/ 24 November 2017

For Emilly-Rose, who is not old enough to read this

Dinika Govender
Dinika Govender


I write this with the knowledge that, by the time you are old enough to read this, its content may be as outdated as the search for the world’s flat end. I am hopeful.

You are now two years old. You are just beginning to make sense of the world around you and to name it for yourself. Young as you are, kindness and attentiveness mark your spirit.

You apologise to plastic chairs that you accidentally tip over. You even try to wake up The Bold and the Beautiful’s Eric Forrester from his on-screen coma. You bring tears of laughter to our eyes and, in turn, you keel over in what can only be described as an acrobatic giggle. You are a natural jester.

According to neuroscience, grandmothers and, I’m sure, wrinkled copies of Reader’s Digest, these are the days in which your relationship with society is being cemented.

One stimulus, one response at a time, your temperament is being shaped. You are learning about concepts such as right and wrong, good and bad — distinguishable by the chorus of yes-good-girl, no-don’t-do-that sung by people taller and not nearly as inquisitive as you.

Your understanding of power is also beginning to take on a recognisable shape. The louder and deeper the voice, the faster the compliance.

You see it in those around you. It has, more than once, frightened you. But you like to test this power too. The longer you resist it, the wider your smile grows and the deeper the voice bellows until that voice cracks into a thousand chuckles. We see you.

There is another kind of power you have no doubt observed, but whose nature you will not yet be able to grasp. Sometimes it will feel like a pinch on the nose or a hairdryer to the face. Other times, as you grow older, it will feel like an unwanted stripping of your clothing by hands not yours.

There will be grins, laughter and perhaps a sorry-love-couldn’t-help-it kind of shrug and you will be confused because you will not feel like laughing along. Still, something about the jaggedness of those smiles may compel you to learn to laugh — if only to shrug it all off. Then there may be times when you will see another rendered naked by those same grins and punches thrown as just-compliments.

You will begin to know the meaning of “a punchline”. This is humour of a particular sort. It makes playthings out of people. It makes light of your objections on the grounds that you are an object of affection. It does not consider your consent. When pushed, it offers apologies, but not accountability. It is overwhelmingly masculine.

Make no mistake, it is an act of power.

Though I have faith in society’s capacity for kindness and your growing judiciousness, I offer no how-to guides on stomping out such ill humour.

The thing about the peopled world is that those people — for whom the humour is funny and the power structures supportive — have long been groomed and infused with the idea that making objects out of others creates a sense of personal safety, of higher morality even.

You, who has quickly learned of the immediate danger of trying to turn my body into your personal jungle gym, might laugh at how silly it sounds. But this idea that all people are objectifiable, and some are more objectifiable than others, is one that runs deep into our collective histories.

This is not to suggest defeat — that you too should laugh with the voice that calls you curry-scented or caramel-swirled. I state this only because I believe that it is important for you to know the depth and breadth of history’s echo.

When you encounter the kind of humour that makes you hyperaware of the colour of your skin, the texture of your hair, the sound of your voice or the shape of your body — or those of any other individual or group — know that this is power at play.

I think of the man who told me that I should feel at home as the only person of colour in a Cape Town bar on account of the fact that I looked Brazilian with my wavy hair and my not-that-brown skin.

I think of how he meant this as a reassurance and flirtation. The gall. To name me a different kind of brown — not my apartheid-ranked one but the sexually fantasised one — was to isolate and objectify me.

I wish I could tell you that I told him exactly what he had done. Instead, I said nothing. I continued to listen, aware that I was an object of fantasy — an idea that neither he nor I had any part in creating.

I could have asked him why he thought that would be a good thing to say. I could have asked him what, exactly, he meant by “Brazilian” and where he thought that idea came from. Even if he was likely to be as ignorant as his statement suggested he was, I should have asked him those things. I have yet to discover a more useful question than “Why?”.

Then there’s a stickier kind of humour. If, and when, you encounter the kind of humour that disclaims itself as a problem — or goes on to self-deprecate in an attempt to justify its own hurtfulness — know that this too is power at play.

I think of the men who gather among femmes to throw their hands up in feminist solidarity, or to gawk together at public news of sexual harassment scandals, yet who consistently fail to stand up to the known misogynist or homophobe in private WhatsApp groups, business networks or family-friend gatherings.

Though it may look and sound like self-awareness, it is likely fuelled by the urge to protect its own reputation.

Ask it how it will avoid repeating its offence a second time, or how 
it plans to use its self-awareness to recompense — or why it is declaring its solidarity to you in the first place — and leave it to explore the depths of its own socialisation.

But leave you must.

I cannot guarantee that calling out such humour will yield understanding. People do not like to be outed, to feel shamed, even when they have wronged. It is more likely that you will be made to feel even weaker and smaller.

You will be told to “lighten up” or to “grow a thicker skin”. You may even be called an “ideological terrorist”.

I hope you will remember that your skin is thick enough — that calling out hurtfulness makes you brave enough to hold up a mirror to history’s 
divisive, objectifying ways. You would not be here, kind as you are, were it not for the thick skins of the generations of femmes who have come before you.

Remember that you do not struggle alone. And you are already strong enough.

Love always,