You believe that Black Lives Matter. You profess your allyship. You've donated. You've signed petitions. You've shown up and you're doing the work. But if you're white and engaging in BIPOC conversations, you should be on high-alert for 'whitesplaining.'
What is ‘whitesplaining’?
Similar to 'mansplaining,' which according to Merriam-Webster, means "to explain something to a woman in a condescending way that assumes she has no knowledge about the topic," whitesplaining is when white people condescendingly explain something—typically about race—to Black, indigenous or people of color. The kicker? In most cases, the whitesplainer doesn't have the lived experience or education to even comment from a place of knowledge on the topic at hand. In doing so, even if "your intentions are good," the act of whitesplaining reaffirms racism and white supremacy.
There's also the whitesplaining that completely denies the existence of racism. As John Blake wrote for CNN, "'Whitesplaining' is an affliction that's triggered when some white people hear a person of color complain about racism. They will immediately explain in a condescending tone why the person is wrong, 'getting too emotional' or 'seeing race in everything.'" It's racial gaslighting, which Blake explains succinctly, "The implication: These white people know more about how racism operates than those who've struggled against it for much of their lives."
But, what if your intention—
Nope! No ifs, ands or buts! If you are actually trying to dismantle racism and white supremacy, the easiest way for you to start is with your own actions. And in over-talking, interrupting or assuming you know about this topic when in reality you've shown up to the conversation hundreds of years late, you're only proving that you're actually not ready to learn. If you're only comfortable in the position as teacher, it shows you're unable to give up power—even in a simple conversation or Instagram comment. And if you're a white person who resists giving up power that's a sign of...you guessed it, white supremacy.
So how do I stop whitesplaining?
Easy. You don't have to comment at all. At this stage in the game, your job is to be a good ally. Donate, study, amplify Black voices and continue learning. You can follow along in compelling dialogues, watch Instagram Lives with your favorite scholars and activists and simply—wait for it—listen. Listening can be a radical act when you're ready to relinquish power.
What are common ‘whitesplanations’ to watch out for?
Whether you're talking amongst friends, showing up to a protest or commenting on an Instagram post, watch out for these common whitesplanations.
In a 2016 piece, "6 Ways Well-Intentioned People Whitesplain Racism (And Why They Need to Stop)," Maisha Z. Johnson wrote, "If you’re used to being affirmed for sharing your thoughts, you might feel entitled to share them even when—no offense—you have no idea what you’re talking about." So, when you "actually..." a BIPOC, you're dismissing their worldview in favor of yours when you're probably way less equipped to in the first place regarding the topic at hand.
2. “I don't see color!”
Just like #1, this is a blatant dismissal of BIPOC's reality in a racial world. As a white person, you have the privilege of choosing not to see color. Black people, indigenous people, people of color? They do not. So saying you "don't see color" is a form a racial gaslighting where you're—intentionally or not (doesn't matter!)—denying a person who has been forced to "see color" because of the very system you're pretending doesn't exist.
3. “You must have been through some hardships growing up.”
As our own Chelsea Candelario wrote, this is a microaggression (one that she's heard in real life from a professor) that also doubles as a whitesplanation as it ineptly assumes one's entire background based on race.
4. “But my other Black friend says...”
Johnson sums this up best, "Listening to people of color is a great way to learn about racism. But please don’t just carry our quotes around like weapons to use against other marginalized folks. Too many white people use this tactic to tell us that we’re wrong about racism—citing the Native friend who doesn’t mind cultural appropriation, or the Black celebrity who disagrees with Black Lives Matter protesters."
5. “Calm down...”
Saying things like "take it down a notch," or "you don't have to be so angry," are not only examples whitesplaining, but of tone policing, which has deep roots in white supremacy. Let's take a look at activist Rachel Cargle's Instagram post where she brilliantly annotates and breaks down the whitesplanations and tone policing of a white commenter:
View this post on Instagram
Good morning 🌞 ? Just a quick Saturday School lesson for you, loves. ? This is a comment I recently received. I wanted to offer an analysis for those who are new to this space and also for all who might be looking for language as they continue in this work. ? 1. Linda went directly into the Angry Black Woman trope, a classic American stereotype reinforced through history in various media that intentionally is juxtaposed to the innocent blond haired blue eyed white woman, on a post where I simply said ?I don?t want your love and light unless it comes with solidarity and action?. In a practice of gaslighting she completely overlooked the hostility of the actual racism I was addressing and instead deemed my response inappropriate. ? 2. She then goes on to say that because of my hostility, an angry backlash can be anticipated. So she is irrationally justifying the feelings of white people and their ?anticipated angry backlash? to my post yet is insisting that I not have any type of angry backlash to the racism I?m here to address. Another clear example of the delusion that white feelings matter more than black lives & experiences. This type of rhetoric lends to the often deadly results of white tears. Examples include when white people call the police on black people for no reason. They don?t ?feel? like seeing a black person in a particular space so they put them in the direct danger of the American police force. ? 3. She then assumes that my work here is to gain a ?wide audience?. This misconception speaks to the reason I have to constantly remind people that social media is simply a tool, it?s not ?the work?. The work is to keep black bodies alive, to find black liberation.....not to grasp for a social media audience. ? 4. She then goes on to very directly tone police me. She advises me that antiracism work won?t be of interest to white people unless it is said in a tone that they find palatable. These types of respectability politics play out in various ways in society and here Linda made it clear that her interest in fighting against black pain and oppression is limited to how comfortable she is in the process. ? Happy weekend, ya?ll 🙏🏾
Like so many other cogs in the white supremacy wheel, whitesplaining is invisible to those who don't want to look out for it. But once you open your eyes, you know it's rampant. So, even if you've been guilty of it in the past, you can change. Being anti-racist means being open to changing your opinions, which in turn means acknowledging your own complicity in white supremacy. It is uncomfortable, but that's OK. As you continue your life-long journey, keep these words in your mind from activist and meditation guide Rebekah Borucki, "New to anti-racism? No shade, no shame. Use your energy to support those who have been doing the work forever. (Black Women)," and Black men and trans people too.