Apartheid And The Abuse of Science
In two scenes in SKIN we witness Sandra Laing being exposed to grim yet absurd attempts by the authorities to establish her race. At her school she is forced to endure a medical-style examination in which parts of her body are measured. Even more humiliating, are the series of tests and assessments she undergoes in front of an appeal panel at the Ministry of the Interior. There she faces the infamous ‘pencil test’ doen to check whether a person’s hair is so tightly curled that it will hold a pencil even when the person shakes their head. It could be a joke, if the implications of being found to have ‘native-like’ hair were not so serious. Even more sinister perhaps is the use of a series of race ‘swatches’ – literally tables of images of skin types, eyes and teeth and gums - with which Sandra’s colouring and characteristics are compared.
There are horrible parallels for such preoccupations and ‘techniques’ and the hope is that in this section you will explore some of them. In her biography of Sandra Laing, Judith Stone writes:
“Sandra would, at least, be spared the ‘scrotum test’ - which involved calculating the paleness of the testical sac – and the ‘blue bum’ test, which applied only to infants; officials looked for a small patch of pigment on the sacrum, seen most commonly of newborns of Indian descent, that later disappears.”
She goes on to catalogue some of the other tests and questions that were employed.
Activity: Which of the following do you find the most absurd? Imagine you had to argue against the use of one or more of these tests - what would you say?
- The colour of people’s nails – the cuticles of black or coloured people were said to be pinker than those of white people.
- The earlobe test – black people were said to have softer earlobes.
- The eyelid test – black or coloured peoples’ eyelids contrasted more conspicuously with their skin colour than those of white people.
- What do you eat for breakfast? Black people ate mealie pap (cornmeal porridge).
- What do you sleep on - a high or low bed? Black people slept on low beds.
- What sport do you prefer – football or rugby? Football was thought of as a black person’s sport.
- What language do you cry out in when the magistrate unexpectedly pinches you? If you use an African word then that would help rule out your being white or coloured.