I Know You Mean Well

Every time I post about sexism, along come some men to make the conversation be about them. They usually start with a question about what they as a man can do, or how it applies to them. Before too long the entire comment thread becomes about them. Or even if the other commenters don’t take the bait, the blokes keep coming back with more related questions, all of which has the effect of not adressing the subject at hand, but trying to bring it back to its “proper” place: talking about men.

Often, these blokes are nice people and are asking genuine questions. Sometimes the post has caused an actual epiphany for them and the shutters of privilege are lifting and they really want to talk about that. I understand! Truly I do. I’m white. I’ve been having epiphany after epiphany about my own white privilege and what a blinkered view of the world it has given me. The shutters have been lifting. It’s a wonderful thing. But the time to talk about your privilege-epiphanies is not in a comment thread about sexism or racism. Because to do so has the effect of shutting down actual discussion of oppression. I.e., your privilege winds up derailing the conversation and making it all about the you when the point of it is that it’s not about you. Go share your epiphany and your struggles towards becoming a better person on your own blog. Better still, stick around and listen.

I’m sure I sound cranky. Oh, those humourless feminist harridans yelling at you again! As it happens, I’m not cranky, I’m just a wee bit bored. Such comments are as regular as clockwork. Every time one shows up I have to decide whether to delete it (so the conversation stays on track) or whether I’m in the mood to give an introduction to Feminism 101, or whether to simply ignore it, or to jump in with a gentle reminder to stay on subject. In my last post on mansplaining, I had to delete a record number of comments.1 I hate doing that. But they would have utterly derailed the conversation.

I understand the intense desire to talk about you. We all want to talk about us.2 The vast majority of people I’ve met, including me, will respond to any conversational topic with an anecdote about themselves. It’s how most of us process information. “How does this particular thing apply to me?”

Problem is that the world we live in centres on people like you; white men run it. So much so that when someone like Chris Matthews (a white male USian pundit) approves of something someone not like him—Barack Obama—says, Matthews literally forgets that Obama is black. Thereby making it impossible that anyone will ever forget that Chris Matthews is white. As if that were even a possibility . . .

If you’re a man and the conversation is about sexism and women are sharing stories of their oppresssion, think very carefully before you comment. Ask yourself, is my question on topic? Will an answer to my question be about women or about me? Am I about to point out that perhaps this behaviour, that all the other women in the thread have described as sexist, is just rude and that anyone can do it? Ask yourself what your motives are? What’s at stake for you in proving it’s not sexist? Are you trying to feel better about being a man? Prove that you’re the exception? That there are nice men who aren’t like that?3

If you’re not adding to the conversation, don’t comment. If your comment is all about you, don’t comment. And if you’re bent on proving something is not sexist, then really really really really don’t comment.

Let us take the example of mansplaining. I realise that my sidenote in that post was a red herring. I described some of my own past rudenesses. Explaining someone’s name to them.4 And someone else’s religion to them.5 That was very rude of me. But in both cases I was not speaking from a place of privilege. The Linda who I helpfully told her name means “beautiful” in Spanish was white middle class and female just like me. Ditto the Jewish friend.6

So, yes, I was being annoying and rude, but I was not disregarding what they said because of their gender, I was not using my position of power to deprive them of having a voice, and I was not speaking on high from my privilged position.

Note: While men do this all the time they rarely do it on purpose or even consciously. That’s part of the problem. If most men realised they were using their privilege in these ways it would be a lot easier to get them to change their behaviours. But, sadly, it’s not just a matter of bad behaviours. That’s the problem with systemic inequality, people don’t see it.

I have been in the position of wanting to explain to a black friend that the behaviour they saw as racist wasn’t. Why, I happened to know that that restaurant gives everyone crap service. They’re slow and rude and nasty to everyone. But how did I know that the bad service they’d experienced wasn’t different in kind from the bad service I’d experienced? That on top of that restaurant’s slowness and rudeness and nastiness was a layer of racism. Even if it was just bad service, the fact that it could just as easily have been racism speaks volumes to the kind of world we live in. When I eat out in my own country it never crosses my mind that the bad service could be because of racism. Why would it?

