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.

My Book Is Coming!

When there are long periods of inactivity on my blog, it’s usually because I’m working on a book project. Over the past two years, I’ve been grinding away at a book on racial reconciliation, I Bring the Voices of My People: A Womanist Vision of Racial Reconciliation. It will be out this fall and is available for pre-order now.

People often ask me how long it takes me to write a book. That’s a hard question to answer. With both of my books now, I spend years living the book before I sit down to write the book. I spent 10 years immersed in the Christian racial reconciliation movement, from 2006-2016. From the beginning, I was plagued by “Yes, but” moments, but that didn’t stop me from being all in. I loved being in spaces where diverse Christians had honest convo about race and racism. I had only experienced that previously in Black church spaces.

Even though it always felt something was missing, my view of the movement was rose-colored for a long time, probably because I was surrounded by its best: folks like Jonathan Wilson-Hartgove, Dominique Gilliard, Zakiya Jackson, Jonathan Brooks, Soong-Chan Rah, Vince Bantu, and the late Richard Twiss. I thought they represented the norm (spoiler: they don’t).

It honestly took me a while to recognize the movement was almost wholly evangelical. It was an “oh shit” moment but I stayed. Since childhood, I’ve always had an “outsider within” status  that helps me bridge diverse groups. If we share common cause, I can be down with you and we can work through our differences. I’ve always been the person whose friendship group included the most popular kids and the social outcasts. And I could usually get them to the same table sometimes.

So there I was: a radical womanist theologian in an evangelical world, bringing my full hermeneutic of suspicion amongst folks with inerrant and infallible views of scripture. Talk about the lion lying down with the lamb! (Wait, am I the lion or the lamb?). It was bonkers. But again, I was surrounded by a “guilded ghetto” of radical evangelicals so I thought there was greater possibility than there actually was. It didn’t take long for me to realize the movement has a very shallow theology of reconciliation. Ok, it has NO theology of reconciliation. It’s more like a vague biblical inspiration lived out through a weak relational praxis. (That kind of describes most of White US Christianity, doesn’t it?)

There are some great scholars who’ve examined the idea of reconciliation. James Cone and J. Deotis Roberts wrote books debating the idea with each other decades ago. The movement NEVER pays attention to them. Allan Boesak and Curtiss DeYoung have also produced rigorous thinking in this area. But the movement prefers literature about friendships among Black and White men. The dominant evangelical paradigm of reconciliation is so weak that it disintegrates whenever issues of intersectionality arise. That’s why womanists generally don’t even fuck with the concept. We know evangelicals ain’t about that life.

It’s a mistake, though, to assume that Black women and other women of color don’t write and teach about reconciliation. We do it all the time, but we don’t use the word “reconciliation.” We don’t even use language that most evangelicals would recognize as being about reconciliation. There is a whole canon of Black women’s literature envisioning what healing and justice look like in a world fractured by racism, patriarchy, and classism. Not to mention all the kitchen table wisdom handed on from Black mothers, grandmothers, and aunties, who know “relationship” is not the answer to racism. Because we have ALWAYS been in relationship with white women, men, and children in our forced roles as domestics. And that doesn’t protect us.

So that’s what I attempt to do in I Bring the Voices of My People. I try to bring all that wisdom to describe how race and racism work, what reconciliation really looks like, and how faith can help us to work toward it. There are no “Can’t we all just get along?” stories here. Honestly, I want to blow up the whole racial reconciliation movement, turn it upside down, inside out, eviscerate it, and then say, “Start all over.” But because I’m pastoral caregiver, I won’t tear down without at least attempting to build up. So I’mma give y’all some tools. I pray that they’re meaningful.

White Feminist Privilege and the War on Mother’s Day

Over the past few days, I have watched a stark racial divide develop among my social media friends, many of whom are progressive clergy, academics, and social justice activists. The divide in itself is not unusual. I have noticed it each time that some major social justice concern has occurred, whether it is the impending execution of a White woman, the videorecording of police killing an unarmed Black person, or the unjust conviction and sentencing of a Black women defending herself from an abusive partner.  Just like most of U.S. society, social justice concerns tend to be divided along racial/ethnic and class lines. So the mostly White activists organizing on behalf of Kelly Gissandaner are largely silent about Marissa Alexander. And the mostly Black female crowd organizing on behalf of Marissa are largely silent about Kelly.

mothers-dayBut the latest issue that divides my Facebook and Twitter pals is not a social justice concern. It’s Mother’s Day. For some reason this year, the holiday is engendering some vigorous antipathy. There’s been a proliferation of anti-Mother’s Day articles. Anne Lamott’s 2010 Salon article, “Why I Hate Mother’s Day,” seems to have started a new genre of writing. Several writers have joined their voices with hers to lament this holiday that celebrates mothers to the exclusion of non-mothers. One writer agrees with Lamott’s disdain for the holiday but says that it’s for an entirely different reason. Another argues that “Mother’s Day is NOT a Liturgical Holiday.” Every article has some variation of the same argument: Mother’s Day is bad because it makes too big a deal of mothers.

