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.

Why White People Think We All Look Alike

“Hey Tracey,” the dean said. I stared at him blankly for a few seconds before saying, “I’m not Tracey.” He was embarrassed. “Oh, right! I know that. I’m sorry Chanequa.”
We were only a few weeks into my first year at the school. I had been surprised that the dean of student life had made an attempt to learn the names of the 180 new students. He had gotten my name right before, so I didn’t hold it against him that he had mistaken me for my new friend Tracey, who was also new to the school. I probably would not have remembered the incident at all. But it turned out that it was not the last time that a White faculty, staff member, or classmate confused the two of us for each other.

It became annoying. “Do people keep calling you by my name?” we asked each other. We couldn’t figure out what that was about. Tracey was noticeably taller with low-cropped curly hair; my locks hung well past my shoulders at the time. Perhaps we had the same face shape, but her face lacked any of the moles that dotted mine. We were close in complexion, but not close enough that we would wear the same Fenty shade. We did not look alike. We did not even look like each other’s people – our biological relatives. And both of us look very much like our people. Tracey happens to have a cousin who could pass as her twin, as do I.

For Black people and other people of color, being mistaken by White people for another one of our racial kinfolk is a common occurrence. Remember the interviewer who confused Samuel Jackson for Lawrence Fishburne?

“White people think we all look like,” is a common refrain among African Americans and Asian Americans especially. We are not making that up. Until they learned that it was politically incorrect to say it aloud, White people used to actually say, “You all look like.” It is such a common racial trope that people of color often bristle the moment that someone outside our race tells us that we look like someone whom we obviously do not resemble.

People of color often bristle the moment that someone outside our race tells us that we look like someone whom we obviously do not resemble.

As with many forms of racism, confusing two people of color for one another is usually done without malice. My hypothesis is that it happens when people lack enough exposure to a particular racial/ethnic group to develop the ability to delineate between our features. In a White supremacist world in which one’s race determines one’s freedoms and rights, we are all socialized to see each other first in terms of race. For centuries, White people have been socialized not to look much further than that if a person is another race. Black people are especially accustomed to being unseen by White people, including those whom we know.

It is one of the hardest things about being in predominantly White spaces for people of color – being rendered invisible. In seminary, I became accustomed to being unseen by White classmates in the hallways. We could sit in classes together for an entire semester, but they would routinely pass me in the hallways without making eye contact. If they happened to look at me or even if I said hi, their eyes glazed over me without any real sign of recognition. It is the dominant experience that I have at the annual meeting of my academic guild each year. As I walk through the hallways, panning the crowd for signs of familiar faces and scanning the name badges for signs of connection, White colleagues glance at me without seeing me. It happened just a few days ago at the farmer’s market, when a former White student looked briefly at me and then turned away before I could say hello.

White people are socialized not to look at us. So it is no wonder that they are more likely to confuse us with other people of color whom we do not resemble. Lord forbid that there be an actual resemblance, as in the case of the two U.S. congressmen John Lewis and the late Elijah Cummings. In October 2019, Cummings passed suddenly at the age of 68; two months later, Lewis announced that he had been diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. In covering both events, major news outlets confused the two men for one another. So many people confused the two men when Cummings died that Lewis’s name became the top Twitter trend for the day. Fox News posted a photo of Lewis when Cummings died. Two months later, CBS used a photo of the then-deceased Cumming when news of Lewis’ diagnosis was announced.

Photo of congressional representatives Elijah Cummings and John Lewis seated beside each other.

Granted, the two men looked remarkably alike, so much so that they reportedly joked about it. And it turns out members of Congress get confused with one another a lot. Everyone makes mistakes, and not every mistake is racist. Even Black people made the mistake of confusing Lewis and Cummings. Likewise, over time, Tracey and I noticed that it was not just White people who confused us with one another. Several of our Black classmates did it too, including those with whom we were good friends. Apparently, though we did not look alike, there was something about us that evoked a similar response from other people, just as there was something that drew us together as friends from the opening moments of orientation.