Understanding the effects of racism and sexism when you’re white and a man has to pretty much be theoretical. Even if you’re poor, gay and disabled you can only understand through the lens of a different kind of oppression, which is every bit as appalling, but remains different in kind. Which is to say that just because I have experienced sexism does not mean I understand what it is to experience racism.

So, yes, I do get why men want to take part in these conversations. I understand why you find them uncomfortable, why you want to be told that you’re the exception to all those bad nasty men. I mean, who wants to think of themselves as an oppressor? Who wants to realise that they’ve benefited from systemic oppression? We want to think that we are who we are and have what we have because of our own unique me-ness. Not because we had the luck to be born in one of the wealthy countries, with white parents, and XY chromosones.

I want you to take part in the conversations here on this blog. Truly, I love all my commenters. But I’ve had it with derailing. At this point I don’t care how nice you are, or how good your intentions, I will delete derailing comments and send the offender a link to this post.

Thus endeth the sermon.

  1. Most of them mansplaining to me that “mansplaining” isn’t mainsplaining at all. It’s just rudeness. Silly little girly me for not realising that! []
  2. Well, until we’ve done twenty interviews in a row then all we want to talk about is anything but us. “Can I be Alaya Johnson now? I’m sick of being me. What about Maureen Johnson? No? Oh, please, please don’t make me talk about where I get my ideas again! Aaaarggh!” []
  3. Guess what? We know that. Many of us are married to, best friends with, related to, live with, work with, hang out with perfectly lovely men. []
  4. Ironic, since I have lost count of how many times people have explained what Larbalestier means to me. Annoying? Oh, yes. Very. []
  5. Aargh. So embarrassed. Never happen again. []
  6. Yes, we’re still friends! []


  1. Philip on #

    Is any of this related to what Gail Simone has been going through today, or is that just a coincidence?

    (Also, why do you write ‘USian’? What’s that about?)

  2. Justine on #

    Philip: No, until you asked, causing me to google Gail Simone, I had never heard of her and was unaware of her particular twitterstorm.

    Had you googled you would have found many explanations for the use of the term USian. Here’s mine.

  3. Philip on #

    What makes the Twitterstorm particularly funny/ironic/irritating is that Simone coined the phrase “women in refrigerators” (http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/StuffedIntoTheFridge?from=Main.WomenInRefrigerators) and started a website documenting the violence against female protagonists and supporting characters in superhero comics, bringing the trend to the attention of the comics community.

    And now a male professor is declaring her anti-feminist or whatever his words were.

  4. Najela on #

    Amen, sister! I admire you for your honesty.

  5. N. on #

    Have you ever carefully, honestly, and seriously considered the possibility that you are simply wrong about all this?

    Might it be that you use “derailment” as an excuse, however well-intentioned, to silence those who might expose your identity politics as calculated counter-oppression?

    Is it possible that “oppression” and “privilege” are empty rhetorical categories, filled ad hoc by your personal will to power in the pursuit of your own personal agenda?

    Deprived of the bludgeons of guilt and oppression and pity, what arrows would remain in your quiver?

    Is this or is this not in fact ALL about you?

  6. Justine on #

    Najela: Thanks! And thanks for your kind comments on the infuential YA post. Made my day.

  7. Kaia on #


    Sorry for shouting, but this is the best explanation of this pehonomenon I’ve ever heard.

    So, yes. Thanks for writing it. Made my day.

  8. claire on #

    I have been in the position of wanting to explain to a black friend that the behaviour they saw as racist wasn’t. Why, I happened to know that that restaurant gives everyone crap service. They’re slow and rude and nasty to everyone.

    Justine, although I know what you’re getting at with this example, this is exactly the sort of situation in which I *would* question an interpretation of racism … if the person was my friend. I’ve been in such a situation: there’s a bar in San Francisco whose owner and sole bartender is infamous for picking out a handful of victims in each evening’s crowd to be obnoxious and unhelpful to. The last time I was there I was with three people: one was a white man, one was an Asian woman, and one was a mixed white/Asian woman like me (only shorter.) The owner chose to pick on the latter during this visit, “forgetting” her drink order and refusing to come back to get it again and just generally ignoring her.

