Musings on Masculinity: An Educator Confronts Complicity and (Re)defines Manhood

Takondwa Priscilla Semphere’s eloquent summary. Taken during Seminal Readings at African Leadership Academy in Johannesburg, South Africa. October 2019.

Each year at my middle school, the 8th-grade class would take a week-long trip to explore Washington, DC. It felt like an iconic event: an experience the younger kids would look forward to and older kids would wear like a badge of pride. My trip, however, was sullied.

We boarded the bus from New York to DC. With my silly and playful pre-adolescent energy, I lifted myself from the seat and turned around to chat with my friend Sara in the row behind me. Then I snapped her bra strap.

She froze.

I, not fully understanding her reaction, laughed. I thought it was funny. In my mind, this was the equivalent of boys playfully giving each other wedgies (remember, we were 14).

Sara did not find it funny. I don’t remember what she said, but to this day, I remember how she felt. She was livid. She was shaken. And because we were good friends at the time, she was hurt and deeply disappointed.

Time has weathered away some of the memories of that week, but I remember a few facts clearly. Sara was angry and wanted to hold me accountable in the best way she knew how: telling the teachers, telling her friends, orchestrating some combination of public shaming and retribution. It worked. I remember feeling like I was walking on eggshells the entire trip. A visit to the Lincoln Monument was overshadowed by what I perceived to be damning, steely gazes from the girls. In the China Room of the White House, I felt a roiling guilt — wondering if people were talking about me.

I also remember feeling like Sara had overreacted. I wasn’t trying to hurt her. I was just being silly. To me, the tug of the bra-strap was a practical joke, not sexual harassment.

But looking back at this moment twenty years ago, I realize that this was, by definition, harassment. It was not ok. I cannot write it off as playful. Objectively, it was a young man encroaching on the private space of a young woman and acting in a way that made her feel uncomfortable, violated.

What I see clearly now is that my very simplistic reaction to Sara (she’s over-reacting; it was no big deal) is exactly why sexual harassment and assault are so prevalent. Why society is so quick to defend men, and why our institutions — police, media, and even families — are so quick to silence or victim-blame women.

It is only after reflecting on this incident that I found myself, as a man, to be complicit in a culture that has sadly, tragically, normalized the assault on women’s bodies.

Despite my complicity, I always found it easy enough to philosophically and intellectually agree with the tenets of feminism: equal pay for equal work, greater gender diversity in the corridors of leadership, and the need for partners to more equitably share domestic roles. It all made sense morally, practically, economically.

But as the war on women rages on here in South Africa, I’ve come to realize that it is not enough to quietly condemn this violence. It is not enough to read the right books or watch the right Chimamanda Adichie talks.

One must act. I must act. I have come to learn Audre Lorde’s lesson that my silence will not protect me as the grim statistics rise, as the memory of Uyinene’s murder festers, as my friends, colleagues, and students are harassed.

I must speak. I cannot be neutral in a fight against oppression. I cannot remain silent.

Based on what I have learned from women in classrooms and coffee shops, in books and at braais, I offer four things that we men can do to make our support for women more real. More meaningful. More rooted in empathy.

  1. Let Her Be: It’s Not About Us

As an educator in the business of teaching critical thinking, I need to practice what I preach and examine issues from other people’s perspectives.

If I de-center myself and imagine the situation above from Sara’s perspective, here is what I see. In any given week, women receive a lot of unwanted attention and uncomfortable encroachment from men. For all I know, I may not have been the first man that day to make Sara feel uncomfortable or unsafe. Looking back, I shudder when I think about how often Sara — a young woman of colour growing up in New York City — may have been subjected to what Pumla Dineo Gqola brilliantly describes as the “female fear factory” that patriarchy creates.

Two years ago, my girlfriend Asana moved to an apartment a short distance from her office. She was excited about getting to walk more in traffic-laden Johannesburg. But after a few tries, she could no longer stomach it. The catcalls were incessant. They grew from annoying to unbearable and she no longer felt safe to walk to work in the clear light of morning, on busy city streets.

What would it look like for each of these catcallers to think, just for an empathic moment, about how these shouts and whistles are received by the woman. To recognize that their crude mating call isn’t cheeky; it sustains and maintains a violent and pernicious culture that degrades and disempowers — that leaves women, quite literally, in tears.

And so, if a woman says: “No, I’m not interested” or signals in any way that she does not want to engage with you (yes, you, the otherwise smart, handsome, sensible man) — the only acceptable response is to respectfully disengage. Consider, for a moment, how much unwanted attention she has received that day, that week, and recognize that it’s not about you. Recognize that perhaps the kindest thing you can do is afford her the same dignity you would expect for yourself and simply let her be.

2. Say I Believe You

I recently met a woman named Nelly and we had a rich conversation that taught me something powerful and true. We spoke patriarchy and feminism. About Kobe Bryant and his sexual assault case. About the ways in which men may understand and champion lots of feminist thought, but struggle with the parts that directly implicate them.

