How to Stop Mansplaining and Whitesplaining Your Way Through The World of Social Justice

Pretty much everyone living in the margins knows what it’s like to have their oppression and lived experiences explained to them by people who have never lived in struggle. For women of color, like myself, “splaining” is just another annoying aspect of the uneven social terrain we’ve always had to navigate. But in social justice spaces, and in online interactions with people who fancy themselves enlightened, these particular brands of condescension make my fists ball up – not because I expect people who speak the language of liberation to have their shit together, but because some of these folks really seem to believe that their good intentions make them our educators.

Cis men lecturing women and non-binary folks who are speaking to their own oppressions… white women telling women and non binary people of color that we are “missing the point” when we critique white feminism…


Assuming best intentions, please allow me to offer some helpful tips to those who mean well:

1. If you are a white woman, read up on the origins of white feminism in this country, and read the critiques of those movements that have been written from the perspective of POC. If you find yourself disagreeing with those critiques, it is very possible that you have been handed a brand of hero worship that is offensive to oppressed peoples. We were not valued by the movements that delivered many of the privileges you now enjoy, and many of the arguments that white women have historically made, in favor of their own liberation, have been made without regard for people of color, or at our expense.

Get your head around that and lift up those critiques.

You don’t have to devalue your own liberation to demand the freedom of others. You have the intellectual capacity to acknowledge that fucked up people sometimes do valuable things. You can appreciate that someone won you the right to vote, and the necessity of that victory, without making folk heroes out of racist feminist icons. So please try to value what you have without making others feel like shit. It’s worth the effort.

2. All white people: DO NOT tell a person of color who makes a statement about the oppression of their people that they are “missing” a point or “failing to take into account” an aspect of their oppression. You are not grading a paper, and we are not required to outline every salient point in every statement we make about our experiences. If you would like to add something, you can say something like “just to add to that,” or “I’ve also read,” or even “I also think it’s significant that,” without playing professor, like they have failed to complete the assignment of explaining oppressive systems in every commentary that they offer.

3. When people are experiencing oppressions that you do not, and giving voice to those experiences, DO NOT IMMEDIATELY CHALLENGE THEM. If you think they may be wrong about something, it’s fine to acknowledge that you had never seen it that way, but also acknowledge that there is a lot you haven’t experienced or been exposed to, and be willing to read, listen and stand with folks to feel out the truth of what they are saying. You don’t have to immediately agree, or ever agree, in order to learn from where someone is coming from. And not agreeing doesn’t mean you have to try to invalidate others. Society may have taught you – white males in particular – that your ideas are always valuable and  that you should always center and express them, but that’s a manifestation of white supremacy and patriarchy and you should be raging against it, both in practice and inclination.

4. Stop whining because you don’t feel included in people’s descriptions of their oppressions. There are plenty of oppressions to go around. Focus on building at the intersections of our experiences, rather than pretending that all of these things are just like the others.

5. Stop being frail about your privilege. When POC engage in gallows humor about white supremacy, it is a means of emotional survival. When POC complain about whiteness, it is the naming of an oppression, not a personal attack. When women and non binary people complain about the violence of cis masculinity, they are not calling you a rapist. They are speaking to what it means to live in a world dominated by violence that is indulged by the power structure. Appreciate that and be a traitor to the structures that are harming people, rather than requiring oppressed people to comfort you and hand out “nice guy” and “not a racist” merit badges. That’s not allyship, and it’s fucking exhausting.

6. Be more concerned with what you are healing, what you are building and whether or not you have caused harm than you are about being right. Maybe what you said was racist, transphobic, ableist or misogynistic, or maybe someone is simply experiencing it that way because they are so battered by this society that their feelings are raw and their sensitivities are heightened. Show them that you can be the ally who cares more about not causing harm than they do about being right. Show them that, regardless of what you think of your own words or actions, you don’t want to cause harm, and that if you have caused it somehow, healing and building forward are your priorities.

7. Stop trusting police.

That last one isn’t really about mansplaining or whitesplaining, but it’s something you should get on top of if you haven’t already.

I offer all of this with love, because while I believe in your intentions, I need you to care more about the impact of your words and actions than the intentions that inform them. I need you to be a traitor to white supremacy who flips the script by lifting our voices above the white noise of this society. I need you to stop ‘splaining oppression to those of us whose lives are daily lessons in how the world really works.

I need you to want for yourselves what I always want for myself: to do better.

And the Children Will Lead Us: A Song for Rekia

Thursday night, students from Chicago’s Village Leadership Academy gathered with their families, teachers and other community members in Douglas Park, to rally around the memory of Rekia Boyd, and to speak out against the criminalization of Black youth. The night carried a special significance to these students, as they not only stood with Rekia Boyd’s brother, Martinez Sutton, but also returned to the endpoint of the first march that the students organized, last January – the Cook Juvenile Detention Center.

“#TheyDontCare: A Musical March for Rekia” would have been an ambitious undertaking for seasoned adult organizers, but with junior high school students guiding children through the streets, the event was nothing short of astonishing. It was clearly a labor of love, born out of righteous intentions. Alex Escamilla, one of the event’s young organizers explained the students wanted to bring both hope and inspiration to the community and to “help people understand what the police are doing to our people.”

What began as a sidewalk march quickly spilled into the streets, as the crowd followed the leadership of exuberant young people. With adult allies on hand to ensure their safety, the children took charge of the moment, bringing an energy to the march that I hadn’t felt in quite some time.