    She had never been there before, and was so upset that we left. On our way out, she debated whether the owner was racist, sexist, or both. The three of us tried earnestly to convince her that he was an equal opportunity asswipe, and to point out that he hadn’t treated me or the other Asian woman badly (this time; we’d all three been his targets before.) She wouldn’t hear it — and who’s to blame her, really? She was wrong, but she was right to be angry.

    It’s not that white allies should never challenge an interpretation of racism from their poc friends. I think, in fact, that it’s important to the discussion that these situations be discussed in depth and widened out to include a greater context. The important thing about this incident is not that it wasn’t actually a racist (or sexist) incident, but that it LOOKED SO MUCH LIKE a racist (or sexist) incident because in 9 cases out of ten IT WOULD HAVE BEEN.

    Reducing a discussion to they-must-always-know-better-because-they’re-poc misses this essential point. Our discussion about the Owl Tree actually ended up being quite productive, because at one point, the Asian woman and I backed up the victim’s interpretation in general principles, although we felt she was wrong in this particular, and the white man was surprised. He was surprised because he simply hadn’t known that this sort of thing (being ignored or treated badly by servers based on race or gender) had happened on a fairly regular basis to women of color that he knew (that is, us.) His takeaway was therefore not “Oh these hysterical people of color, always crying racism! But I shouldn’t say anything because I could be wrong” but rather “Wow, I had no idea this sort of thing happened to people I know; I’ve never seen it!”

    If the discussion can be opened out into context, often a well-meaning whitesplainer who happens to be right THIS TIME, can possibly learn that their being right this time is actually the exception that proves the rule. I have five million examples of this, but I’ll stop now since I’ve gone on too long.

  9. rockinlibrarian on #

    Hmm. When I read the Mansplaining post, I must not have read it carefully enough. I didn’t realize it was necessarily sexist behavior– my immediate response was “Hey, my husband does that! But curiously enough it’s a habit he inherited from his MOM!” Which is absolutely true: stubborn self-righteous know-it-all talking-without-shutting-up: clearly genetic. Or maybe learned. Whatever. Anyway, I had been going to say that nonetheless there did seem to be a gender difference in this behavior, and that was that the guy stance seems to be “I’m just stating this because I know I’m right and therefore it needs to be stated over and over again because obviously no one heard me correctly if they don’t acknowledge that I am right,” and that the female stance is more “I WILL persuade you into acknowledging that I am right because it is for your own good so you better do just as I say because I am always right!” HE can be tuned out when he gets like that; SHE is much harder to tune out and somehow feels more directly meddlesome. But wait, what does this mean now? It’s not mansplaining unless it’s specifically used to talk down to females (because my husband talks to EVERYONE like that if you get him on a topic where he thinks he knows something)? It doesn’t count if it’s merely inherited stubborn-self-righteousness? Or it DOES count because he IS a man and he occasionally DOES so while talking to females? If you met my husband and god forbid brought up the subject of gun control in his presense and he proceeded to judgmentally talk your ear off for the next two hours, but you did not know that he would behave in the exact same manner with another man or that he had inherited this character trait from his mother, would he be ERRONEOUSLY accused of mansplaining, or accurately accused of it?

    I don’t know if this is a derailing comment because I accuse my mother-in-law of, um, womansplaining; I just got confused and wanted clarification.

    (Off-topic PS: please pass on word to Scott that I am halfway through reading Leviathan right now and LOVING IT. It is turning out to be my favorite book I’ve read so far this year. Which I guess isn’t saying much in January, but still).

  10. Nif on #

    Justine, you’re awesome.

  11. Justine on #

    Claire: I should have been clearer. What I meant was that I have the luxury of pretty much always knowing (in my own country) that the bad treatment is not racism.

    Obviously, it’s always good to be able to sort out what is going on in a given situation. But access to intentions isn’t always possible. And a white person explaining why someone isn’t being racist really does need to be careful even when it’s close friends we’re talking about.

  12. Malinda Lo on #

    Every time I post about sexism or gender, the same thing happens to me: mansplaining in the comments. Frankly, it’s gotten so that I’ve had to delete comments and close the comment thread because I’m so aggravated by it. And it’s also forcing me to reconsider whether I have the time to deal with these things. It sometimes makes me want to stop blogging altogether.