It’s bizarre that so many people are spending time complaining about a day that they think receives too much attention. It’s even more bizarre that it’s mostly my White feminist friends who keep posting these articles on social media, with comments such as “This writer says everything I ever thought about Mother’s Day.” In contrast, my Black, Latino, Asian, and Native American friends and acquaintances are largely silent on the issue.

Actually, they’re not silent. They are posting photos of and tributes to the women who have mothered them, to those whose mothering they admire, and even to the children who have made them mothers. They are posting articles about women of color whose rights to mother were taken away by hospitals and Christian missionaries who stole their babies, by states who forcibly sterilized them, and by a society that undervalues them.

moms14n-1-webThey are reminding us to pray for the exclusive mothers’ club whose membership consists of women whose unarmed Black and Latino children have been killed by police and white civilians. They are grieving along with people who are motherless or childless for a number of reasons – death, neglect, abuse, infertility. They are acknowledging that all mothering is not good and that many people have complicated relationships with their mothers. In the  best traditions of womanist, mujerista, and Native and Asian American feminist thought, women and men of color are both celebrating Mother’s Day and lamenting the sources of individual and systemic pain that the day can bring.

I suppose it’s much easier to denigrate a day that venerates motherhood when it is your culture’s ideal of motherhood that’s being elevated, when your right and capacity to mother have never been systemically questioned, threatened, or denied. But for some of us, motherhood has not always been a crystal stair.

Tread lightly, my white feminist sisters. Your privilege is showing.

Interview with Rachel Held Evans

Last month, New York Times bestselling author Rachel Held Evans asked to interview me about Too Heavy a Yoke. Here’s an excerpt below.

Today I am thrilled to introduce you to Dr. Chanequa Walker-Barnes, a theologian and psychologist whose mission is to serve as a catalyst for healing, justice, and reconciliation in the Christian church and beyond.

I first learned about Dr. Walker-Barnes when Christena Cleveland wrote a stirring response to her first book, Too Heavy a Yoke: Black Women and the Burden of Strength, which examines the impact that the icon of the StrongBlackWoman has upon the health and well-being of African American women. I was so intrigued I read the book myself and was challenged, encouraged, and moved by it. The chapter on the Trinity profoundly changed the way I think about self-sacrifice and interdependence, particularly as a woman, so I knew the moment I finished the book I had to have the author on the blog. 

Read the rest of the interview here.

On Being an Icon

“That’s a ghetto name!”, he said. I didn’t have time to respond. His classmate, another teen court-ordered to participate in an intervention program for juvenile gun offenders, immediately admonished him: “Don’t call people’s name ‘ghetto.’ That’s rude!”

Over the past two decades, I have grown accustomed to my name – Chanequa – becoming the iconic ghetto name – used by comedians, singers (remember Oran “Juice” Jones: “Shaniquaaaa…ya got me whupped”), and celebrities who mistake themselves as intellectuals (remember Bill Cosby’s 2004 speech to the NAACP?). Whenever someone wants to evoke the image of a gum-popping, neck-wagging, eye-rolling, hand-on-hip-placing, lower class African American woman, Chanequa (and all its variations: Sheniqua, Shaniqua, Shenikwa, etc.) becomes a common target.

I was born in 1972. As Lisa Jones would say, I am a movement baby whose Mississippi-born mother reached back to Africa for some sonic inspiration when naming her first-born. She had no book of African baby names to draw upon, just a deep longing to give her baby girl a name that would mark her as special, as touched by the ancestors. Pulling from a rich family heritage of unique names (Laquitta, Lunetha, Sarita, and so on), she sat down one day and started putting letters together.

I find it ironic that my name has become identified with some of the worst stereotypes of African American women. As far as I know, I am the original Chanequa. While the name has become increasingly popular over the past three decades, I have never heard of a Chanequa who is older than me (and trust me, I always ask). So until someone proves otherwise, I am the prototype.

And just to be clear about what the prototype looks like: I am a highly educated (Mr. Cosby – that’s 3 graduate degrees, each of them earned, not honorary), sophisticated, ambitious woman. Happily married for 13 years, I live in the suburbs and drive a mid-sized SUV (the last two are not necessarily points of pride, just counterpoints to the prevailing image). I am a voracious reader of theology, cultural criticism, historical fiction, fantasy, and memoir.

