Breaking Down the Problem with Mansplaining (And Other Forms of Privileged Explaining)

Source: The Atlantic

Source: The Atlantic

I often feel thankful to feminism for providing me with terms that perfectly capture the agonizing everyday experiences that are often overlooked or simply too difficult to define.

For me, one such elusive agonizing experience was that of a man trying to tell me something in a patronizing tone, assuming that I couldn’t possibly know it already because I am a woman.

You guessed it—mansplaining.

“I don’t think you know the difference between analogue and digital. Let me explain. Analogue is…”

“Do you even know what a cricket bat is?”

“Press ‘Ctrl’ and ‘C’ to copy text.”

The term mansplaining saved me a lot of frustration. I finally had a name for this ugly social phenomenon; I finally realized that so many women faced the same problem, the same male behavior.

It was a relief to see that so many women were able to notice a subtle form of oppression in our society; that so many women were talking about it.

So let’s keep the conversation going.

Defining Mansplaining (And Other Forms of Privileged Explaining)

As often happens with things that get talked about a lot, mansplaining is misunderstood and misinterpreted by many. So let’s clear the air.

We can define privileged explaining as condescending explanation by members of a socially, culturally, or legally privileged group in their interaction with those who don’t hold the same privileges.

It is done with a subconscious assumption that the person belonging to the oppressed or less privileged group (the listener) is ignorant, inaccurate, or wrong on the subject matter by virtue of being part of that group—hence the “condescending” part.

More specifically, privileged explaining often happens in situations where the person of privilege is explaining a marginalized person’s own experience to them.

Types and Examples of Privileged Explaining

There are a multitude of different privileges, so it follows that there are a multitude of different types of privileged explaining. Here are a few of the most common, and some examples of how they appear in everyday life.

Mansplaining is the social behavior or phenomenon whereby men patronizingly explain something simple to a woman, under the assumption that she would not already know it because she is a woman.

For example—men offering women unsolicited advice on how to change a tire, or taking it upon themselves to explain to a woman the rules of supposedly “male” sport. Unless she’s asked for help changing her tire, or expresses an interest in learning more about that particular sport, you can’t assume that she doesn’t already know these things. But men often do—“because she’s a woman”.

Mansplaining can also take the form of men explaining to women that “street harassment is a compliment,” or men explaining to women what feminism is or what feminists should be lobbying for.

It’s characterized by men ignoring and invalidating women’s lived experiences with situations that these men just don’t have.

An example of whitesplaining is white people telling people of color that they have misinterpreted a racist comment. It doesn’t matter if your comment was intended to be a joke, or if you were quoting someone else—if a person of color calls you out, you don’t get to explain away the racism.

Whitesplaining can also take the form of white people taking it upon themselves to explain to the people of color their own culture. At best, it’s embarrassing. At worst, it’s erasure of that person’s experience. Either way, don’t do it.

Straightsplaining is when a person with straight privilege condescendingly explains something to a person who is not heterosexual, or offers their opinion on, for example, how queer identities are active choices.

Unless you’re queer, you don’t get to explain someone’s queer identity—especially not to queer people!

An example of cisplaining is a cis person saying, “I think that if the gender binary didn’t exist, then trans identities wouldn’t need to exist either.” When did it become your job to enforce hypotheticals as a means of invalidating someone’s identity?

In general, if you’re a privileged person and you’re trying to explain the intricacies of a marginalized group’s oppression to a member of that marginalized group, you are probably privileged-explaining. Stop it.

The Roots of Privileged Explaining

Noticing something as far-reaching as the phenomenon of privileged explaining begs the question: How did this become such a problem?

Put simply, privileged explaining derives its existence from the privilege/oppression dichotomy in society.

For instance, male privilege allows men to interrupt, dominate and dictate. So can you guess where mansplaining comes from? Yup—male privilege.

This male privilege is a key element of the patriarchy, which in itself is a subset of the kyriarchy. The kyriarchy in our society makes sure that privileged groups remain privileged and continue to benefit from the oppression of several groups.

