‘Skin’ is Sandra Laing’s story: The story of a black woman born to white Afrikaner parents. The event of this child’s birth had the potential of breaking down the racist norms of the society and was, therefore, a threat to the whole system.
In the film, Sandra's parents and brother accept her as part of their family while she is still a young child. They ignore the fact that she is not white and she grows up believing that she is white. It is when she goes to school, the only black child in a white school, that she is made aware of difference. It is a traumatic realisation. And from being a carefree, happy child, she slowly withdraws into herself and becomes quite introverted.
Her father fights desperately to have his child acknowledged as white. He publicises her story, takes up the fight in the courts and even has the matter raised in parliament. And oddly enough he wins. A law is passed, in apartheid South Africa nogal, which states that race will no longer be defined by skin colour but by the race of one’s parents. That satisfies Mr Laing because it leaves his own racial identity intact. His fight for Sandra is really a fight to retain his racial purity. She has to be white so that he can remain white.
But being constantly reviled and unable to escape her skin colour, Sandra comes to accept that she is black. Her relationship with Petrus Zwane, a person with whom she is comfortable, a person who does not look at her in terms of colour but relates to her as a human being, helps her to this realisation. And she makes a choice; even though she is classified white, she chooses to be black. It is not a big heroic act of defiance, it is a simple act of survival in a country which believes in the segregation of the races. No one in the black community looks down upon her for her skin colour and she can interact with others in a normal way.
But the bond between Sandra and her mother is very strong. And Sandra’s longing to remain in touch with her mother is something that her husband Petrus cannot accept. And it destroys their marriage. In her longing for her mother, Petrus feels negated, feels that he is not good enough for her and begins to see her as a white woman and himself as a black man and all that that implies in a racist society. And it seems he does live up to the stereotype. And Sandra belongs nowhere. In her birth family she is seen as black and in her own family, her husband regards her as white.
It is a struggle to be human in a situation in which being human comes second to being white or black.
As stated in the opening paragraph, Sandra’s birth had the potential to change the whole society; it could have been a blessing but because it was a threat to white supremacy, it could only be regarded as a curse in her white family and in the white community. South Africans have been conditioned from birth to accept racial difference and in 1994 we changed our constitution but that did not change our understanding of racial difference. If it had, Sandra’s brothers would have been reunited with her by now. But she relegated herself to the Black community and there still can be no communion even now. Richard Dawkins speaks of the need to overcome one’s social conditioning in order to evolve to higher levels of civilized behaviour. In South Africa, we may be at the beginning of unravelling our conditioning under colonialism and apartheid.