    So thank you, Justine, for sticking with it, talking about these subjects, and enduring the frustrating reactions. I truly appreciate it.

  13. Justine on #

    Malinda: I’ve sort coasted past aggravation to boredom at this stage but I do know what you mean. Deleting comments really is the smartest way to deal. Our blogs are our private spaces, no one has the right to come here and yell at us. They can only do so if we let them and when we let them it makes rational conversation about important topics impossible.

    I have decided, though, on this particular post to let all comments through. Just for the fun of it. 🙂

  14. Kate on #

    I appreciate discussing the problem of sexism, as I’ve experienced this first-hand, in sports when I was younger and when I was older because it is still sadly less common for girls to major in maths, physics, chemistry and engineering in university, which I did.

    But I’m confused by the tone of this blog entry.* I agree that derailment by making self-involved comments isn’t helpful to the discussion, but as you pointed out, people love to talk about themselves and this is the internet, where it’s quite easy to skip over a comment. You can’t really speak over a person on the internet unless you delete a comment, which only you have the power of doing.

    So yes, shut up and get over yourself is tempting to say, but it kind of sends the message that guys don’t have a place in a discussion about sexism, the consequence of which would be a far worse loss. I would *love* if a guy was actually willing to participate in a conversation about sexism or feminsim with me, rather than laugh awkwardly and change the subject. So while this tirade is partially justified, if you’re upset enough about some guys derailing the discussion on your blog entry by talking about themselves, talk to them instead of deleting their comments.

    I think the Feminism 101 approach, or at least introducing the subject of dealing with gender inequality in real life where you can’t just delete someone’s comment(and there are a few a really wish I could), would be a lot better.

    *And then sayeth Justine onto Kate, “I dislike the tone of this comment.” 😛

  15. Bookewyrme on #

    I was trying to find a way to say what Claire said without derailing, or whitesplaining or anything. Sometimes though, no matter how much it looks like, something just isn’t sexism (or racism) and calling it that is hyper-sensitive and generally has the opposite effect. When someone is genuinely not being sexist, but is then accused of being so, that usually turns their “compassion” button off, and they start to have a bad opinion of ALL women (or whatever group they’re being ‘ism’ed about).

    An example would be, hiring a man over a woman, not because he’s a man but just because he’s better qualified. If I was the man, and didn’t get hired (and knew about it, which of course is unlikely) I’d be pissed. And you would think that the woman would be reasonable enough to realize she just wasn’t as highly qualified as said man and let it go. But some women immediately cry “sexism” in that situation. And that tells the employer that hiring women is not a good idea, because they’re too much trouble, and therefore makes it harder for the rest of us.

    I guess what I’m trying to say (somewhat badly) is that there’s a difference between being aware of an ‘ism’ and crying wolf. And crying wolf too often can actually create more of said ‘ism’ rather than making people more aware.

    Maybe mansplaining/whitesplaining/othersplaining is bad (I generally agree), but all white males should not be lumped into this category just because they go “Are you sure that was ‘ism’ and not that person having a bad day/being a general jerk and you were the first person along?” Asking questions should make people think, not turn people’s brains off and make them dismiss whatever someone says as “they just can’t understand.” And thinking before you assume is always good.

  16. mb on #

    No one ever knows what another person’s motives are. But it’s worthwhile to stop and consider what mansplaining FEELS LIKE from the receiving end. I have men trying to tell me what to do all the time in an environment where they know I have years more experience than they do. I’ve never had a woman do it. Sure, a woman could do it someday. Sure, maybe some of those men would tell their white male buddies with more experience what to do, too. But there’s a pattern there that can’t be ignored. There’s also a history that reinforces that pattern. And in my opinion, pointing out that pattern is a good thing. It’s not leaping to conclusions, crying wolf, or lumping all white males together. From this side of the experience, something unpleasant and dismissive is going on, whatever the motives of individual men.

  17. Anon on #

    I’ve found that most people aren’t sexist/racist/whatever; they’re just assholes.

    But I’m a white man so I should probably just shut up? I’m not sure what’s going on here these days.

