Gender & Sexuality Politics

What I Learned About Men From My Father…

Growing up, I used to hate sitting in a car alone with my father for any amount of time. Those who didn’t know him personally saw him as a man with a very reserved demeanour, he came off as closed off. But those of us who knew him knew differently. Sitting in a car with him always turned into a mini-lecture I didn’t sign up for nor wanted to receive. You were stuck in the car with no way to escape because he disapproved when you wore your headphones while sitting in the car with him, he didn’t want us to be those people who sit together but didn’t talk to each other. My father’s plan was to be a new age dad who was open with his kids, his goal was to parent differently from his own parents. Growing up, he said he felt disconnected from his parents. He always said it, with some resentment, even though, they couldn’t give him what they didn’t have nor knew how to give.

So, his parenting was meant to be a do-over almost, he wanted to better the parts he felt his parents failed to deliver. But like them, he didn’t have what he needed to be this new age evolved father he aspired to be. He winged it as he went along like I imagine most parents do. As the oldest, I got to be the experiment. He wanted to be the dad that had the patience to teach her daughter how to drive (big mistake) and take her dress shopping for her graduation. The older I grew, the more complex his identity, life and desires seemed. At heart, he was (still) a conservative and culturally rooted black man who grew up in a village, but he aspired to modern fatherhood. He wanted to be like the new age men who were present and paid attention to their kids, but in reality, he worked a job that saw him leaving home for extended amounts of time so he could provide. When he was home, he was too tired to play soccer with his kids. For the most part, he really tried but, in the end, it was just good intentions.

The most major part of our relationship involved him imparting his knowledge about men and their illustrious behaviour. He was afraid that as a woman in the world, I could easily get taken advantage of once I leave the nest. He was trying to teach me things about men he thought would protect me from developing insecurities or ‘daddy issues’ in the future. My father and I bonded over unprovoked anecdotes (by that I mean he spoke and I quietly and uncomfortably listened while wishing I could escape through the window) of the stupid things he’s heard and seen men do when he was growing up. He used his teachings as unsubtle warnings and cautionary tales against dating men who were racially, culturally and linguistically different.

He didn’t trust white people for as far as he can throw them, the only time he was around whiteness was at work. He never allowed them to infiltrate his free social time. It even offended his sensibilities when he heard us use the English language at home. So, he warned me against socializing with whiteness, especially if it involved dating white men. My father also conveniently recalled hearing that white boys ‘were rumoured to have inappropriate relationships with their mothers’, so he didn’t want me getting involved with people who did such things. My father warned me especially against Zulu men because he was socialized to believe they were ‘hot-headed’, as a result, were not open to change because of their cultural beliefs and practices. He warned me against dating men from Limpopo (which is where our family is from) because they are ‘bad news’, but strangely that assessment exempted him. He felt that the men from home were undeserving of me, he believed he brought me too far to go back and date the guy next door. Asian men and those from the rest of the continent where not even in his foresight, so he didn’t even feel the necessity to warn me about the ‘flaws’ that may disqualify them as suitors. By the time I was in my early 20s, my dad had warned me against dating every species of men. He was convinced that it was safer if I never moved out from home and never dated. In his experience men and women could never be just friends because he was convinced ‘men always want sex’ from women, that men couldn’t help themselves. In his world, the formation of friendship was just an act of pretending by a man who was just waiting for an opportunity to strike.

By the time I was in my 20s, I had listened to enough lessons to know that men were nothing but trouble. I had subconsciously (I was unaware because at no point during these conversations with my father had I thought that I was actively listening to what he said) absorbed all this data about the different ways boys who will eventually become men, could manipulate young women like me into doing things they didn’t want to do. My father taught me that there are men in the world who will not respect my agency just because I was a girl who will eventually mature into a woman. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I had felt empowered and disempowered by all this information. Empowered because I knew how to not let men pull a quick one over me, disempowered because my father had turned me into a cynical pessimist. Men where the thing which I couldn’t and shouldn’t trust with my life and my body. Although I hadn’t always known how to articulate what that meant, I’ve always known that they were men in the world getting away with being trashy. I had known, that the world was unfair to people like me, just because they were women.
As an adult, I’ve come to realize that my father long made a habit of warning me against young men he’s afraid would treat me the same way he treated other people’s daughter when he was young. I imagine now that his teachings were partly self-reflective. Even now as an adult, my father is still afraid for me because he knows firsthand what men are capable of. He primarily used our relationship to shelter me from heartbreak and from the world, but in all of his narratives, men always showed up as oppressors. Everything that I knew about men in the world was through his male gaze. But also, everything he taught me was always easy to believe because they were enough men around us who served as living testimonies of his warnings. He didn’t need to do much to convince me that what he was saying was real and reflective of the world. In my case, this version of the truth especially resonated because I had(ve) a biological father who chose to leave me as a child after things didn’t work out with my mother. Having a father who left their child was one more case study my father used to prove why I needed to thread through life with caution.

I learned from my father that as a young girl growing up in a world where men were constantly sexualizing my kind, I had to dress ‘modestly’ in order to avoid grabbing the ‘wrong kind of attention’. He emphasized (still does) the value of covering up my body from the world because my bare skin was a dangerous weapon the male species would use to violate my body. When I was old enough, he told me about the value of buying my own condoms if I am in a sexual relationship because ‘I shouldn’t trust men to not put holes on them to trap me with a baby’. He told me about men with a tamper who would easily take my life. He taught me that I shouldn’t sweat and sacrifice myself in the name of helping a man build his career, because once they succeed they will leave me for someone else better. He told me, men will turn and leave you stranded and you wouldn’t even see it coming.  My father is a complicated man, he wanted me to get an education, but he was afraid the education was turning me into someone he didn’t recognize nor could relate to. He raised me to be strong-willed and independent, as long as my will wasn’t used to talk back or disagree with him. He raised the kind of daughter he wasn’t equipped to deal with. Our relationship only works if he goes unchallenged. In the end, he helped raise a feminist daughter whose ideologies he couldn’t understand. My father and I disagree on many things, most things really. But he did the only thing he knew how to do, to prepare me for a world he thought would not treat me fairly.