I love documentaries and hip-hop. I make my own granola and can cook up a mean pot of greens. I love being among the folk, but I’m also comfortable in environments where I am the first, the only, or the youngest. I am grounded in what I believe to be the best of my culture even as I try to transcend and transform some of its worst elements. And I love seeing the looks on people’s faces when they realize that this icon of all things “ghetto” is capable of deconstructing the classist and racist assumptions behind the term with minimal intellectual effort.

In other words, my name is Chanequa and I am the ish. So stop taking my name in vain.

Stay Tuned

I’ve been AWOL from this blog for much of the past year. Actually, AWOL isn’t the best term…let’s say I’ve been on maternity leave. But I think it’s time to write again. So new blogs should begin appearing within the next week. In the meantime, blessings on your journey!

Barkley Hendricks and the White Imagination

Last night, in celebration of Valentine’s Day, my husband and I went to see an exhibit by Barkley L. Hendricks. Known for his life-size paintings of ordinary African Americans, Hendricks’ work is shockingly realistic. I spent about 45 minutes walking through the exhibit. Most museum exhibits that I have seen have focused on the novel and the unfamiliar. But
surrounded by more than fifty of Hendricks’ huge paintings, I felt at home. These were faces that I knew. The detail to clothing, posture, and emotional expression was so remarkable that I expected each painting to come to life and begin talking to me as I gazed at it.

Later, there was a dialogue about African American men and body image that was inspired by Hendricks’ work. Did I mention that there were more than fifty paintings depicting a diverse array of black women and men from across the diaspora? Well, the sponsors of the dialogue chose to focus on one painting – Hendricks’ Brilliantly Endowed, a self-portrait of the artist
wearing nothing but a fedora, wristband, tube socks and sneakers.

Because I’d stepped outside of the exhibit hall for a drink of water and had gotten waylaid by a conversation with a friend, I missed the first part of the discussion. When I returned, I found a group of mostly white (and some Asian) faces sitting and standing in front of Hendricks’ exposed
penis. On an easel at the front of the group there was a flipchart with these words:







hip hop











really nice guys




in control


in your face














As I stood looking at the chart, a few African American couples joined the crowd, including my friend and her companion. Each pair began murmuring among themselves. Finally, a young man leaned over and whispered, “Were you here when they put together that list?” None of us were.

And we were all wondering what question had led to that left side. Perhaps they had specifically asked for negative stereotypes about black men. That was my hope anyway, even though I suspected otherwise.

At one point my friends’ companion spoke to the group at large: “It’s disturbing to walk in here and to feel so good about being surrounded by paintings of people who look like men, and then to come over here and see how the artist’s work is being received. I suspect that it tells us less about the artist than it does about the audience.” A middle-aged white woman spoke up cheerily, trying to reassure: “I don’t think you were here when we did the exercise. The left side wasn’t actually in response to his work.” As if that made it better.

At the end of the dialogue, I asked one of the facilitators, a young Asian woman, about the question that had prompted the list. She responded brightly, “Oh, we didn’t have anything on the paper other than the two headings, Black Males Today and Black Males in His Art. We just
asked people to say what came to mind when they thought of black males today. It could have been from media, from perception, from anything. Then for the other side, we told them to say what comes to mind when they thought of black males in his art.”

Ironic. At a time when a black man has made history by becoming the first person of color to have a viable chance of becoming the presidential nominee for one of our major parties, it is the stereotyped representations of African American men that whites spontaneously report (and
yes, I’m ignoring the “really nice guys” given that it’s a pathetically absurd attempt to make up for what came before it). That this was supposedly the educated, progressive crowd made it even worse.

But perhaps the real tragedy is that there are some African Americans, including those in high-profile positions, who seek to capitalize off of and perpetuate this image. BET (aka Booties Every Time) comes to mind. Which image do you think a white cop is more likely to have in mind when he encounters a black man with a wallet in his hand? How about a white human resources manager when she receives an application from a black man? Based on the list above, it is certainly not Barack Obama’s “bright, clean, and articulate” self. Clearly, this is not just entertainment.

Directly across from Brilliantly Endowed was another image, Sweet Thang (Lynn Jenkins), a painting of one of Hendricks’ black female students from Connecticut College. Slumped on a sofa, hand up to her head, the sister has a look of resigned frustration that is reminiscent of Fanny
Lou Hamer’s, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.” I’d been drawn to the painting my first time through the gallery. After the group discussion, it became my clear favorite. Looks like that sister had just been around a group of white folks having a discussion just like this one.