My mom used to work as a gate agent at the Salt Lake City International Airport and would often come home with stories, some good, some bad, some absolutely horrible beyond words. I still remember a lot of the horrible ones, but one of them came to mind after I watched Skin on Netflix streaming.
She was working at the Info Counter (doesn’t exist anymore, but this was probably late-90’s), and was looking out at lines of passengers, when she heard a South African white woman (loudly) saying,
Black people aren’t people. Black people aren’t people.
To her companion in fucking evil and apparently just hilarious laughter. And once my mom did some quick line evaluation and realized that this woman would be her next customer, she simply couldn’t take it. There was no way should politely help a customer that had and was still engaging in this kind of hate speech, despite having an incredible talent for public relations. (Agents were expected to deal with and tolerate massive amounts of unprovoked verbal abuse, and you should have heard the stories of entitled misogyny that she came home with.) So she quickly made arrangements to take her upcoming break, and had to walk away.
At the time that she told me this, I was so horrified and stunned that I simply couldn’t wrap my brain around it. Apartheid was something I understood from textbooks just like Jim Crow here, but some part of my brain didn’t want to accept that people truly did think, feel and behave that way. I’m not saying we live in anything but a racist country even now, but we’ve changed our racism away from the open brazen sort to the quiet, insidious kind that’s harder to prove and endlessly tiring to root out. The kind that you can avoid seeing if you’re in the right ethnic group: white privilege.
I think that’s why movies like Skin are so important. For too many of us, history, even recent history, is abstract and we can’t be bothered to be angry about continuing injustices because we don’t understand what it feels like. Films like this both educate and personalize injustice.
Skin brings to light the illogical horror of apartheid era race relations by following Sandra Laing, the unusually dark daughter of Afrikaner parents, as she navigated a system designed to simultaneously uplift (based on her white heritage and classification) and oppress her (based on her physical appearance). The denial with which Afrikaners in the film approach the idea that they themselves are largely biracial is something beyond my comprehension.
In fact, the whole point of the film is to shed light on how the incomprehensible cannot be ignored just because it is painful. It is a film that is not subtle, but doesn’t need voiceovers or far-fetched plot points to get the message across. I’m not sure there is a way to make a film like this subtle, because the real oppression is so horrible that anyone with an ounce of empathy will share in outrage and anger. Like Rabbit-Proof Fence, Skin wants us to know that racist policies (in these cases borne from imperial rule) have real world consequences for families and the daily lives of fellow human beings. (Being based on real world events with real people helps in this regard as well.)
Skin doesn’t just want us to shake our heads about the shame that was past oppression (but seriously, the first race inclusive elections were in 1994, so we’re not talking about the far past here, either). We are meant to think about the lasting impact that racist actions will have on others and hopefully make better choices with understanding and compassion.
The film has its moments of happiness, but they are often bittersweet or short-lived. As she ages, Sandra is less and less able to hide from cruel treatment behind her parents, she is reclassified multiple times, humiliated and beaten. Once she is old enough that her parents start looking for suitors, she’s exposed to young men who at their most benevolent are willing to get to know her despite her appearance. At worst, a man feels that since she’s going to struggle to find another Afrikaner suitor, he is entitled to do with her what he wants; and after fighting him off, her father turns a blind eye to bruises.
Eventually Sandra falls for a vegetable seller who unfortunately is black. He doesn’t treat her badly for her appearance, unlike other suitors, teachers and peers, but genuinely tries to make her happy. Her love of Petrus leads her to be violently disowned, imprisoned, and eventually forced to hide her official classification for fear of separation from her new family. Living with her new community is hard, and they face forced relocation. Relationships are strained and eventually Sandra leaves Petrus with her children and finds a way to survive on her own. Sandra’s story is one of determination and struggle, and she is certainly an admirable but sad character.
But through all of this struggle where Sandra never gives up, she never stops loving her parents, particularly her mother. But she knows that apartheid laws and regulations (and the hate filled attitudes behind them) have permanently destroyed hope of real reconciliation with those she loves. When interviewed about the beginning of the end of apartheid, she says that it is too late for her.
But it’s not too late for us.