Sometimes racism involves situations that occur uniquely to Black people (or other people of color) and solely because of their race. But sometimes, racism involves situations that happen more frequently to Black people because of our race, especially when White people are also involved. It turned out that White classmates and professors confused me and Tracey for each other far more frequently than did Black people. And there was something qualitatively different about it when it happened. Our Black peers caught themselves making the mistake as soon as they did it. “Did I just call you Tracey? I don’t know why I did that.” And having made the mistake once, they never did it again. In contrast, we usually had to point out to White classmates and professors when they had called us by the wrong name. After we did, they would often stare blankly for a few seconds before they realized their error, almost as if they were searching their mental rolodexes to determine which of their two Black friends we were. I could always see the moment of recognition when it dawned. But why did it take so long for their brains to register our actual faces and names? Why did it take so long for them to see us? Perhaps, like the media professionals who repeatedly confuse Cummings and Lewis, their eyes and memories had not been racially trained enough for them to see the differences between two Black people.

Their eyes and memories had not been racially trained enough for them to see the differences between two Black people

Neither Elijah Cummings or John Lewis are obscure congressmen. Given the political and historical importance of both men, every reputable news outlet should know who they are, that they look alike, and that special care needs to be taken to identify them correctly. News correspondents who cover Capitol Hill should be taught to discriminate between them, in the same way that they have learned to discriminate between the various Bushes and Kennedy’s who have held political office. Plus, neither incident involved a brief or chance encounter. They involved photos, documents that are protected by copyright law and that must be properly credited to their photographers. Moreover, they involved situations where media professionals – sometimes even multiple media professionals – had to glance at a photo and story before it made its way on the air. Or more specifically, they involved situations where White media professionals had to glance at a photo of a famous Black person before it went on the air.

Photo clip from film, "Pulp Fiction,' showing Samuel L. Jackson as his character, Jules Winnfield, pointing a gun. Text overlay reads: "Say 'All black people look like' one more time. I dare you."Tracey died the year after we graduated from seminary. I still see glimpses of her sometimes in strangers. In some ways, I would love to be somewhere and have someone yell “Tracey!” at me, because it would mean that I am in the presence of someone who knew both of us and who knew that there was something about each of us that reminded people of the other. I would probably laugh it off, but then I would tell them, “You know me and Tracey don’t look alike.”

A Lament for Black Girls

Black girls
Don’t get the chance to be girls
To be protected, to be cherished, to be nurtured
To be the damsel in distress.

Black girls
Don’t get to grieve
To mourn their mama and grandmama dying in the same year
To lament being placed in foster care.

Black girls
Don’t get to have a bad day
To have an attitude
To get overwhelmed by the sheer weight of it all.

Black girls
Have to suck it up, hold it in
To pretend that everything’s okay
To make everyone else feel okay.

Black girls
Have to be stoic
To be compliant
To be strong
Because if we don’t…

Riding the Reconciliation Roller-Coaster

During my first year as a parent, I often marveled at how quickly my newborn could cycle through emotions, and how easily I was carried along the same journey. One second he would be cooing contentedly; then out of nowhere he would start crying. At times he’d be inconsolable, prompting me to burst into tears along with him. And suddenly we’d be back to happiness, both of us smiling and giggling. The entire range of emotions sometimes happened within five minutes.

roller-coasterThe journey of racial reconciliation is a lot like that. In rapid succession, we celebrate signs of the hope of reconciliation and lament the continuing evidence of racism. We even do both at once. The emotional roller-coaster can be draining.

At this moment, I am feeling the fatigue. I am tired of the reconciliation roller-coaster. This past week has had some incredible highs. On Sunday, The Nett Church held its first preview service. I’m the discipleship pastor for this new worship community that is trying to become beloved community. It was refreshing and inspiring to be able to name that openly in the context of worship and to invite others to join us on the journey.

There’s also my ongoing racial reconciliation course. Each week I am energized by my students and their openness to engaging a difficult subject in a different way. I am grateful for their willingness to journey with a professor who is, as Dr. Gardner C. Taylor would put it, complicit in the brokenness against which she preaches. I am excited by their affirmations of the significance of the course and their grappling with how to extend their learning beyond the classroom.

