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When She Was White: The True Story of a Family Divided by Race Hardcover – April 4, 2007

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

The Sandra Laing case made international news as an example of South Africa's apartheid at its nuttiest, when, in 1966, the nine-year-old Laing, who was significantly darker than her white-skinned parents, was reclassified as Coloured and expelled from the white school she was attending. At 11, she was classified white again, and at 26, through her own efforts, became Coloured again. Laing had a hard life, especially after she ran away from home at 14 with the first of a succession of married black men. Although an anti-apartheid poster child outside of South Africa, Laing's memory so often fails her that Stone's book becomes an exercise in recovered memory, coupled with a reliance upon the remote expertise of various "lawyers, historians, geneticists, sociologists, psychologists, and some of the South-African journalists who'd covered her story over the years." Stone is at her most successful in eliciting recollections of misery and family strife. She fills in the blanks with "official documents, government records, newspaper archives, and interviews" with Laing's friends, family and other community members. But Laing is, unfortunately, too frail a vessel upon which to hang all this, along with digressive minilectures on genetics, history, anthropology and economics. (Apr.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

In 1966 in South Africa, Sandra Laing, 10, was reclassified as "Coloured" and expelled from her white boarding school and taken home by police to her white, pro-apartheid family. She told herself that it happened because she punched her classmates who tormented her for her light brown skin and frizzy hair. Her family was able to have her reclassified again as white, but at 16 she eloped with a black man, raised several children in a poor township, and was reclassified once more as black. Her father and siblings disowned her, though she still dreams of reunion with her mother. Her case has received national and international news coverage over the years, including in a documentary film. Now American journalist Stone interviews Sandra and sets her personal memories, patchy as they sometimes may be, against the political changes--and the things that have not changed--in the new South Africa. A riveting family drama of the arbitrariness and cruelty of apartheid's racial classification system. Hazel Rochman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Miramax; First Edition first Printing edition (April 4, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0786868988
  • ISBN-13: 978-0786868988
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (33 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #865,110 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

59 of 64 people found the following review helpful By Dera R Williams VINE VOICE on April 6, 2007
Format: Hardcover
In 1965, Sandra Laing was pulled out of her boarding school classroom in South Africa and sent home to her parents. Her misdeed? She was of obvious mixed-blood in a white only school. Thus began years of litigation and anguish that would find Sandra reclassified from white to coloured and back to white again. Writer Judith Stone was assigned to bring this unusual story, When She was White, to life in print. She spent over five years with Sandra, beginning in 2001, interviewing, shadowing her and getting to the heart of Sandra's horrific nightmare and the insanity of a country that spawned it.

When Sandra was born to Sannie and Abraham Laing in 1955, they noticed that she was a darker hue, thick lips and that her curly hair became more so over the years. Still, she was their child and despite the whispers that Sannie had been with a black man, Sandra was raised as a white child. Was her appearance a result of infidelity, a "throwback" genetic quirk or was their black blood flowing through the bloodlines? Nevertheless, the government reclassified Sandra from being white to an identity of coloured.

Sandra had no idea why she was expelled from school, believing for a long time, it was because she hit other children when they teased and harassed her on a daily basis because she looked coloured or black. Abraham Laing began litigation to have his daughter reinstated as White and reinstated in school. It was a long battle that eventually went to the Supreme Court but in 1966, Sandra was reclassified as White again. Her reclassification angered many Afrikaners who felt their blood was being corrupted. It took another year to find a school that would take her; finally she was placed in a Convent school where she was finally happy.
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24 of 24 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on May 29, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Sandra Laing was born in the wrong place at the wrong time. South Africa was in the midst of apartheid, and the little girl didn't fit in to the country's strict classifications of white, black and Coloured. Instead she baffled family and neighbors in Eastern Transvaal by sprouting kinky hair that shaped her dark complexion, much to the dismay of her ethnically Dutch, Afrikaner parents. Judith Stone writes the history of this troubled girl, from her first encounters with racism all the way to her middle-aged life in the present day.

Sandra's parents tried to turn a blind eye to their daughter's physical differences, but the white boarding school she attended would do no such thing. Parents and faculty were outraged that an obviously non-white student was being admitted to their school and mingling with their fair-skinned children. Apartheid was about separation and segregation, and Sandra was getting in the way of their long-established system. Her mother was accused of sleeping with a black man, and her father had to constantly defend his paternity. Admitting to some "color-mixing" in their ancestry was not acceptable in such a polarized climate, even though this had gone on unspoken in South Africa for decades.

When Sandra was finally escorted off the grounds of her school, she had no idea what she did wrong. Her father was launching his own private campaign to keep her white; Sandra didn't see things in color yet, and her mom and dad were determined to keep it that way. But she did see that her parents treated her differently from her brothers, and she did notice the disgustful looks of those who had been in charge of her care. She knew that something about her was just not right.
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20 of 20 people found the following review helpful By Christo on June 30, 2008
Format: Paperback
Firstly I have to admit that I haven't finished reading the book, I will edit my review when done. But I was curious about what other have said about it, so I paged to this review page.

I bought this book because I vaguely remember the story of Sandra Laing from newspapers etc. as a kid growing up in South Africa. She is quite a bit older than me, I was rather young when the incident happened, and I cannot remember much about all the controversy.

I mainly bought this book because I am quite interested in the genealogy of Afrikaner families. I have spent several years now documenting my own heritage. Frankly, I am surprised that the case of Sandra Laing stands out so much, as we Afrikaners are a creole nation who speaks a pidgin language - and I say this with pride. After 356 years in Africa, I don't believe that any of us are "pure whites" whatever that means. I guess it is not a well known fact (even amongst Afrikaners) that Afrikaners have on the average 6 to 12% of non-European blood (depending on which researcher's works you read). However, the majority of that proportion is Asian blood (particularly East Indian). In my own case I have verified this through DNA testing and genealogy - only because I was curious - my self-guestimate is 1/16th. I am sure the situation in the USA is not dissimilar.

It is well known that people were formally classified as belonging to a race after 1948 (though I submit that Apartheid existed long before that). Physical appearance played some role. This was one of the stupidest acts of the then National Party. My family looked European, and we happened to have been classified as white. Though I know that we are not - completely.

So why in the case of Sandra Laing was her appearance more African than many others?
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