'When She Was White' Sandra Laing was born in South Africa during apartheid. When she was 10, she was expelled from her all-white boarding school because she was "colored." A year later, she was reclassified as white. A new book chronicles her experience.

'When She Was White'

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Now we turn to a story about a girl torn between two worlds. Sandra Laing was born in 1955 in South Africa during apartheid. At age 10, she was expelled from her all-white boarding school for being colored. A year later, she was reclassified as white. Her painful story underscores the arbitrary nature and injustice of the apartheid system. Writer Judith Stone spent over five years interviewing Sandra Laing. The result is a new book, "When She Was White: The Story of a Family Divided by Race." Judith Stone joins us now from our bureau in New York. Welcome.

Ms. JUDITH STONE (Author, "When She Was White: The True Story of a Family Divided by Race"): Thanks for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: How on earth did you hear about this?

Ms. STONE: I had read about Sandra in the year 2000, when she was reunited with her white mother after 27-year estrangement. But it didn't come in to my life until a year later when I was approached by an editor at Miramax Books, and they thought what they would do is find somebody to collaborate with Sandra and help her tell her story as a first-person memoir. I was delighted to be asked. I went to South Africa, and when I arrived, I discovered a couple of things that were going to make that memoir difficult. One was that Sandra had some of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, including memory loss. And I saw that the project would be less Sandra telling me her story than the two of us together filling in some of the blanks.

MARTIN: Speaking of the most important missing piece, I guess, is how did this happen to begin with? She was born to two white parents, but she had significantly darker skin. In the book, there are many photographs. (unintelligible) you know, obviously, what I'm thinking is that there was a liaison in there somewhere.

Ms. STONE: Here's the story. Sandra's parents were white Afrikaners, as you say. She looked like a mixed race person, what was called colored then -according to the labeling of apartheid. Sandra's parents swore before God and a magistrate that she was their biological child, and there was no DNA testing at the time. Now when you say there was a liaison at some point, undoubtedly.

Geneticists figure today that any living Afrikaner - that is a descendant of the white Dutch settlers who first came to South Africa in 1652 - any living Afrikaner has probably about 11 percent non-white genes. And as a member of the African National Congress said to me on one of my trips, if DNA testing had existed during apartheid, no Afrikaner family could have called itself white.

MARTIN: Well, how did the government determine race and classify people? I mean, at what point did that kick in? At birth? Upon enrollment in school? And how was this done? Was it just visual?

Ms. STONE: It was done at birth, but there could be changes made in the classification as somebody grew up. When Sandra was born, the key criteria for determining race were acceptance and appearance. And Sandra certainly wasn't accepted by the people at her school, and she looked like a person of mixed race with exuberantly African hair and darker skin than other members of her family. But these key criteria led to some really strange outcomes.

And in 1962, there was a famous case in South Africa. A Chinese businessman who was classified under the apartheid laws as colored - sub-category, other Asian - got 300 of his colleagues and neighbors to signed a petition saying they accepted him as white. And by law, he had to have his classification changed. You can see how arbitrary and crazy the laws were.

MARTIN: And the classification, apparently, kicked in in Sandra's case again at age 10 when she was expelled from school for her skin color.

Ms. STONE: Yes.

MARTIN: What was that like for her? And how did her family react to this?

Ms. STONE: When Sandra was kicked out of school, her parents could have either gone to court or gone to what was called a Race Classification Appeal Board, where people who thought they were misclassified could go before a panel and plead their case. Well, they decided not to go before the Race Classification Appeal Board because had Sandra gone, she would have had to submit to these terrible, pseudo-scientific ridiculous tests. For example, the pencil test: A pencil was put in someone's hair and they were asked to bend forward. If the pencil fell through the hair, then the person was white. If the pencil is stuck, then they were colored.

What they chose to do was to take the case to the Supreme Court. They lost, and she was to remain colored. But then parliament changed the laws governing the criteria for determining race from appearance and acceptance to descent. If your parents were white, you were white. So Sandra was white again. She was sent to another white boarding school. Her parents were ecstatic. But when she was 15, she eloped with a black man.

And Sandra says she eloped because she thought her father didn't - her father found out she was dating a black man and stopped speaking to her. And she said I love Petrus, and I thought my father didn't love me. Her parents felt that they'd been betrayed in the worst way possible. Sandra never saw her father again or communicated with him.

MARTIN: I was going to ask you that. What happened? I mean, that was a long time ago. What happened to both parties? What happened to Sandra? What happened to the parents? And did they ever reconcile?

Ms. STONE: Sandra and her mother did reconcile. She reunited with her mother in the year 2000 and wanted to ask her mother for forgiveness. And this always surprised me. I said is there nothing you think your mother should be forgiven for herself? No, no. It's all my fault. I want to ask forgiveness. And in a funny way, having the burden of guilt lifted helped free her to begin to experience some of the anger.

MARTIN: We have this racial craziness in this country. You know, there was the whole one-drop rule. If you had one drop of black blood, you were classified as black. And I wanted to ask what you, as an American, draw from Sandra's story and the time that you spent in South Africa? Did it open up any insights for you about race and how to thing about race and what it means?

Ms. STONE: It's an arbitrary social categorization, and race classification can only cause tremendous pain. One thing that spending time with Sandra made me believe strongly is that not every story is a great triumph, that most of the people who are buffeted by the large forces of history just put one foot in front of another and want a happy life. Sandra wanted very simple things. She wanted a happy family, a home where she was safe, and a garden. And the structures of apartheid were such that those simple things were not allowed her. She has them now in post-apartheid South Africa. And she wants everyone else to have them, too.

MARTIN: Judith Stone is the author of "When She Was White: The Story of a Family Divided Through Race." She joined us from our New York bureau.

Judith, thanks again for being with us.

Ms. STONE: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: To read the first chapter of "When She Was White," visit us online at npr.org/tellmemore. And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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