For example, our friends. Our problematic friends. The friends we refuse to hold accountable. The ones we don’t call out. The ones we are “himpathetic” to and in doing so, perpetuate the culture of patriarchy and misogyny. (I recommend you check out this podcast episode on Masculinity to better understand Professor Kate Manne’s idea of Himpathy).

Given the culture of toxic masculinity we are enmeshed in, and the rape culture that imprisons this country, I asked Nelly what is the most important thing I can do. Her response: “Mopati, when a woman comes to you, with trust, to tell you about something that happened to her, the most important thing you can do at that moment is to listen and then say three words: I believe you.”

I believe you.

So many women have to face so much scrutiny over their accusations of assault or harassment. The questions they receive range from: “Are you sure?” and “Is that really what happened?” to the more dangerous “Were you drunk? “What were you wearing?” Recall the scorn and ignominy that Kobe Bryant’s accuser faced. The vitriol. Even though eventually, Bryant all-but-admitted his assault when it was all said and done.

Women have to replay the horrific scene so many times in their heads and hearts. They have to deal with trauma, the questions, the doubt, the social backlash (which is why most cases of assault and rape are never reported). All of that has happened to them before they come to tell you. So, offer them space and the gift and the affirmation by saying “I believe you.” It may be the kindest, most powerful, and most feminist thing to do.

3. Use Your Words and Teach your Kids to do the Same

Dismantling rape culture begins with championing consent. That work begins at home. We need to weave the language of consent into our homes and into the hearts and minds of our children.

We must encourage children from an early age to use their words. To communicate how they are feeling. To give consent and receive it. This applies to both boys and girls.

Ask your little niece “Can I give you a hug?” Wait for her to say yes! Then hug. Empower her to use her words and give consent, and model it yourself.

We must also make space for children to say “I am not comfortable with this.” It can be hard, especially when cultural and power dynamics are at play and the act involves an elder relative. But we have to.

How many terrible, criminal things happen in the quiet corners of our homes, to our children, that go unspoken? How much hurt and trauma have children endured in the place that they should feel the most safe? We need to equip them with the tools and the courage to use their words and give consent: to say “I’m not comfortable.” We can also teach our sons and daughters to seek consent: to ask their friends and relatives if they can hug them. If we start early enough we can reshape a culture that for too long has fostered silence, complicity, and pain.

If we start young, we can reshape the culture. We can shape the way boys and girls learn to speak, to ask, and to listen when it comes to intimacy. Change really does begin at home — with our loved ones.

4. Queer Masculinity: Make Space for Others

We cannot advance as a society if we continue to denigrate and dehumanize others. Our history as Africans should teach us that.

We contest racist systems because we see the obvious evil in denying someone humanity and opportunity based on their appearance. We critique callous capitalism because we see that, too often, living a dignified life is based on the accident of birth. But we sometimes struggle to see that patriarchy, like these other systems, also denies people — often violently — of their humanity and dignity.

Men, we must allow people to exist. Imagine where we could be if we created space for women to exist fully. For queer people. Or transgender people. Imagine a society that truly protects the dignity of people as they are, and not just as we wish them to be.

I know that people’s spiritual and cultural bearings can it make difficult to accept and embrace the queer and trans community. A former student of mine, struggling to reconcile their Christian faith with LGBTQ rights, confessed that “cognitive dissonance is a hard place to be.” This may be true. But why do we let our own discomfort infringe on another person’s right to exist? Doesn’t the inclusive society that we yearn for mean that all people, regardless of their differences, can exist in peace — without the threat of patriarchal violence? Chimamanda Adichie reminds us that “we cannot — should not — have empathy only for people who are like us.”

Imagine what this country can achieve when everyone feels safe and whole. When we make space for people to exist and thrive.

Invite women to speak. Reject invitations to “manels” (men only panels). My colleague Dashen, a teacher, when facilitating a discussion said, “I’ve noticed that the last three speakers have been men. Can I ask a woman to speak next?” What might this look like in your own space, if you simply asked?

Let us create a masculinity that enables and empowers. That listens more than it speaks. A masculinity that is thoughtful and humble enough to self-correct. A masculinity that fosters peace; that welcomes softness and vulnerability. A masculinity that liberates us all. Where might that lead us?

Motswana, educator, and pan-Africanist, Mopati Morake is currently Head of the Writing & Rhetoric Department at African Leadership Academy. He enjoys thinking about the nexus of writing, thinking, and being.

Works Cited

Adichie, Chimamanda. “Why Can’t He Just Be like Everyone Else?” The ScoopNG, 20 Feb. 2014, thescoopng.com/2014/02/18/chimamanda-adichie-why-cant-he-just-be-like-everyone-else/.

Gqola, Pumla Dineo. Rape: a South African Nightmare. MF Books Joburg, 2015.

“Himpathy”. Men from Scene on Radio. 3 October 2018. www.sceneonradio.org/episode-53-himpathy-men-part-7.

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