What Is Whitesplaining, and How Do I Know if I'm Doing It? Here's What Experts Say
It's not a new term, but you're probably hearing it more than ever.
The term "whitesplaining" isn't new, and it wasn't born out of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020. But if last year taught people anything, it's that it's time to examine how our own biases inform the way we act and speak to others—and being willing to take ownership and work on changing.
That's where "whitesplaining" comes in. "Whitesplaining is basically a white person trying to explain racism back to Black people, as if they don't know what that experience is all about," Emmanuel Cannady, a PhD candidate at the University of Notre Dame, tells Health. (Cannady is a Black Lives Matter member and teaches a White Privilege class at the university and in the community.)
Underneath it all, "as a sociologist who studies race, whitesplaining is about maintaining the status of power of whiteness over blackness. And that happens by controlling the narrative about blackness," says Cannady. An example: A Black friend tells you that they went to the grocery store and were followed around because someone thought they were stealing. "Whitesplaining is saying 'I'm followed around, too—and I'm white!" says Cannady.
Why whitesplaining is hurtful and harmful
The interesting thing about whitesplaining is that it often comes from white people who consider themselves "woke," or informed about social justice issues. But at the same time, it can serve a darker purpose—to help one maintain a moral or power status over someone else, says Cannady. "Whitesplaining is a way to avoid dealing with the true issues of race—and you can do that if you're the one doing most of the talking, or if you're explaining someone's pain away," he says.
While a whitesplainer's intentions might be good, whitesplaining backfires. For example, you may try to show—or prove—that you've "done the work" of "listening" by naming the Black authors you've read and what you've learned, but there's a lot of "you" in that sentence. Ultimately, it centers on yourself. "It can be very disheartening for the person experiencing this. When a Black person explains a situation or divulges information that's painful for them, they first go through all these mental calculations about if it's a good, safe space to do so. They don't want to open up if it's a place where they'll get chastised for the pain they're feeling," says Cannady.
How to apologize for whitesplaining
Let's say you're at a dinner party (post-Covid, of course) and you realize that you overtook the conversation, centered yourself in talks about race, and explained racism back to your Black friends and acquaintances. It's time to be humble and apologize. The wrong move would be to double-down on your points or to try to prove that you're not racist, or that you know more about the situation or how someone feels about it.
Not sure? Do a little audit of the situation, says Cannady. Ask yourself how much time you spent talking, if you were the first to speak, and if you asked questions with a genuine desire for understanding (rather than to prove a point).
If you've been out of line, a short and simple, "I'm sorry/I screwed up, I just whitesplained you" serves as an apology and names your mistake. If you feel uncomfortable, that's okay—and it's kind of the point. It's not the job of the person to whom you're apologizing to absolve you of your mistake, resolve your feelings about it for you, or make you feel good again. "Being 100% real is the way to go. Then, I recommend moving on," says Cannady. Come from a place of learning from your mistake and making an effort to be better next time.
How to avoid whitesplaining next time
If you're at a dinner party and someone starts talking about race, you might feel uncomfortable, and that's inevitable, says Cannady. Pushing away that discomfort can lead you to jump into the conversation inappropriately. So just sit with those feelings.
When you're engaging, don't talk first—practice active listening strategies, advises Cannady. Repeating information back to the person as it was just told to you can help provide clarity and understanding. Something like "that sounds awful" or "that's not fair" or "I bet that that happens to you all the time" shows empathy and can help form a connection. Focus on your relationship with this person over trying to prove your allyship.
Also, in conversation, never use a Black friend to lend credibility to what you're saying. As in "I have a Black friend and they…" Not only may that cause the other person to shut down, says Cannady, but "Black people are not a monolith—one Black experience can be different from another Black experience. One person is not a representative of all Black people, and they do not have to be someone's credibility stick," he says.
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