Parenting for Justice: Raising Black Boys and Girls in a Sexist, Homophobic and Racist Society

By: Gcobani Qambela* and Rethabile Mashale**


We can’t combat white supremacy unless we can teach people to love justice. You have to love justice more than your allegiance to your race, sexuality and gender. It is about justice.” – bell hooks

CQ and family
Gcobani Qambela, with his nephews (Simo, Hluma and Khunga), and RethabileMashale, with her daughter (Leya).

The family unit is the primary source of socialisation for children. Second to the schooling system, it is the most influential agent in shaping attitudes, beliefs, behaviours and value systems. Children spend a third of their awake time in the presence of a parent, primary caregiver or influential adult. Yet, when social policy makers, activists and child protection advocates think of interventions, the family unit is often not at the front of their minds. Often, the family unit is encountered or dealt with when there is a specific problem and not as an everyday contested and gendered space. Seldom do we focus on activating and harnessing family unit as an agent of change in an unjust and transitional society.

Reflecting on the tragic “modern day lynching”, murder [1] and death of Trayvon Martin, bell hooks notes the importance of parents in creating an awareness and activist mentality in children from a very young age. She contends that because of the history of black people in the hands of white supremacist terrorist assault, many black parents and caretakers learnt to parent for justice early on. She states that “When we lived in the time of separate but [not] equal or coloreds only, black parents had to explain the reality to children who did not understand what was taking place.The work of parenting for justice, black parents have always done.” [Our emphasis]

In the chapter “Feminist Parenting”, of the book Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics, bell hooks further says that a key component of the contemporary radical feminist movement was a focus on children. “By raising children without sexism women hoped to create a future world where there would be no need for an anti-sexist movement”, she says. However hooks notes that while necessarily a large focus of this work was on girl children, boys were largely ignored because of the assumed male privilege boys possess. Other feminist thinkers challenging and confronting sexism within families also noted that female parents were often the primary transmitters of sexist thinking, even in households where there was no adult male caregiver.

hooks says that “In actuality women who head households in patriarchal society often feel guilty about the absence of a male figure and are hypervigilant about imparting sexist values to children, especially males.” It is in light of this that we share our conversation about the strategies we use to prepare the children in our lives to see injustice and fight against it.

Rethabile Mashale (RM): As a social worker having worked in direct casework with individuals and their families, at policy and research level and now parenting my own child, the notion of parenting for justice in post apartheid South Africa is topical, radical yet very necessary and a key part of influencing community and ultimately societal attitudes and behaviours. I’m now careful as to how I introduce things to my daughter as young as she is and other young women around me. I use every experience as an opportunity to teach. I call them ‘teach opportunities.’ Young girls get fed a lot  of bullshit, so I often use questions to unpack things with them, even though I worry sometimes that I do not have enough time to counter what they absorb when they are ‘out there’ outside my influence. But still, I use every opportunity to also correct my own biases.

Gcobani Qambela (GQ): No, even if you have an hour nabo (with them), children still value your opinion and that work matters. I see it with my three nephews now as they get a little mature. Even a good five minute nabo can do the trick. This past week I was “teaching” them for example about *trans/intersex persons. I realised as I was walking with them from their school that they saw gender in two binaries: male vs. female. So I started explaining that it is not like that — it’s not a simple binary of male or female. I did it so that when they encounter it at school or in any other sphere where I have no control, they can have the tools to fight back the ignorance that society often spears on young children, especially black boys like them who appear to lean more towards heterosexual cissexual maleness.

RM: Mnnnn. That’s amazing. How did they respond? I am mega curious about the learning processes of boys. They are so different to girls in how they internalise messages at that age.

GQ: They seem to value my opinion. They always enjoy the conversations. There was no resistance at all; they were very responsive yaz (you know). They are raised in a very heteronormative setting in terms of both family, and I now see that their school encourages it too. For instance, I always note the heteronormative language that their school uses in their letters and circulars that they send weekly. They have very traditionalist and patriarchal ideas about the roles that the “moms” do vis a vis those of the “dads”. For example, letters to “moms” will usually require the help of “moms” with very traditionalist patriarchal roles like needing help with baking/cooking/sewing clothes for concerts and so on, while they will also place the roles of “dads” in also very traditionalist patriarchal terms such as asking “dads” to come to coach sports on weekends and perform other such masculinist roles. So they get inscribed with patriarchal thinking. As one of the few, if not the only man in their lives who claims an attachment to feminist politics, I always see the corrective work of getting them to rethink the patriarchy laden values society inscribes on them as important, even if it is done during a five minute walk from school.

RM: Do not get me started on schools sana! They are so hegemonic and set on entrenching archetypal gender roles. It’s so weird that one of the places that is supposed to educate, ends up entrenching harmful ideas, than liberatory and intersectional pedagogy.

