Posted by: sternenfeeinflorida | 12 September 2011

Analyzing the Movie “Skin” on the Basis of Ethnocentrism

First of all, I’d like to encourage you all to watch the movie. I admit that it is a bit sugar coated and some of the drama has been left out but even without these details, the movie is a compelling story!

By Sünje Schwarz



Ethnocentrism is evident among all cultures and societies; it takes on different shapes, as it is based on the fear of the unknown. The movie “Skin” showed how ethnocentrism supported Apartheid and how one woman, who was born black into a white family, struggled to find her identity and a place to fit in. The question raised is how to solve issues, such as segregation, as a result of ethnocentrism.

Ethnocentrism is the evaluation of values and customs of unfamiliar cultures. The film “Skin” is based on real events and plays during times of Apartheid in South Africa. This is a culture very different to Europe and the film deeply moving for someone who grew up without having encountered anything like racial segregation. After watching the movie, the question how to eliminate ethnocentrism remained.

To understand the culture of Apartheid, it may be necessary to look at it, not from the European perspective, but from the South African Perspective (Ni, 2008).

Apartheid in South Africa was based on the idea that black Africans were somehow worth less than white Africans. This form of nonmaterial culture was not only based on societal perception but also manifested in laws and regulations to portray South Africa as a modern, developed country. Afrikaners wanted to set themselves apart, not only from the black population but also from their European roots (Edwards & Hecht, 2010). In the 18th century, laws were passed to severely limit the movement of the non-white population. As part of these laws, non-whites had to carry passes to be allowed to enter white areas and they were not allowed to own land (Wines, 2011). Although the white population in South Africa accounted for fewer than 10%, they were able to control the black population, as well as the mixed population, with these strict laws. Apartheid was finally abolished in 1991, after decades of social unrest and protests.

The fact that black people were unable to own land during apartheid is shown in the movie when bulldozers came and destroyed the settlement Sandra lived in after she left her parents to live with her husband Petrus. The drivers said the land the settlement was built on was re-zoned white and all the buildings were demolished. The people who lived in the settlement did not only lose their homes, they lost many of their possessions as well, leaving them only with whatever they were able to carry. Even today, many black people live in those so-called Shantytowns because they are too poor to afford better housing.

Although apartheid has ended 20 years ago, many cultural differences remain, partly because of the population’s diverse origins but also in part as a result of apartheid, which did not allow for the white population to become immersed in black culture and vice versa (Sharp & Vally, 2009).

Another striking aspect of the movie was seeing the way Sandra Laing was treated just because of her skin color was shocking to see for someone who has never learned to view people differently because they look differently. All signs of cultural familiarity were absent, aside from the love her family showed towards Sandra.

A brief exchange of words with a classmate and later with one of the workers employed by Sandra’s parents showed that color really is only a matter of perception. At Sandra’s school, a white girl told her that all her friends back at her home were black and Sandra replied that she was not black. At a different point in the movie, Sandra asked one of her parents’ workers if she was black, and the worker put her arm next to Sandra’s and told her that, she was not black.

It was a little surprising that even though Sandra had many difficulties trying to fit in with the white population, none of this held true for fitting in with the black population. It almost seems as if the black population, as it was diverse to begin with, was more tolerant.

At the same time, the movie showed in a very subtle manner that Sandra’s parents, Sannie and Abraham Laing, were subject to discrimination from other white Afrikaners because they stood up for their daughter, although they sternly believed in Apartheid (Ni, 2008). Other people always raised their eyebrows, looking at each other in disbelief whenever Sandra’s father told them that he was her biological father. It was as if they could not believe something like poly-generational inheritance was possible and Sandra had to have been the result of an affair between Sandra’s mother and a black man.

