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.”

What You Don’t Know About the Cosby Allegations

Many people think the allegations about Bill Cosby are part of some plot to destroy the legacy of powerful Black men. Some of you have been people whom I respect. I’ve been trying to figure out how you think so many women could be lying (some probably are, but not all). I’m trying to figure out how you think that one woman should have had the courage to come forward 30 years ago when no one believes 50 now. But then I realize you don’t know the stories.

You don’t know how many other stories are out there, some carried til the grave, some whispered from mother to daughter, some told only in the company of women who are willing to hear.

You don’t know that 4 out of every 10 Black women you know carry these stories. You don’t know just how many of us have been raped. You don’t know just how many of your family members, your leaders, your superstars, your heroes have been raping us.

You don’t know how many legacies Black women have protected and continue to protect. You don’t know how many of your heroes’ images we could take a hammer to, if we were simply to tell the truth about them.

You don’t know because you don’t want to know. You don’t ask us to share our stories. You don’t read, watch, or listen to our stories. You don’t attend the conferences, seminars, or courses about “women’s issues.” In your “race-first” mentality, you put our “issues” on the backburner in the name of racial solidarity. Meanwhile, you parade our rapists in your pulpits, lamenting their legacies while we’re trying to hold together the pieces of our shattered selves.

You do it over and over again, unless the accused is a white man, in which case you line up in front of the cameras and demand justice.

You create an environment in which it is impossible to tell. And when we finally tell, when we finally get up the courage, you say, “You must be lying because it wouldn’t have taken you so long.”

You don’t know. But you could know if you simply tried. The question is whether you want to.

If you’re ready to listen, to learn, to know, educate yourself. Below are a few resources to help you get started.

Watch this clip from Aishah Shahidah Simmons’ NO! The Rape Documentary. Then watch the full video. You can order it here. You can also check your local public and university libraries. Many of them will have it or order it upon your request.

rose-longing-to-tellRead an excerpt from Tricia Rose’s Longing to Tell: Black Women Talk about Sexuality and Intimacy. The firsthand narratives will help you to understand just how many Black women’s experiences of sexuality involve rape, incest, and other forms of abuse. The amazing thing is that Dr. Rose did not necessarily set out to study sexual assault. It’s just that common.

surviving-the-silence.jpgRead an excerpt from Charlotte Pierce-Baker’s Surviving the Silence: Black Women’s Stories of Rape. Dr. Pierce-Baker, herself a survivor, explores the silence surrounding sexual assault within African American families and communities.

Check out the website for Men Stopping Violence, an organization that mobilizes men to prevent violence against women and girls. If you’re a father, make sure you check out their Because We Have Daughters initiative, which gives fathers the knowledge and skills to empower their daughters and reduce their risk of victimization.

And guess what? After you do all this, you can still think that Bill Cosby may be innocent. But perhaps you will know how to talk about the allegations against him in a way that doesn’t contribute to rape culture.


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…