In 1955 a child named Sandra Laing was born to white parents in South Africa. Soon after her birth, Sandra began to look less like her brother and parents and more like a mixed-race child, with dark skin and curly black hair. The story of what Sandra endured because of her appearance is the focus of author Judith Stone's book When She Was White: The True Story of a Family Divided by Race. Gayle talks to Judith about researching Sandra's life.
Judith says she was approached to write a book about Sandra and was immediately compelled by her complicated and fascinating story. "It would seem unbelievable if someone said it was fiction, and it is hard and painful to believe that it is the truth," Judith says. As a young girl, Judith says Sandra's race was officially changed four times and she was teased unmercifully. Judith also says Sandra's parents were at the center of local gossip, gossip, some speculating that Sandra's mother had an affair.
Judith says despite Sandra's appearance as a mixed-race person, there is reason to believe that she is the product of her white parents. "The social and genetic history of South Africa allows for the appearance of someone like Sandra in a white family," Judith says. Since 1652, when the first white people arrived in South Africa, Judith says there has been mixing and mingling of white and black genes. "Geneticists today estimate that any living Afrikaner—that is, a descendent of the first Dutch white settlers in South Africa—has at least 8 percent, and as many as 12 percent, nonwhite genes."
Struggling with her identity, Sandra left home as a teenager and eventually married and had children with a black man. The relationship caused a rift in her family, and Judith says Sandra became estranged from her parents. Today, Judith says Sandra lives as a mixed-race person in South Africa, is divorced from her husband and is the mother of five children.
While her father is dead, Sandra's mother and brothers are alive and the family is trying to rekindle their relationship. Now, with DNA technology, Judith says Sandra's oldest brother, who looks like his father, can be tested so they can determine whether or not the two were born to the same parents. So far, Judith says the testing has not taken place because after years of struggling with her race, Sandra is just now rebuilding a relationship with her family.