Identity and Belonging Karen Ford May 14, 2012 Skin – directed by Anthony Fabian Skin has so much power on so many levels. It is both empowering and disabling. Protagonist Sandra Laing proves to be a survivor, but at what cost? She is alienated from her family, her home and her identity because of South Africa’s ‘‘Population Regeneration Act’’. For a long time xenophobia, fear and racism have been enmeshed and hidden within government policy. The issues explored in Skin are no different to those sometimes raised in connection with British settlement of Australia, the stolen generation and Australia’s asylum seeker policies.
More specifically, a court case last year in which commentator Andrew Bolt was accused of racial vilification touched on attitudes reflected in Skin. Mr Bolt’s comments regarding ‘‘fair-skinned Aboriginal people’’ were found to be in breach of the Racial Discrimination Act. A theme in both the Bolt case and Skin is the way skin colour is used as a weapon against individuals and their rights as human beings. One of the ‘‘disabling’’ elements of Skin is that so much of the South African landscape looks so much like the Australian outback.
It is ironic that the beauty of the landscape is countered by the ugliness of racism where the rights of individuals to belong are less valued than the fear of those powerful few. Is the landscape the only aspect we have in common? Sandra’s question — What did I do wrong? — could also be the question posed by any person rejected and isolated on the basis of ‘‘difference’’. Sandra is neither white nor black, and as a result is denied a happy life. Though the film traces her life over 30 years, with legislative change along the way, a more entrenched culture of discrimination remains.
Though the end of the film brings happiness to Sandra, with her tuck shop, doesn’t the fact that her two brothers refuse to have contact with her suggest a lamentation for true equality and the existence of persecution? In some ways, Skin is more about Sandra’s father than it is about her. He is a very complex character who insists justice be pursued. But what kind of justice is it that is based on denial? Abraham’s insistence on having Sandra reclassified ‘‘white’’ is not so much for her benefit. He admits he is doing it ‘‘for all of us’’.
To have the young Sandra attend a white school and be subjected to furious media inquiries and to drag her to face a courtroom does not suggest an understanding of her needs as much as his pursuit of legal justice. Abraham needs her to be ‘‘white’’ to assuage his own ‘‘black genes’’ and racist philosophy. Working with the Text Skin is all about identity. Sandra is ‘‘born’’ one thing but ‘‘taught’’ she is another. Throughout the film she is ‘‘punished’’ for committing a crime — that of being neither black nor white.
Perhaps the greatest tragedy is that her own family rejects her because she does not conform to the ‘‘Afrikaans’’ ways inherent in the National Party to which her family belongs. The nature-nurture divide is reinforced throughout the film and the idea that ‘‘without connection to others there is no me’’ (2011 VCAA English Exam) can be linked to the film in many ways. It is skin that causes tension with her father; it is skin that causes her to be humiliated in school and to gravitate towards the black workers on her farm.
It is skin that forms an attachment to Petrus, the black employee and first male to show her any sense of happiness and comfort; it is skin that ultimately causes her to be abused by her husband and which made her a reference point for the multiracial elections of 1994 and the victory by Mandela’s African National Congress. Living among the black community, Sandra is confronted with racism from within — a racism created by racism. After the Government Issue destruction of the homes, Sandra and Petrus are exiled into the bush along with the many others exiled on the basis of their skin.
One can understand Petrus’ frustration and malaise as he rejects Sandra because she is white. There is truth in his alcohol-infused dirge: ‘‘They treat us like animals … and we’re supposed to believe we’re human … ’’ The audience must wonder how anyone is this predicament would feel a sense of belonging. Indeed, several instances in the film reinforce Sandra’s literal and metaphorical nomadism. She is shown coming to and leaving an environment; she is shown walking over the country and back again to find a place where she can belong.
Sandra is constantly moving or being moved to find a ‘‘home’’. Even at the end of the film, when Sandra is shown happily working inside her rainbow-coloured tuck shop, it is a makeshift add-on to her brick unit. So where does that leave the text and the prompt? What does Sandra have connection with? How does the film reflect the idea of connection and identity? Sandra wants only to connect. It is those around her who prevent her connection — hence preventing her happiness and sense of belonging.
Prejudice and bigotry — even from her own family — are endemic in those who believe there is something wrong in being different, something to scorn and deride. Throughout the film, though, there is one place where Sandra finds a connection, and that is with other women. Sandra is supported and empowered by the women in the film, including the black workers on the family property. The bond of motherhood connects them and, regardless of location, women find support in other women. The women pass on her letters.
It is her mother who struggles to maintain a relationship with her; it is Petrus’ mother who supports and cuddles her during their exile and it is her mother she seeks out following her abuse. It is the women who reflect the importance of belonging through kindness, compassion and nurturing. The power of women to override the political and cultural divide, and embrace connection, is the empowering force in Skin. In the end, the film confirms that connection does not have to mean a physical or even emotional connection. It can be a spiritual one, and this is what Skin celebrates.
Sandra’s struggle is less about skin colour than it is about knowing that where we find happiness is where we belong. And for Sandra, that is a simple life helping, caring and supporting those less fortunate from her Rainbow Tuck Shop. Identity and Belonging – Sample prompts * Conflicts can strengthen our understanding of where we belong. * Belonging enriches and challenges identity. * Choosing not to belong may be detrimental but rewarding. ‘Identity and Belonging’ quotations list An identity would seem to be arrived at by the way in which the person faces nd uses his experience. (James Baldwin – Actor)) From the beginning each human embryo has its own genetic identity. (Robert Casey) The value of identity is that so often with it comes purpose. (Richard Grant – US writer) We all need a past – that’s where our sense of identity comes from. (Penelope Lively – English writer) I think history is inextricably linked to identity. If you don’t know your history, if you don’t know your family, who are you? (Mary Pipher) We are shaped by our thoughts, we become what we think. (Buddha)
You can’t change the past but you can change the way you view it. (Anon) To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest achievement. Ralph Waldo Emerson What a man can be he must be. Abraham Maslow Sticks in a bundle are unbreakable. Kenyan Proverb Yes, your home is your castle, but it is also your identity and your possibility to open to others. David Soul – US writer We may have different religions, different languages, different coloured skin, but we all belong to the human race. Kofi Annan – ex President of the United Nations
Being human signifies, for each one of us, belonging to a class, a society, a country, a continent and a civilization. Claude Levi-Strauss Man is made by his belief. As he believes, so he is. Baghavid Gita The value of identity is that it so often with it comes purpose. Richard R. Grant Our deeds determine us, as much as we determine our deeds. George Eliot Topic ‘Sometimes we learn more about ourselves from our enemies than from our friends. ’ ‘When you know who you are, you know where you belong. ’ ‘Without connection to others there is no me. ’ ‘Having a sense of being different makes it difficult to belong. ’