Therefore, privileged explaining is more than a harmless explanation by a speaker of a particular identity to a listener of another identity; it is a reflection of the institutionalized power and privilege hierarchy at the individual level.

Also, we must remember that power and privilege change with context. Since we have more than one identity, we are most likely to find ourselves oppressed because of certain identities, and privileged because of certain others.

Let’s take an example of a White woman. As a woman, she might find herself at the receiving end of oppression when a man mansplains to her. But at the same time, she might engage in whitesplaining in her interaction with people from other races.

Similarly, a cisgender South Asian man who might find himself being whitesplained by a White woman, but may very well also practice cisplaining.

It is important to note that being oppressed in one area doesn’t erase our privileged in another.

How To Avoid Privileged Explaining

So we’ve established that privileged explaining is bad: it’s oppressive, it plays into the kyriarchy, and it ignores the lived experiences of marginalized people. And you want to stop doing it—great! But how do you go about making this behavioral change?

1. Know When To Talk

It can be hard to hear that your arguments do not hold much importance in feminist circles, especially if you’re new to feminism, and especially if you’re accustomed to privilege.

But feminism doesn’t aim to exclude people with privileges. It aims to uplift the voices of those without certain privileges. And if you don’t check your privileges, and instead hijack a feminist discussion by handing out random complex arguments, you are not contributing to feminism in any way.   

Also, it is important that privileged people talk—especially in spaces that are closed to people from the marginalized groups.

For instance, if you are a man, your arguments against rape jokes would be more crucial to feminism inside a boys’ sports locker room than in a discussion between your girlfriend and her friends.

2. Acknowledge the Lived Experiences of Other People

With privilege comes the subconscious belief that our lived experiences give us the expertise to speak on any subject or on somebody else’s life struggles.

Societal privileges associated with certain ascribed identities—such as sex (male) and race (white)—condition us to believe that our experiences are the norm or are universal, that somehow our lived experiences make our arguments more legitimate.

And that’s not a dig! It’s not your fault that society privileges certain parts of your identity. But it is your job to check that.

It is vital that we pay attention to people who share with us their experiences. These are often experiences that we have no way of knowing personally, and the only way to begin to understand them is to listen to those who do know them personally.

3. Let Go of Assumptions

Many people get defensive when someone calls them out on their privilege explaining—in their minds they were only trying to help. But maybe your help isn’t always asked for.

It is not wrong to believe that you have in-depth knowledge on a subject. It is also not wrong to want to be able to share that knowledge with others who show interest in the same subject.

But it is wrong to assume that the person you’re talking to doesn’t know the subject—or worse, is too “simple” to understand it.

Pay attention to the assumptions you’re making about what other people understand. And then try to dismantle those assumptions.

4. Pay Attention

As you learn more about condescending behavioral patterns, make an effort to notice them in your real life.

Start by noticing when other people do it. Did you see a male colleague double-check a problem that a female colleague had already fixed? Did you notice that the behavior arose from a mix of sexism and mansplaining? Then you’re paying attention.

Once you notice these behaviors in others, then pay closer attention to your own behavior.

If you find yourself in a situation where you think you can’t tell if your behavior will fall under privilege explaining, ask yourself, would you still say or do the exact thing if you were in a conversation with a person with similar privileges as your own?

Apologize when you find yourself in the wrong. It will bring you closer to understanding what kind of change is required from you and to living a life on feminist principles.

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In order to practice feminism in a way that grants dignity to all identities, we must rethink and restructure the narrative of our society.

One way of doing this is by calling out the dominant narratives of others and by redesigning our own behavioral patterns for a better social interaction and experience.

R. Nithya lives is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism and lives in New Delhi, India. She has a Bachelor’s in Journalism and a Master’s in Political Science and has worked as a reporter with an online political news and analysis magazine. She enjoys reading books while traveling on the metro, writing poetry on sleepless nights, and engaging in conversations on politics, feminism, and spirituality. These days she is practicing patience and presence. Read her articles here. Visit her here or follow her on Twitter @rnithya26.