Book Review: When She Was White

When She Was White: The Story Of A Family Divided By Race, by Judith Stone

[Spoiler alert.] She never was white. This book is a strange case of a book written about a celebrity case of racial categorization from the days of apartheid in South Africa that somehow remains famous enough for people to want to keep writing about it and to help the overweight and sadly traumatized coloured woman who as a child was part of a sensational battle between her family and South African authorities about her racial status. While her parents and most of her siblings were tolerably white, or at least light-skinned enough to pass, the subject of this book, Sandra Liang, faced a great deal of struggle in her life because her strict and somewhat abusive father Abraham was insistent that his daughter be considered white when it was (and remains) obvious enough to anyone who sees her that she is clearly not white. To be sure, there are various possibilities as to how it is that two apparently white Afrikaaners could have an obvious part-black daughter, and the author herself does not foreclose either of the obvious possibilities (either that her mother was unfaithful with a black man, at least twice apparently, or that there was a black person or people in the family’s not particularly distant past whose skin pigmentation genes came up craps for Sandra). The reader is left to sort with the unreliability of the narration of this story, as it should be.

This book is a bit more than 300 pages long and it is a biography of a somewhat unconventional kind. The author seems to relish in expressing the blank spots in the memory or documentation as well as the essentially post-modern and unreliable nature of a biography of a woman who was internationally famous as a girl because of the fight between her family and the South African state over her racial status. Abraham Liang’s insistence that his daughter be viewed as white and go to a white-only school led to a great deal of bullying from racist classmates who could see, plainly, that the girl was not white. While the author tries to pooh pooh the issue of race, the gap between his presentation of his daughter and what anyone could see forms the basis of a tale about how it is that a girl who could not fit in white society felt herself driven to elope with an older and married black man and find herself struggling in the underclass around blacks unable to enjoy the status to which she was born, and unable to complete her education and find a better future for herself despite the interest her story has brought periodically from European (especially German) journalism sources.

Ultimately this book is a tale that is by turns tragic and inspirational. We see a woman whose legal struggles over identity brought her a great deal of suffering. The author is pretty melodramatic in describing that suffering, which includes struggles with mental illness, self-destructive habits when it comes to budgeting and parenting, a lot of relationship drama that included liasons with a series of black men and even some legal trouble because of her ambiguous identity. At times the subject of the author’s attentive care seems to present herself as being oblivious to the most obvious questions, and unable to recognize the larger world in which she lives and its drama as she attempts to make a decent life for herself with the proceeds of her story as they have come to her. The author leaves the reader with the idea that Sandra may, as a middle aged woman, be improving to the point where she might be able to live a decent life even with the trauma of her past and the death and estrangement of most of her family. If the reader is less sanguine, there is likely always going to be another “Where is she now?” story to keep us updated on how she is doing every few years, I suppose.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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