Is Pluto a Planet? And are my In-Laws Racist?

Written by Karini Viranna
Images by Nico

In the 90s, somewhere between the Spice Girls World tour and the point where my parents could sit with white people, thanks to apartheid’s legal demise, Pluto’s status as a planet was up for debate. The criteria was slim, with many scientists simply claiming its dwarf size was not significant enough to be considered a planet among us. Jupiter with its many moons and the fact that it’s 11 times the size of Earth, Saturn with its obnoxiously glamorous rings, and even Uranus with its unfortunate name are all considered supreme - Pluto’s qualities, whatever they may be, are subtle, easy to miss.

When I’m dining with my in-laws, to keep from sweating angrily through my jumper or at the worst times, from hurling their handcrafted regional, Deutscher rotwein across the white linen table cloth, I meditatively recite the acronym I learned in preschool: MVEMJSUNP. It’s the first letter of each planet in our solar system. When I get to the P, I allow myself to dwell on Pluto’s planetary status.

And this is where I find myself tonight. It’s a swelteringly hot July evening. We’ve come to my in-laws summer hideaway in Holland. A floating house on one of the many Dutch canals. It’s here that my father-in-law is speaking to me. He’s mentioning a holiday he took with my mother-in-law to a wealthy, white friend of his in Miami. My husband is somewhere inside finding me some more Vla, a creamy, milk custard-like dessert, which reminds me of home, thanks to the Boers. I am barely listening to my father-in-law –  old, rich, white German men telling me about the many ways they spent their money is, in fact, not how I imagined spending my days off.

I hear him say in his strong Rheinland accent, “... and his wife, you know, we met her too, her skin, black, like yours...” This is the point where I zoom back into the conversation, forgetting about Pluto.

“Black, like me?” I ask.

“Ja, like you, “ he smiles, his cigarette smoke puncturing the air. “She doesn’t need sunscreen; she’s so dark.”

My husband interrupts this moment with the bowl of Vla. From his smile towards his father, I assume he hasn’t heard our conversation. I shovel Vla into my mouth and bring the bowl inside. In the old-fashioned Dutch kitchen is where my mother-in-law starts fussing over my hair. This has become a usual occurrence, her fretting over my hair, how unruly it is at times, and often I leave our shared holidays, with a handful of hair products given to me by my doting mother-in-law. This is a sensitive topic with my husband, as he’s aware of his parents’ subtle racism, as I’ve come to call it, but the hair scrutiny is much like Pluto’s status; up for debate. Perhaps his mother is just caring, but I’m almost certain she wasn’t this concerned about the straight, blonde Aryan-esque hair of my husband’s exes.

A few years ago, when my husband proposed, naturally his family feigned joy to our faces. Never would they have dreamed that their favourite son, the heir to their perpetual grape throne, would bring home a foreigner to marry, and certainly not one from Africa, bisexual, dark-skinned and with far too liberal ideals. His older brother, however, who quietly supports the far-right wing German party, AfD, wasted no time in telling my husband that our children would become criminals. “If they have dark skin, they won’t be respected. They’ll become thieves, start gangs. Don’t marry her.” I’m glad I wasn’t there because I probably would’ve used whatever was in my hands as a shiv and done the unimaginable.

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This subtle racism flows through their picturesque little town in the Rheinland, like the deep, burgundy wine they so value. We see my in-laws next at Christmastime when the entire town gathers. Jokes about how fertile I must be, “perfect for when we want children'' are passed around. I consider telling them about the doctor in Berlin, who suggested my bones were inferior because of my ancestors. Experience has taught me that I would be met with “you must’ve misunderstood him” despite my husband being present during the examination. My in-laws were around when the wall came down in November ‘89, something they often point out when discussing racism. I have no idea why. But they remind us that Germany is quite progressive, far more than South Africa, they hint, and doctors here are definitely not openly racist.

During Christmas dinner, while I learn what raclette is, my father-in-law’s teeth look nearly black from all the red wine. My husband jokingly points this out, and my father-in-law tells us he’s planning to get them whitened.

“They’ll look like hers after they’re whitened,” he says to us in German, pointing across the table at me.

“Ja, but with dark skin, that’s why hers look so white,” says my sister-in-law as she feeds my niece mouthfuls of Knödel, a kind of mashed potato shaped into balls. It’s incredibly bland, and they often eat it with copious amounts of dark gravy.

My husband tells his sister that she’s racist, but he says it quietly like he doesn’t want to ruin the ambience that is the celebration of the birth of a brown-skinned saviour... Jesus. I’m at J now of my acronym-planet-meditation while I pick at the cheese on my bits of paprika. My husband shoots me a significant look, and I know that later he’ll apologise to me for their behaviour as we take a long evening walk around the vineyards. When he’s alone with his parents the next day, he’ll have yet another talk with them about their comments.

The day we leave for Berlin, we pack our few possessions into our little blue VW, Emma. I stare at my reflection on the outside of the passenger seat window and nod coolly at myself for surviving yet another trip here. Before we leave, we visit my sister-in-law’s home. She tells my husband they’ve purchased a little dog, a miniature pinscher, and my husband, knowing how much I love dogs, decides for us to stop there before departing the wineland. As we walk into their garden, the miniature pinscher, who was silent before, starts barking, which to me, who knows dogs, seemed inevitable. My in-laws, however, tell us that “the dog isn’t used to dark people” and “we should visit more so she can get used to me.” The dog is taken inside to calm down as we say goodbye. I’ve passed Pluto 9 times as we make it back to the car.

By the time we drive past the sign that says Berlin on the autobahn, my husband tells me Mars can be seen tonight and that we could go somewhere to try and check it out. Mars is really beautiful that night. But as I stand there, relieved to be far away from them, I think about how Pluto is the real MVP. Planet or not, she gets me through these times.

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