Ethnocentrism is evident throughout the entire movie, from the time Sandra was old enough to enter school and most schools rejected her based on her color alone and never considered her intellect. It should be noted that, although not evident in the movie, Sandra was likely to be able to speak Afrikaans, as well as English. For black children, however, education was limited to English only, Afrikaans being the language of the Afrikaner, the white population. This means that even after Apartheid ended, many black South Africans cannot speak Afrikaans and are cut out from institutions that teach in Afrikaans (Sharp & Vally, 2009). This language barrier, which still very much exists means that black students still do not receive quality education that would enable them to seek high-paying jobs, such as doctors or engineers. The problem lies within the education of the teachers themselves; many did not receive quality education either as a result of apartheid (Dugger & Smith, 2010). However, English is steadily gaining ground in educational facilities as the white population recognizes the importance of the English language over Afrikaans (Sharp & Vally, 2009).

With the end of Apartheid, the racial inequality has not ended and religious reasons to justify this type of racism, using the example of Cain, still persist (Punt, 2009).

During the movie, thoughts of segregation in the United States emerged as well. Racial segregation may have officially been outlawed in the United States in 1964 but it is still very much alive and evident in every day life, where people with white sounding names have better chances to get a job interview than those with black sounding names (Harris-Lacewell, 2005). At the same time, black people in the United States still often lack the economic opportunity to move to the suburbs, and are left in the inner cities, the poorer neighborhoods (Beers & Hembree, 1987). This creates a kind of economic segregation, in which those who are trying to survive and often rely on welfare and other social services are seen as lazy and not capable of the hard works it takes to make it out of the suburbs (Harris-Lacewell, 2005).

Even Germany still battles ethnocentrism. Especially after the reunification, several issues hit Germans at the same time. First, there were the East Germans, who had to live under a communist regime and whose culture was regarded inferior by many as a result. Then there were the immigrants that came right afterwards, many of them ethnic Germans, who lived under oppression in the Soviet Union and hoped for a better life. Thirdly, there are constant streams of asylum seekers from non-European countries, who still have a difficult path ahead of them even today, to be granted temporary or permanent residency (Castles, 1993). Both of these groups face grave difficulties, in part because of their inability to speak German or because their skin color and culture is vastly different. Nevertheless, the question of integration is always researched and pondered in Germany because historical mistakes cannot and should not be repeated.

The biggest question left to answer is how ethnocentrism could be eliminated. Racial quotas have done little to eliminate segregation and foster a deeper understanding of a different color and even the implementation of multiculturalism often leads to further segregation between the different cultures (Sharp & Vally, 2009). One step would certainly be to learn about different cultures in a way that enhances that culture’s understanding, but this can only happen alongside the creation more economic equality, which will bring people closer together and take down imaginary fences brought on by fears and stereotypes of another culture (Ni, 2008). In the end, both sides are needed to create an environment that fosters the knowledgeable exchange of cultures and interest in understanding and accepting differences.


Beers, D., & Hembree, D. (1987). A Tale of Two Cities. Nation, 244(11), 357-360. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.Dugger, C. W., & Smith, P. (2010). APARTHEID’S LONG SHADOW. New York Times Upfront, 142(10), 10-13. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

Castles, S. (1993). Explaining Racism in the New Germany. Social Alternatives, 12(1), 9-12. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

Edwards, P. N., & Hecht, G. (2010). History and the Technopolitics of Identity: The Case of Apartheid South Africa. Journal of Southern African Studies, 36(3), 619-639. doi:10.1080/03057070.2010.507568

Harris-Lacewell, M. (2005, July 18). Business community must remember: Race still matters. Crain’s Chicago Business. p. 20. Retrieved from EBSCOhost..

NI, C. (2008). Analysis of ethnocentrism. US-China Foreign Language, 6(3), 78-81. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

Punt, J. (2009). Post-Apartheid Racism in South Africa The Bible, Social Identity and Stereotyping. Religion & Theology, 16(3/4), 246-272. doi:10.1163/102308009X12561890523672

Sharp, J., & Vally, R. (2009). Unequal ‘cultures’? Racial integration at a South African university. Anthropology Today, 25(3), 3-6. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8322.2009.00665.x

Wines, M. (2011). 1991 The End of Apartheid. New York Times Upfront, 143(12), 16-19. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.


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