If racial reconciliation were simply about focusing upon and healing past divisions, I could probably bask in the promise and possibility of these experiences. I wouldn’t have to also confront the fear and anger that comes from passing the full-size confederate flag that a neighbor (about 1/4 mile down the road) posted at the edge of their front lawn last week. Technically, it’s the old Georgia flag, which pisses me off even more because if they’re gonna make a statement, they should just do it. georgia-flag-former

Nor would I have to keep getting angry with white people – especially so-called liberals – telling me that I don’t know when I’m experiencing racism: the neighbors who told me it wasn’t about race last year when a white man aggressively tailed and photographed an African American woman visiting my home for the first time on the very same block where the flag now stands; the psychology colleagues who insisted that “You speak English very well” is not an example of a racial microaggression in last week’s continuing education workshop on diversity.

Sometimes I wish I could utter the prayer of Gethsemane: Lord, if it be thy will, take this desire for reconciliation from me. But having been seduced into God’s mission of reconciliation, I could not, even if I wanted to. So I keep pressing forward, training my gaze to focus on the visible signs of hope as I endure the pain of the struggle.

And when that fails, it’s time to get a massage.

I Am Not the Help

“Which one of you is going to help me write my book?” The woman shouted her question at us for the third time, clearly not getting that our lack of response signaled that she was being inappropriate. The five of us had just entered the pool at the luxurious spa. We were probably an odd sight: five African American women hanging out at a spa on a Monday. We were a group of scholars working together on interdisciplinary volume on Black women and mental health. The project’s editor suggested that we embody good health practices with a full-day writing retreat. Truthfully, we did more retreating than writing.

We started our day at the pool. Two older White women were lingering after their water aerobics class. “Come on in!” they said, “the water feels great!” Their invitation was followed promptly with the question, “Are y’all celebrating something?” The spa is a frequent destination for weddings and spa parties, so it was a fair question to ask. When we responded that we were there to work on our book, one woman answered, “Oh, you’re writers! Y’all can help me write my book!” It wasn’t a question inasmuch as it was a demand. She affirmed that she was serious by asking repeatedly over the next 20 minutes: “Which one of you is going to help me write my book?”

It would be easy to dismiss her demand as a failure of emotional intelligence. But for each of us, it echoed a common experience that we’ve had as Black women: White women’s assumption that we are “the help.” For most of our history in the U.S., women of African descent have labored primarily in service to white women. Until the Civil Rights Movement, it was the only option available to most of us. As late as 1970, the average Black woman had a tenth grade education, worked as a domestic, and lived at or below the poverty line.

scarletthillaryFast forward four decades and the average Black woman has a bachelor’s degree, works in a professional or management field, and makes at least $25,000. But that doesn’t mean we have left service work behind. In many areas of the south, white families still employ Black and Latina women as household domestics. And Black women make up a disproportionate number of the “new domestics”: custodial workers, nannies, and nursing home staff. In each of these jobs, Black women from the U.S., the Caribbean, and Africa take care of White children, White elders, White homes, and White businesses.

In the 21st century, many Whites are so accustomed to us as their servers that they have a hard time imagining us in any other role. In my experience, this happens especially with White women. Here is a common scenario:

White woman: “Excuse me, where is the [insert random item here]?

Me: “I have no idea.” [Employs dismissive tone.]

White woman: “Oh, I thought you worked here.”

Me: “No, I don’t.” [How in the hell do I look like I work here when we’re in Target and I am not wearing a red shirt and khakis? Not to mention I’m carrying my damn purse and putting stuff in my basket?]

I have been mistaken for the help in Target on more times than I can count. Grocery stores, too. And I’m never wearing anything that looks remotely like the store uniforms.

Ironically, the woman in the pool that day was a Christian. Phrases like “Praise God” and “Amen” littered her conversation. Her book, it turned out, was a memoir on spiritual warfare. I should have asked her if she would be writing about the powers and principalities of patriarchal racism.

Even more ironically, her demand seemed very similar to my experience at a Christian social justice festival just a few days earlier. I had given a short talk on Black women’s erasure from discussions of racial justice before opening the floor for dialogue. The first person to raise her hand was a White woman, who asked, “What can I as a White woman do to help?” I gave a few ideas, including the strong suggestion that White men and women stop expecting Black women to educate them and do their own work (unless they compensate us). After the session ended, the woman told me that she enjoyed the talk but that I hadn’t really answered her question. “I want to know what to do. No one ever tells me what to do.”