GQ: Yes, for sure. That is why I always make sure to take it further by educating them that there are people who exist outside heterosexual patriarchal gender roles. I told my nephews for instance that there are people who do ignorant and harmful things to people who are different; be it by gender or sexuality and that this is not right. I told them it is exciting that there are people who are different by race, gender, sexuality and so on because it means an opportunity to get to know a person who is not exactly like you and find out different ways of doing things. Difference is not something they should see as a tool for shaming, humiliating and bullying people. As I was talking to them, I saw a sparkle in their eyes, because number one, they did not know this, and two, I also saw that they were fascinated in a good way in that they wanted to know more.

RM: Really? I am going to use that with the women and girls in my life. Some girls do not get that, even as young as 12 years. I find some to be so ‘gendered’ and super-homophobic. They see everything in terms of the “us vs. them” thing!

GQ: Oh for sure! I also like using the Toni Morrison clip on why we should not contribute to the pain of other people. I tell them we have a painful history as black people of being oppressed often for things we cannot change, so I ask them: ‘If I pinch you does it hurt?’ And they will say ‘Yes’. So then I ask: ‘Why would you want to pass that on to someone else if you know it hurts you?’ And they get it, because I tell them as privileged young black boys they have a greater responsibility to ensure justice thrives, and that other people are not oppressed.

RM: I so get that! I want to focus more on that with my girls. How do we act when confronted with someone who is different? How do we act? What do we say? How do we respond to gender based violence? Just tomorrow I will be introducing sexuality and 16 days of activism, gender based violence etc. at a workshop with young girls. I know lesbian young women who are not ‘out’ and I am super protective of them and I often see young girls teasing them so I try to create a space of truth with the young girls that I’m blessed to work with and raise.

GQ: Yes, that is great. A few weeks back my sister was telling me that my eight year old nephew told her that someone at his school tried to get him to call some other child ‘gay’ as a form of gay-bullying the child.  I was so happy that he shared the story because it allowed both my sister and I to intervene and give him language to understand broadly what that kid was trying to get him to do. So I also congratulated him for not only refusing to use that word against someone to shame them, but that he went home and told someone who had the tools to understand gay bullying as something not to be encouraged but abhorred. I also felt protective of the kid who could have possibly been gay shamed and bullied.

RM: Yes! I see that all the time. Yilendiyivayokwabantwana! They call ilesbians iplugs. I mean really? So xabethethange-plugs I was lost for ages until I found out that iplugs was an offensive slang-term for lesbians. I was so shocked because the children who use these terms are so young often 14 years or under. I really cannot believe some of the stuff I hear from them.

GQ: It’s scary.

RM: I need to work with the mothers or women in their lives…

There is a deep seated need for parents from across racial groups to parent for justice, so the next generation of young men and women, *trans and intersex and so on do not have to deal with these issues again. As most black people all over the world have gained political independence, the war on the bodies of LIGBTIQ young people, the racist lynching of the bodies of black young women and men, and gender based violence inflicted intra-and-interracially amongst many other social ills tells us that the glass is still barely half full. Those of us with access to young children need to think deeper about the messages we are passing on to them. Are we satisfied with our current white-capitalistic supremacist patriarchal world? Are we satisfied creating more young men and girls who will continue perpetuating misogyny and misogynoir, homophobia and patriarchy? We are certainly not.

As a black young woman and black young man (co)parenting black boys and girls, we certainly imagine differently for them. As bell hooks states: “Whenever domination is present love is lacking… Ending patriarchal domination of children by men and women, is the only way to make the family a place where children can be safe, where they can be free, where they can know love.”

[1] We use this term intentionally, because while the killer of Treyvon Martin was found not guilty, we stand with those who see Trayvon’s death for what it was: a murder waged on the bodies of black persons in racist society(ies) like the United States of America.

*Gcobani Qambela is a co-parent to three lovely young boys: Khunga, Simo, and Hluma. Read his previous articles for the Bokamoso Leadership Forum here.

**Rethabile Mashale is a registered Social Worker, with a Masters degree in Social Policy and Management from the University of Cape Town. She is currently pursuing a PhD at the University of Stellenbosch focusing on leadership styles in the management of volunteers in emerging social development organisations. She is employed as a Programme Officer in a philanthropic organisation supporting fledging NGO’s working in education and learner support. In her spare time, in addition to raising a one year old, she works with black girls supporting them with education enrichment, life skills and leadership development. She has an interest in black feminism, gender equality, research and social justice in the African context.

Gcobani Qambela

Gcobani Qambela is a Graduate Student in South Africa with an interest in African masculinities, HIV/AIDS research and public health in general.

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