Once the march claimed the streets, the group moved toward the detention center at a brisk pace, halting at major intersections to encircle students who had prepared songs and dance routines in the weeks before the event. In the words of Village Leadership Academy student A’mani Howard, “We are doing what the oppressors tried to keep our ancestors from doing. Like Maya Angelou once said ‘I am the dream and the hope of the slave.'”

Police closed in on the march multiple times, but fell back each time, eventually blocking off traffic to allow the group’s passage. Indifferent to the horns and sirens of impatient agents of the state, the group boisterously danced down Roosevelt, chanting and singing. At one point, Martinez Sutton could be seen  dancing and jumping at the front of the march alongside youth organizer Jakya Hobbs and others. After witnessing the heartache that Martinez and his family have endured since Rekia was shot and killed by an off-duty police officer, seeing him join young people in such a joyous moment was absolutely life giving.

Upon arriving at the detention center, the crowd began chanting out to the children inside, “We love you!” After circling the facility, Village Leadership Academy students recited poetry and shared their feelings about police in their communities.

No matter how many times I march to that facility, my heart will always ache at the sight of young people inside, trying to communicate with those who’ve come to show them that they are loved, and that they have not been forgotten.

The student organizers spoke in turns between chants, as the young people in the facility pounded on their windows and tried to convey messages to those of us outside.

The last speaker of the night was writer and organizer Mariame Kaba, who read poetry written by young people who are currently incarcerated in the detention center, before praising the leadership of the young people who planned the march. “We don’t need jails or prisons,” she told them, “keep dreaming of a world without them!”

Before the action, student organizer Jakya Hobbs said that she hoped that the march would “set the opportunity to unify our people and stand up and have fun while sending a powerful message.”

It did that and more.

More tweets from the march can be viewed here.

Criminalized Black Youth: Where Will They Go?

Today, as my afternoon workday flew by, I came across a deeply disturbing headline. The piece was called, “The New Jim Crow North Carolina? Charlotte City Council, Police Consider Banning Arrestees From ‘Public Safety Zones.'” As someone who works with young people in highly criminalized communities, I was horrified by what I was reading. The City Council of Charlotte, North Carolina, is considering barring people from entering areas where they have been arrested, as a means of reducing crime. While this is not a new concept, it is the kind of policy that many municipalities have wisely tossed on the historical scrapheap of bad ideas. In Portland, Oregon, the practice was abolished in 2007, amid controversy over the disproportionate number of Black people who were subject to exclusion.

But what does a local law like this one mean, at this particular moment in history?

We’ve seen the growing pushback against the Movement for Black Lives in recent months. We’ve seen young people’s protests against police violence vilified and blamed for rising crime rates, with conservatives ranting on about the so-called “Ferguson Effect,” despite the fact that no substantive evidence supports any such association.  We’ve seen mayors like Rahm Emanuel demand stiffer gun laws and more incarceration due to their own failure to maintain services that could actually reduce street crime. And we’ve seen how our young people are treated by the system, every day, from schools that have resident police officers, but no art teachers, to young people who are harassed and abused on street corners by police, for no apparent crime.

One need only take a look at the comments on any major news story about a young person of color to see where our youth stand in this system. Without bothering to read the article, many will insist that any young person of color harmed by police “shouldn’t have resisted” arrest. I recently observed this tendency in a comment thread attached to an article about Rekia Boyd. Commenters congratulated each other on being sensible enough to recognize that fighting a cop gets you killed. Rekia, of course, was not resisting arrest, or even under arrest. She was walking home from a park with her friends when she was shot by an off-duty police officer who thought her group of friends was making too much noise. But her innocence was irrelevant to these internet commenters. What mattered, in their minds, was the snapshot of her young, Black face.

She was young. She was Black. She must have deserved it.

Having seen these tendencies manifest themselves in cases large and small, from the indignity of a baseless search to the long term loss of a young person’s liberty, I find the thought of what’s been proposed in Charlotte deeply distressing. And we all should. Because it won’t stop there. The criminalization of our young people is a standard practice in the United States, and with young people pushing back against police brutality, things are bound to get worse. Anytime the movement gains ground, there will be a backlash. History has proven as much.

So when we see a news story like the “safety zone” debate in Charlotte, we should recognize it for what it is: a preview of a story that’s likely coming soon, to a neighborhood near you.

I don’t want to live in a world where anyone has to write an appeal to enter part of their own community, pleading that the state allow them access to their own home or workplace. I don’t want to live in the world we have now, where young Black and Brown people are treated as utterly disposable and inherently criminal. I don’t want to allow my city or any city to perpetuate anti-blackness with backward laws and thinly veiled recreations of Jim Crow. But living in a different world requires transformation, and that won’t come easy.

Quick fixes are rarely the real thing.

But we all know we owe our young people better than this. That’s why, today, I will be joining the young people of The Village Leadership Academy as they march for Rekia Boyd and against the criminalization of Black youth. It’s been a long week, but when young people tell us, “We are struggling. We are dying. We are fighting back,” and ask us to join them in action and in song, we have to show up if we can. Because we don’t want to live in a world where the students organizing today’s march are one day barred from their own communities over petty or non existent crimes.

If we want transformation, we have to support youth of color on the front lines, and we have to do it now. The enforcers of white supremacy are rallying against these young people. Will you rally behind them?

UPDATE: If you missed the march, where elementary students seized the streets in Chicago, you can have a look at what went down here. Give it a look and consider giving these young folks a social media shout out. They definitely deserve one.