(L-R) Sandra Laing with Actresses Ella Ramangwane and Sophie Okonedo
I recently had the privilege of seeing the film Skin, starring Sophie Okonedo. The true story of Sandra Laing, Skin chronicles the life of a girl born to white Afrikaner parents in 1955. Sandra's skin is inexplicably dark and her hair tightly curled. In Apartheid South Africa, this can only be a tale of heartbreak and struggle.
Sandra's appearance is explained as a "throwback," a genetic occurrence of enough latent black genes in each of her parents to produce a "coloured" child. Sandra's life is defined by her skin color and hair texture, despite her parents' white status and her father's fight to have her classified as white to match that of her parents and her upbringing.
This movie spoke to me on so many levels. Sure, there was the raw, human emotion of Sandra and her family's struggle, but there was also the internal struggle she felt. The juxtaposition of who she was on the outside—a black woman in Apartheid South Africa, and who she was on the inside—a white girl interrupted by the ugly truth of race, predjudice and injustice.
While I cannot identify with Apartheid, I do know the feeling of being seen as one thing while actually being another. Ironically, my situation is the exact opposite of hers; while people saw her as black and she was raised as white, I was raised as black and people often see me as white, Latina or some sort of Mediterranean ethnicity. After a long-held hatred for the word "exotic," I have finally learned to embrace and accept it when used to describe my appearance.
Watching this film, I revisited moments of wondering how my more traditionally African American-appearing brothers' lives differ from mine. I attempted to imagine Sandra's isolation and loneliness and failed, miserably. It was a sad and sorry wake up call for me regarding just how important the hue of one's skin really is in our world and our society. Try as we might to claim that we have evolved socially and that we care more for the person inside, rather than the shade of the skin on the outside—this film is a gripping reminder that the world and even family is not colorblind.
Sandra Laing's story is one that everybody of every color and ethnicity should see. This is a film that truly got under my Skin.