Explaining the ‘Splaining

By Lori Rodriguez

If you’ve been in social justice land for any period of time, you’ve probably heard the term “mansplaining”. It happens constantly, like the time this random bro on Twitter tried to mansplain to an astronaut.

‘Splaining is a handy term that means “to explain comment on something in a condescending, overconfident,and often inaccurate or oversimplified manner, from the perspective of the group one identifies with.” For this discussion it is important to note that -splaining is appended to the identity of a privileged group that is oversimplifying or inaccurately explaining the lived experiences of members of an oppressed group. It names the phenomenon that occurs when members of the privileged group draw on the percieved authority of their privilege to speak on and over the experiences and realities faced by members of oppressed groups. It’s not always intentional - not every ‘splainer will set out with the intention to ‘splain the world to someone who is oppressed (and often times, many of them think they’re being helpful!) But the thing is, the intentions don’t matter - a ‘splain is a ‘splain.

The first (and probably the most recognizable) ‘splain is Mansplaining.

Mansplaining most often emerges from men who speak upon the lived experiences of femmes (though men can mansplain to non-binary folks too). In particular, I want to explore instances where mansplainers disguise themselves as “well meaning feminists” claiming to respect women, and women’s rights and all that.

The problem is that feminism isn’t just a label - it’s a practice, and if a well-meaning-feminist-identifying man uses his feminist cred to talk over the experiences of women, he’s still a ‘splainer. The resulting irony is that these men can fall into the habit of taking up space, silencing femmes, and perpetuating sexism and femmephobia. All of this is probably why I ran into a situation a few days ago where a femme friend of mine was accused of mansplaining by a well-meaning “feminist” man.

Here’s the thing:

Women can condescend to, disrespect and hurt masculine folks (and in doing so, can elicit a lot of the same feelings that a mansplainer does), but these actions are never committed with the full backing of patriarchy. Femmes are generally outside of the masculinity driven patriarchy. Therefore women/femmes can't enact the essential part of mansplaining - the deployment of hundreds of years of flawed cultural logic intended to make feminine identifying folks feel as if their entire perception of the world is wrong because of their gender identity.

Institutionalized perceptions shape everything including the tropes and history we draw upon to make sense of the world. Because of that, we have to remember that oppression isn’t just a feeling. It’s the way our entire world is shaped by histories and power and how that history and power gets mapped onto the way that others (and we ourselves) make sense of our bodies and lives and the way we move through the world. It’s really essential to name the ways oppression appears – otherwise we can’t solve the problem.

And the way that Mansplaining appears? It’s informed by this historic and systemic power inequity.

Mansplaining isn’t the only type of ‘splaining unfortunately:

Whitesplaining perpetuates the stereotyping, erasing, and silencing of marginalized racial groups. It is what happens when a white person tries to explain a systemic issue like racism absent any acknowledgment of those who are actually affected by the given system of oppression. Well-meaning white folks, politicians, and peers often whitesplain to demonstrate their awareness of discrimination, launching into monologues about studies they’ve read, articles they’ve seen, stories they’ve heard. In so doing, whitesplainers silence people of color who are the experts on their own lived experiences.

In the pursuit of demonstrating their tolerance, their behavior perpetuates a lot of the oppressive things racism does. Whitesplaining operates from the belief that those who embody whiteness are the supreme authority. We saw this during the first Presidential Debate when Donald Trump implied all Black people have a monolithic experience of oppression in America. The thing is, this ham-fisted acknowledgement of oppression actually perpetuates a specific type of oppression called “tokenization”; the erasure of someone’s humanity in service of making them representative of their group.   

This video does a great job of showing whitesplaining in action, and you should watch it if you haven’t before.

But wait - haven’t we all seen people of color (POC) tell other POC that their experience of the world is wrong and try to legitimize it by referring to white sources (the media, the news, books about white people written by white people, referring to white history, etc)? Does that count as whitesplaining?

Short answer: no. Just like with mansplaining, it can be described by a lot of other words (rude is the first one that jumps into my mind), but only a white person can whitesplain. And that’s because it’s only white people who have the historical and cultural legitimacy to draw on the power of whiteness.  POC can also draw on that whiteness to legitimize their experiences, but that’s something else altogether (also to be saved for another post).

There are more ‘splains to cover and originally we planned on discussing cisplaining. As you might guess, it works in many of the same ways that these other ‘splains do, but there’s a lot of terms we have to define and concepts go over first because gender is really complex, and there’s a lot of conversations going on right now about what it is and how it works. As you might have noticed, I played a little fast and loose with the terms “man” “woman” “femme” and “masculine” when writing the mansplain bit, and will definitely get back to talking about gender at a later point in time. Stay tuned to the blog for next week’s discussion on Gender Diversity.

So, to circle back around: a ‘splain is when someone in a position of power or privilege uses that privilege to silence someone from a marginalized group in discussions about their experiences as members of an oppressed group. People from marginalized groups cannot ‘splain to folks from privileged groups.