicles not only the life of the protagonist but also the struggle of those who tried to bring her life into the public eye. In this way, the book is both a story and a study in psychoanalysis, in sociology and in consumer culture. Sandra was a willing but confused eyewitness to her own history, and half the struggle of chronicling it has been in getting the story straight. Sandra doesn't see herself as a hero or a representation of the ills of apartheid. All she sees is the pain that she feels she caused her family, and her only wish is for their forgiveness --- not recognizing that they are the ones who have a lot to be forgiven for.
This book does much to present the contradictions of apartheid to those outside of South Africa. It also paints a strong picture of the landscape and individuals who made the country what it was. The expanse of the Transvaal countryside sharply contrasts with the polarized societies who lived there, and it is as if it were a beautiful cake on top of a precarious tower that was threatening to come crashing down at any second. Sandra represented some of the flaws of that cake, and she was therefore shunned by those who wanted to keep things as they were.
WHEN SHE WAS WHITE is the print edition of the movie "Skin," which is scheduled to appear in 2008. It is a story in its own right, though, and shouldn't be left on the shelf in anticipation of the film. Judith Stone speaks of both the cruelty and the perceived justification of apartheid, and no one is presented as a simple-minded individual. Bigotry runs deep in South Africa's history, but the focus of this book is in healing the wounds from the past and embracing this new, free country, where government-regulated racial caste systems no longer exist.
Reviewed by Shannon Luders-Manuel on January 24, 2011