Skin Essay Identity And Belonging

Sandra’s search for a place to belong, Dr Jennifer Minter, English Works Notes, 2015

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.

  1. See Sample Essay: Sandra and Identity and Difference
  2. See Key Concepts for Skin Deep
  3. Back to Summary page: Identity

In this Context you will consider many issues related to questions of a sense of self and how we gain the feeling of belonging to a family, group, place or community. You will ask questions like: Who am I? Where do I belong? What things have shaped me into the person I am today? How have they done so? The title of the Context gives equal emphasis to identity and belonging, suggesting that each is related to the other. The groups we choose to belong to and the ways we connect with others help to form our own identity. Together, these issues go to the heart of who we are and how we present ourselves to the world.

What is the Best Form to Write your Response in the Exam or SAC?

Expository, Persuasive or Imaginative Writing?

In Section B of the VCE English exam your instructions are to write a response either in the form of an expository, persuasive or imaginative piece of writing. In your SAC you could be given the same instruction. What is the best form to write your response if studying the Context Exploring Issues of Identity and Belonging?

Write your response in a form you are familiar and comfortable with. Each form presents its opportunities and challenges.

Expository style of writing: Can be in the form of an essay, personal reflection, personal letter or biography. Its features include a formal style, serious tone and a reasoned, considered discussion of the prompt/stimulus material. Its purpose is to explain or inform and to consider different points of view on the prompt/stimulus material. Persuasive style of writing: Can be in the form of an essay, opinion piece, letter to the editor or editorial. Its features include the use of persuasive language techniques, language for presenting and sustaining an argument. Its purpose is to persuade ie. to convince the reader that your point of view is correct. Imaginative style of writing: Can be in the form of a short story, drama ie. scene from a play, monologue or poetry. Its features include poetic or descriptive language, can use informal or colloquial language if appropriate to characters, narrative voice. Its purpose is to entertain, to make the reader think about ideas in a new way, to move the reader emotionally.

Incorporating Context Ideas

In your written pieces, it is very important to show that you understand the Context ideas in general as well as specific ideas about Identity and Belonging that are presented in your selected texts. Think about some of these ideas when creating your own pieces of writing:

Discuss how a character’s decisions reveal a key idea, for example that staying with the group is more important than asserting their individuality in order to develop a clearer sense of identity. This might be balanced by reference to another character in the same (or different) text who does leave the group in search of greater independence to develop their individual identity. Discuss how the narrative’s events and turning points reveal a key idea, for example that a feeling of not belonging to any groups in society underpins a character’s actions, actions that lead to personal crisis. This might be used to show that a sense of belonging is critical to a robust sense of self and identity. Draw on character’s reflections to illustrate a key idea, for example, that a yearning for a greater sense of self is being stifled by the need to conform to society’s pressures.

Create a character that has a similar identity crisis but show how gender can be an added factor at critical times of an individual’s life. Write a short story that has a similar theme, for example, that individuals use masks to disguise the fact that they are not authentic since they have no sense of genuine self. Write short pieces that demonstrate an issue, for example, that choosing not to belong to a group can bring many personal rewards but just as many regrets. You might create your own character who writes a short farewell speech to a group, a letter and a diary entry. Some Suggested Writing using three texts that are being studied in the Context of Identity and Belonging:

Skin, film directed by Anthony Fabian
Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, Play by Ray Lawler
Growing Up Asian in Australia, Narrative Edited by Alice Pung If the prompt refers to ideas about the strength and power of the family unit in creating a sense of belonging, you could write:

An expository reflection on what it is like to discover that you are an outsider in your own family, referring to the moments in which Sandra is confronted with this realisation in Skin. An imaginative piece in the form of a scene from a play about a group of unrelated people who create their own version of a family, drawing on ideas from Summer of the Seventeenth Doll. A persuasive editorial on the need for local communities to offer migrant families more opportunities to integrate into mainstream Australia, with references to ideas in Growing Up Asian in Australia. If the prompt refers to ideas about the power of the group to exert pressure on the individual, you could write:

An imaginative response in the form of a reflection by the young waitress on the incident in the cafe in Tony Ayres ‘Silence’ in Growing Up Asian in Australia. An expository essay on the ways in which membership of a group can inhibit individual growth and change, with reference to Summer of the Seventeenth Doll. An expository essay that discusses how racist beliefs can be transformed into discriminatory social exchanges and legislation, with reference to Sandra’s experience of growing up during apartheid in South Africa in Skin. If the prompt refers to ideas about developing a strong sense of self as we mature, you could write:

An imaginative dialogue between the ‘blue-eyed Tans’ and the ‘brown-haired Wongs’ when they first meet the Chew children, with references to Joo-Inn Chew’s ‘Chinese Dancing, Bendigo Style’ in Growing Up Asian in Australia. An imaginary story about a good girl who always tries to do the right thing, but the harder she tries, the more her actions are seen as rebellious and disrespectful, until she has no choice b ut to accept that she is bad. Draw on Sandra’s experience in Skin. An expository essay on the ways in which our perception of ourselves change as we grow older, and why some people find it difficult to adjust their self-image as they age, drawing on ideas from Summer of the Seventeenth Doll. If the prompt refers to ideas about isolation and alienation, you could write:

A formal document that makes an official apology to Sandra Laing for the years of emotional trauma inflicted upon her in Skin. An imaginative short story that reveals ways in which disconnection from a group can destabilise a person’s sense of identity, leaving them feeling isolated and insecure, with reference to ideas from Summer of the Seventeenth Doll. An imaginative short story that reflects on the situation of a young person who experiences discrimination at school, with references to ideas and incidents in Growing Up Asian in Australia.

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