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.

For Colored Girls: Tyler Perry’s Invitation to Lament

No bad news
No bad news
Don’t you ever bring me no bad news
‘Cause I’ll make you an offer, child
That you cannot refuse
So don’t nobody bring me no bad news

Those are the lyrics sung by Mabel King in her role as Evillene in The Wiz, the all-Black adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The irony, of course, is that Evillene (the wicked witch of whom kids were actually afraid) was the epitome of bad news. So is it strange, then, that this song leaped into my head when I thought about the resistance of some Black men, particularly Black male pastors, toward seeing Tyler Perry’s latest film, For Colored Girls?

Just to avoid misunderstanding, I am not labeling Black men or Black male pastors as the epitome of bad news for Black women (although some folks might, in the case of the latter). And I confess that I have leveled a fair share of criticism at Tyler Perry for his portrayals of African American women and African American romantic relationships. Earlier this year, in a post about Why Did I Get Married Too?, I wrote:

The essence of both Why Did I Get Married? films remains the same: Black romantic relationships are screwed up because: (1) there are a lot of no-count black men out there (i.e., the abusers, cheaters, etc.); and (2) black women are ball-busting bitches who don’t know how to appreciate a good thing when they find it.

Of course, I’m not alone in my criticism. Tyler Perry is to the blogosphere what George W. Bush was to late-night comedians. He provides plenty of fuel for the self-righteous indignation of…well, just about everybody.

As a teenager, I cut my womanist/feminist teeth on Ntozake Shange’s choreopoem, For colored girls who have considered suicide/When the rainbow is enuf. I’ve never seen the Broadway production, but the PBS film adaptation starring Lynn Whitfield and Alfre Woodard (as well as Shange herself) occupies a prominent place in my DVD collection. So I was more than skeptical when I learned that Perry had acquired the rights to Shange’s work and would be writing, directing, and producing it. Yet I also remained hopeful that he would somehow avoid butchering Shange’s elegant and heart-wrenching treatise on the lives and loves, struggles and triumphs of African American women. I wanted and needed Perry to do well with this film. And as the film’s release date neared and some positive reviews came pouring in, I became even more hopeful.

Since the film’s release, the feminist blogosphere has been afire with the criticisms of Perry’s adaptation, which has been labeled as a weak and undeserving imitation of Shange’s masterpiece. Other critics (read “probably White critics unfamiliar with Shange’s work”) have excoriated the film for its jumpy quality and lack of a cohesive storyline. Quite frankly, I disagree with all of them. Shange’s work is a highly artistic, complex piece that defies easy categorization. Perry took a feminist choreopoem aimed at a 1970s theater audience and produced a 2010 film that was relevant, accessible, and profitable. That’s not an easy undertaking. But he did it. And in my opinion, he did it well.

I was surprised by just how much I enjoyed the film. I went to see it with my colleague and fellow womanist theologian, Dr. Cheryl Kirk-Duggan. And I expected that we’d leave the film with a listful of complaints. Instead, we both walked out saying, “That was great!” But my delight met with another source of resistance: the individual boycotts of African American men who refused to see the film because of its assumed depictions of African American men as predators.

I heard the protests most frequently among male students and colleagues at the historically Black Baptist seminary at which I teach. At some level, I understand. After all, I am an African American woman, member of a racial-gender group whose images are routinely assassinated on the large and small screens. These days, a Black actress can hardly buy a job. But I digress…

I found a few ironies in the refusal of Black men who were leaders in the Christian church to watch the film. First, I doubt that many (any?) of them were basing their protest upon a careful reading of the original work. They were objecting to what they had “heard” about the film, not upon any concrete data. Second, it was the same stance which was articulated against The Color Purple in the 1980s and Waiting to Exhale in the 1990s. It seems that whenever a Black female writer’s narrative of Black women’s pain is adapted for film, some brothers turn into Evillene, mad at the possibility that someone might bring them some bad news. And as a consequence, the struggles of Black women’s lives are silenced behind a wall of Black male denial. “Don’t make brothers look bad” becomes a weapon of silence waged against African American women by Black patriarchy.

In the case of For Colored Girls, this is especially disheartening. For Colored Girls is an invitation into lament. It shatters the myth that Black women have transcended the burden of racism and provides a glimpse of the gendered forms of oppression that uniquely and/or disproportionately impact Black women in America: rape, incest, domestic violence, child abuse, HIV/AIDS, lack of social support, and problems in relationships of all kinds. In contrast to his prior work, Perry makes no attempt to wrap everything up in a nice, neat little bow at the end. The characters’ lives and pain are unresolved. There is no prince in shining armor coming to save the day. There is no quick fix. As an audience, we are simply invited to sit alongside these women (as well as the men) and to hear their stories for two hours. To cry with them, to hold them in our hearts, to see ourselves in them, and to see them in ourselves and in the women we know.

The church could learn a valuable lesson from that. Perry’s characters may be imagined, but they are also real. And they are in the church, sitting in the pews every Sunday morning, outfit tight and hair and makeup just right. They go to church, at least in part, hoping to receive a balm for their wounds, but also terrified of letting anyone see just how wounded they are. Perhaps they think that no one cares. Or maybe they don’t want to be the ones to bring their pastors “no bad news.”

Brothers – get your heads out of the sand. Go see the film. And if you’re a pastor or minister, take a few women with you. And after the film, sit with them for a while. Hear their stories. Cry with them. Hold them in your hearts. See yourself in them and see them in the women that you love. Don’t try to fix it. Don’t let your black male ego raise its defenses. Just lament.