I wanted to scream at her, “Did you not hear a word I said about doing your own damn work? Stop expecting us to do the work for you! I am not your Mammy!” Instead, I referred her to a few books and politely took my leave.

By the time that I got to the pool, I had reached the end of politeness. So I stayed away from our interlocutor. Or at least I tried. It was a small pool. Fortunately, one of our members had the name of a writing coach handy. That seemed to deflect her demands.Black-woman11

To be honest, though, I grow weary of deflecting White women’s expectation that I be their help. It takes too much emotional and intellectual labor, especially when it involves people with whom I am not in relationship, such as my students and friends. I am not your superwoman. And I am definitely not your help.

White Friends: Here’s Your Bill for My Racial Labor

Dear White Friend,

Thank you for choosing me as your consultant for your recent questions and concerns about racism and/or racial reconciliation. I trust that your needs were met and you were satisfied with the level of grace, thoughtfulness, and honesty with which I responded to your inquiry. Below you will find the invoice for my services.

You may be surprised at this new billing structure. For many years, I have provided these services freely. Being a racial ambassador is part of my call to God’s ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:16-20), and I am grateful for the privilege of working with you. But the “worker deserves [her] wages” (Luke 10:7).

I am sure that you will find this new billing structure to be significantly reduced given my credentials, which include:

  • 40+ years of lived experience as an African Racial labor invoiceAmerican woman living in the southern United States, with a multigenerational legacy of slavery, sharecropping, and involvement in the Civil Rights Movement.
  • 13 years of formal, self-funded education in cultural and gender studies, theology, and psychology, resulting in 2 bachelor’s degrees, 2 master’s degrees, and a Ph.D.
  • 12 years as a scholar and teacher in these areas, with dozens of academic and lay publications, including my recent book, Too Heavy a Yoke: Black Women and the Burden of Strength.
  • 20 years of clinical and ministerial experience with people of color and economically disadvantaged populations.

The attached invoice does not bill for prior expenses. It is limited to expenses incurred directly as a result of our recent conversation, specifically the time for services rendered (time that could have been devoted to professional activities for which I am paid) as well as the considerable emotional distressed induced by our conversation.

Racism is not an academic subject that I study objectively or from a safe psychological distance. It is a systemic oppression that envelops my daily existence. When you come seeking answers to your questions, you are asking me to delve into thoughts, memories, and experiences that are bathed in emotion. Memory cannot be separated from emotion. So when you ask me to recall an event, you are also asking me to recall – even re-experience – the fear, anger, and sadness that accompanied it.

Further, each time I engage in conversation with you on these topics, I do so fully knowing that you may dismiss my experience. You may employ your white privilege to tell me that my interpretation is invalid, that you know more about my experience than I do, that your limited time thinking about race trumps my four decades of living with it.

Even if you do listen to and trust my experience, at the end of our dialogue, you get to walk away from it. I, in turn, slip further down the rabbit hole of painful racialized memory.

There are also the costs of continuing education. I work constantly to be informed about issues of race. This includes keeping up with the latest publications on race and gender, even those not in my discipline, so that I can serve as your personal reference librarian. That in itself is a costly endeavor. I am also required to keep informed about national issues such as Ferguson, Baltimore, Rachel Dolezal, and the Charleston shooting. That means that I am continually subjected to cultural trauma, which has significant impact upon my health and well-being.

Previously, I have simply absorbed these costs. I am unable to continue to do so. Thus, I am requiring beneficiaries of my expertise to compensate me for the financial, emotional, and physical costs associated with this labor.

It is impossible to estimate the actual monetary value of my services. Instead, I am billing you for the therapeutic services required to recover my equilibrium following our conversations. These include flotation therapy, massage therapy, and acupuncture. You may remit payment by calling FLO2S or Massage Associates of Atlanta to put a credit on my account.

For high-frequency clients, I strongly recommend that you put my services on retainer by purchasing a FLO2S monthly membership or a Massage Associates of Atlanta acupuncture series.

If you are unable to work with this billing structure, I would be happy to refer you to an alternative provider for future consultations.

Sincerely,

Chanequa Walker-Barnes

Attachment: Racial labor invoice