In the film Skin Deep: The story of Sandra Laing, Anthony Fabian depicts Sandra Laing’s identity crisis as a coloured person born to white parents in South Africa in 1955. During the Apartheid regime, one’s identity is reduced to the colour of one’s skin and this has shameful and soul-destroying consequences for Sandra.
Her father, Abraham, insists upon her classification as a white Afrikaan and believes that she must strictly segregate herself from the coloured community and assimilate with the Afrikaans.
Whilst she is at home, and remains Dad’s little “angel” and princess, Sandra is comfortable. However, branching out into the wide world, studying in a boarding school, she is forced to confront the consequences of her colour differences. Although Sandra automatically accepted herself as a “white person” before she went to school, she soon becomes the object of racist remarks and constant stares. Her identity takes a battering at school. She is shocked by the attention she arouses owing to her colour. The attempt to exclude and isolate her affects her confidence and self esteem. At school all the students and their parents despise and exclude her as a freak just because her skin is dark. When the headmaster expels her, Sandra asks her father “What did l do wrong?”. She knows that her skin is shameful and a mark of difference. She knows that she becomes the object of scorn and contempt, and this has a very big impact on her confidence levels.
She is made to feel different and constantly isolated and excluded. Whether it be at school, or at a restaurant with her white boyfriend, she knows that someone is always complaining about her presence.
School: When Sandra starts school she is forced to assimilate she quickly becomes aware of her colour difference.
- The children abuse her. Sandra is always made to feel as if she has done something wrong. She asks her father, “What did I do wrong”.
- The teachers persecute her. They seek to have her expelled because they believe that her presence is contaminating the other students. They want to prove that she is coloured. They measure her skull which is too broad. Her hair is too frizzy. They beat her. The canings become more severe because she is shamefully black.
- The teacher beats her increasingly harder in order to provoke a reaction so as to give a reason to expel her.
- The Afrikaans believe that her inferior coloured skin is contaminating and undermining their purity and superiority.
For Sandra, the scorn and humiliation that she suffers are so severe and so personally devastating that she would risk everything to escape it. The humiliation strips her of her confidence, and her self-esteem. She is constantly made to feel inferior and is uncomfortable and insecure.
Sandra identifies herself as a coloured person
- Although officially classified as a “white” person, she soon identifies with the coloured people because she feels more comfortable with them. She feels that she can be more loving with Petrus and is more fulfilled as a person (happy).
- Sandra’s relationship with her coloured boyfriend Petrus provides freedom from humiliation. He makes her feel more “complete” because he provides, initially, emotional and sexual satisfaction. She does not find this same degree of well-being with her white suitors.
- Sandra sacrifices her family and the material privileges that belong to the dominant white Afrikaan society in order to find a place where she is comfortable. For her own peace of mind she must give up so much to achieve a degree of happiness that follows from her life among the coloured people. However, such security comes at a terrible price. As Abraham tells her, “if you don’t come now, you will never see your family again. I promise you.”
- Sandra legally reclassifies her status to “coloured” because she fears that she could lose her children if she remains legally “white”. However, she must suffer the consequences of living with people who are judged as inferior and have no rights.
Personal challenges/ hardship:
- Petrus becomes violent and cannot cope with the stress and the changes. He scapegoats Sandra and blames her for his misfortune.
- The coloured people often are suspicious of her and think that she has an unfair advantage.
- When she is forced to leave Petrus to protect her children and her own lives, she is completely destitute (poverty-stricken).
- Her father refuses any contact with her and does not open her letters. He does not provide any assistance. She is completely on her own.
Sometimes it is hard to balance belonging to a group with keeping one’s individual identity.
It is relatively easy to balance your needs with the group’s if you share similar views, values and ideals. If you share the same goals and want to do the same things and have similar dreams then the group can give a person a strong sense of satisfaction.
For example, Abraham identifies very strongly with the white racist ideology of the South African system. He shares their views and values and as long as his daughter is classified as “white” then he is comfortable with their policies of segregation. His sense of self as a white Afrikaan merges with the group’s ideals and values. He therefore insists that his daughter must also follow these values; they are so important to him that he is prepared to disown his daughter. (His ultimatum after her affair with Petrus: “If you don’t come with us this instant, you will never see your family again, I promise you.”
During her darkest moments, her father Abraham still refuses contact with her and she is forced to rely on her own very limited resources. (Specific comment/ example/ quote from movie)… Her problems are compounded and she experiences even greater conflict because Petrus eventually sees her white skin as a “curse” and blames her for their woes, especially after their dwellings are bulldozed and reclaimed by the Afrikaan government for redevelopment.
Sandra’s relationship with Petrus brings her not only freedom from the humiliation but also an opportunity to explore her sexuality unencumbered by the rules and attitudes of the whites. He makes her feel more “complete” which alludes to the importance of both emotional and sexual satisfaction in her life. She does not find this same degree of well-being with her white suitors.
Sandra sacrifices her family and the material privileges that belong to the dominant white Afrikaan society in order to find a place where she is comfortable. She realises she will never be secure and fulfilled as an individual within the racist white Afrikaan society. She is made to feel constantly embarrassed by her skin colour. For her own peace of mind she must give up so much to achieve a degree of happiness that follows from her life among the coloured people. However, such security comes at a terrible price. As Abraham tells her, “if you don’t come now, you will never see your family again. I promise you.”
Not only does her relationship with Petrus lead to change, but our search for self is often driven by the need to find a comfortable and secure space within the group. Driven by her adverse experiences among the white community, Sandra increasingly realises that she is more comfortable with the coloured people. With Petrus, Sandra feels less trammeled, less ridiculed and happier. “l like him” Sandra said to her mother, though her parents both oppose her decision to stay with Petrus. However, life with Petrus leads to further changes in her identity.
Sometimes our identity is there somewhere, just under the “skin”.
When Sandra’s mother gives her the doll, there is a feeling that Sandra has come home. She had always felt a sense of comfort clinging to the doll that loved her unconditionally — a doll that was colour-blind. There is also a sense that Sandra has recovered some of her special loving emotions that she shares with her mother and that her mother has poignantly suppressed because of her husband’s conditioned sense of supremacy. Perhaps, even, this love has been strengthened through absence. It is a doll that Sandra will continue to treasure.