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…
I CAN’T EVEN.
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.