White Men Explain Things to Me

I stared at the screen, trying to figure out how to frame my response. I had already deleted a few replies, concerned that they might seem too caustic. It was New Year’s Eve, after all, and I did not want to end the year on a cynical tone, especially in what I had hoped would be a humorous thread. After an exchange with my 11-year-old, I’d posted on Facebook: “At what age do children stop gaslighting their parents? This didn’t get covered in my psychology training. Piaget must not have actually interacted with any children outside the lab.” My tongue-in-cheek jab at Jean Piaget – the Swiss psychologist whom Wikipedia rightly describes as “the most influential developmental psychologist to date – was part of my ongoing social media commentary about how having a doctorate in clinical child psychology did not help with basic parenting issues.

Almost immediately, a response from my former colleague – a white male professor with whom I had once shared an office – popped up. Missing the humor – and quite frankly the entire point – he explained that Piaget’s theory was, in fact, based upon observations of his own three children in twentieth century France. Well, thanks, Captain Obvious, I thought. After all, wasn’t it self-evident that anyone who used Piaget to joke about parenting would know something of his background and methodology, especially if that person had a doctorate in clinical child psychology?

It was peak whitemansplaining. I knew, or at least I hoped, that my colleague had meant no harm. He thought he was being helpful. Unfortunately, he was being helpful in that condescending way that men often are to women by taking it upon themselves to explain things that they assume women don’t understand. It’s what is commonly known as “mansplaining,” a term inspired by Rebecca Solnit’s viral article, “Men Explain Things to Me,” which became the titular chapter in her 2014 book.

Solnit begins the article with an anecdote in which, after learning that she had just published a book about Eadweard Muybridge, the male host of a party she was attending insisted on telling her about “the very important Muybridge book” that had been released earlier that year. After listening for a while, Solnit realized, first, that he was telling her about her own book, and second, that he had not actually read her book but had only read about it in the New York Times Book Review. Let that sink in. Upon hearing that a woman had authored a book on a topic, a man decided that he needed to educate her about a book that he had not read. And that book turned out to be one that she had written.

Now in the academic world, if a person writes a book on a topic, they have probably read much of the previous literature on that topic. Moreover, because academics tend to present their ideas at conferences before they publish them, they are usually aware of other forthcoming books on the topic. Nevertheless, Solnit’s interlocutor assumed that her expertise was insufficient and that she would benefit from his explanation. Men do that a lot to women.

Mansplaining is not usually intentional or even conscious. It is a symptom of living in a patriarchal society, which socializes men to believe that they know more than women and that it is their duty to share what they know with us. That socialization begins early in life. For example, it happens in schools when boys are rewarded for speaking without raising their hands, but girls are penalized for doing the same, or when girls get labeled as “bossy” for the same assertiveness that earns boys the label of “leader.” Boys and men learn early that their words matter more than those of girls and women. They begin to think that their opinions matter more and that they are more informed, even on topics that they know nothing about! Of course, women can do that too, and men can mansplain even to other men. But there are far more instances of men mansplaining to women. It’s why most women immediately recognize what is meant by mansplaining the first time that they hear the term. As Solnit’s book states, men love to explain things to us.

As with all things patriarchal, mansplaining is heightened when sexism intersects with other forms of oppression, such as racism. So when a White man with a PhD decides that he must educate a Black woman with a PhD about a progenitor in her own field, he is not just mansplaining; he is whitemansplaining. That is, he is falling into the trap of overestimating his own knowledge and underestimating that of a Black woman.

Black women and other women of color who are professors encounter this a lot, not only from our White male colleagues but also from students. In my nearly 20 years teaching in higher education, it has been rare that women students (of any race) have assumed that they know more about the topic that I am teaching than they do, even in cases where they have actually taught on the college level in similar fields!

On more than one occasion, though, I have had to call out male students of varying races when they attempted to ignore my knowledge and credentials. Since their behavior is not usually intentional, it is often enough for me to point it out and to ask them whether they behave similarly with their male and White female professors. Often, they sheepishly admit that they do not. Over the years, I have had several transformative classroom moments resulting from such an intervention.

It was the possibility of such transformation that made me decide to call out the whitemansplaining in my colleague’s response to my Facebook post. It was much harder to convey a tone of respectful conversation online than in the classroom and I struggled with how to frame it. But there really was no easy way to confront it. Finally, I simply typed, “There’s no gentle way for me to point out how much whitemansplaining you’ve just done.” I hit send.

The reaction was not what I hoped for. My colleague went from whitemansplaining to White fragility in an instant, reiterating his point about Piaget and then reminding me of his PhD in educational psychology. Then, after another Black female scholar pointed out that he had doubled down on his whitemansplaining, he “ghosted,” deleting the post and possibly also his Facebook profile (or at least blocking me).

Perhaps my original question should have been, “At what age do men stop gaslighting women?” Apparently, he hasn’t reached it yet.