Elevate Difference

When She Was White: The True Story of a Family Divided By Race

It would be hard to find a story more inherently dramatic than that of Sandra Laing, one that can show in a more complete and complex manner the ramifications of South Africa’s apartheid regime. With coloring distinctly different from that of her white family, Sandra Laing was expelled from her white school in 1965 and reclassified as “coloured” (of mixed-race descent), then, after her family engaged in legal battle, was made ‘white” once again; in the throes of this conflict, at the age of fifteen, Laing fell in love and ran away with a black man, with whom she had several children. Finding herself more comfortable with her lover’s family, she applied, once more, for racial reclassification. In the meantime, she lived with the inevitable hardships that came with being classified as “black” in South Africa while remaining the object of international journalism, gained and lost contact with members of her white family, and tried, as best she could, to ignore larger political structures and the pain they had caused her.

In the delicately titled When She Was White, Judith Stone skillfully limns the high drama of Sandra Laing’s story. Stone spent several years working in South Africa, interviewing Laing and many other individuals connected to the story, as well as researching the alarming intricacies of the apartheid government. The result is a thoughtful, moving book. Although Stone occasionally veers into the sanctimonious when describing the plight of black people under apartheid, she portrays the character of Sandra Laing, and the drastic psychological ramifications of her early life, with a delicate, skillful eye. As is often the case in a far-reaching biography, the events of Laing’s later life cannot quite match the drama of her childhood and adolescence, but by including occasional interludes into her own analysis of Laing’s current character Stone successfully keeps the book compelling.

Particularly for readers not well-versed in modern South African history, Judith Stone’s thoughtful biography is valuable. It tells an intense story without overwhelming readers with intensity, delves into interesting aspects of both South African apartheid and racism itself, explores the complex nature of memory, and introduces its audience to a woman, a character, more complex than the news bite drama of her tale appears.

Written by: Gemma Cooper-Novack, June 10th 2008