  18. Ellen on #

    I think the worst case of white/mansplaining I’ve encountered (and I’ve run into this a couple times) is when white, usually mid-40s, men have tried to explain to me how they are being discriminated against.
    “All the companies are trying to ‘diversify’ now,” they tell me with a sneer. “You can’t get a job unless you’re a minority woman.”
    And then I had to resist the urge to slap (sense into) them, because usually they were my manager/boss type person at whatever crap job I was working at the time. *sigh*

  19. KatG on #

    Oops, well then I guess I shouldn’t have responded to Tim in the other entry then, but the poor guy seemed so confused. I have a wonderful husband who has good women friends and believes in equality of genders and is a great role model for our daughter. And sometimes he mansplains. He doesn’t know he does it and if you call him on it, he’ll claim that’s not what he was doing. But he’s a prof, so it’s a natural part of his individual personality combined with having been a male raised in our society. Pretty much every guy does it, and most of the time, it is not done with malice. It’s just that they don’t think about it, the position males have versus the position females have because they’ve always been in the position men hold.

    That bartender in the other anecdote, for instance. How does he pick who he’s going to be deliberately rude to that evening from his positon of power as the owner who cannot be fired? It’s got to be at least partly on appearance. Sure, he may pick a white guy to be rude to because he doesn’t like his clothes or attitude or reminds him of someone he didn’t like in high school. But choosing the Asian woman that night may very well have been because she is an Asian woman, even if he also tortures white guys.

    So the guy who is having a bad day and so acts like a jerk, that person did not think, hey, this is a woman, non-white, etc. person from a disadvantaged group and so I shouldn’t take my anger out on this particular person because they have to deal with this sort of thing all the time from others? Nope, the need of the white guy to vent his anger takes precedence, without even thinking about it, how such a venting is likely to hurt the woman or non-white more than a white guy because they do run into these attacks more often and are more vulnerable to that type of abuse. And who’s to say that the white male having a bad day didn’t, consciously or unconsciously, pick the woman or non-white to vent on, to be the last straw, because the woman or non-white was a safer target than a white man would be to be rude to.

    It’s not about blame. It’s not a game of gotcha, though I agree that conversations can turn into that. It’s about seeing that people in other groups are regularly vulnerable to abuse, are more sensitive to it and that you may accidentally and thoughtlessly contribute to it because you don’t notice or feel what they do. That when you have, by birth, the loudest voice that is most listened to, you try to be more aware of the potential impact in using it, and try to listen to the less loud voices without dismissing their complaints. And from that, we get a society in which more voices are heard.

  20. Rebekah on #

    I would love to print this (and a selection of other such entries) out and distribute it to all of the students in my English class. We began reading Huck Finn a few weeks ago and so far any discussion of racism has revolved around what the book is saying about whiteness (or the one conversation we had about the n-word wherein most of the predominantly white (we have one black, one half Peruvian, one half Indian, and two Chinese students out of a class of thirty-three) class agreed that it was unfair that black people would get offended when white people used the n-word to/around them when they used it amongst themselves, and when this idea was challenged due to the longterm privilege of being white, one student claimed that there was no such thing as institutionalized racism in the Us, and, in fact, if there were it would be against white people, and then another said that we were past oppression of black people and into an age of “reverse discrimination”).

    I don’t think Ms. Larbalestier is discounting the validity of contributions of people from within privileged groups when speaking of the oppression that comes from said privilege, but rather that not having to worry about it has slightly blinded them to its effects, and that oftentimes, a privileged party (say, a man) explaining how something couldn’t possibly be discriminatory (sexist) to the oppressed party (women) is often exhibiting said discriminatory element by feeling entitled to lecture someone on something they don’t have to worry about/have probably never experienced. Privileged parties should engage in discussions on discrimination, but they shouldn’t automatically assume correctness on an issue as they have not had to live with that discrimination, and comandeering the discussion is just another form of it.

  21. Nate on #

    I think the worry *some* men have about terms like “mansplaining” or charges of derailment are that, like references to bingo cards and charged of troll-ism, they become a shorthand way of shutting down discussions. Certainly in many cases those discussions deserve to be shut down, but in other cases a new arrival arguing in good faith, or a person who means well but expresses himself clumsily, can feel like they’re being attacked or dismissed before they even fully grasp the terms of the conversation.

    As a white man, I know that I’ve benefited in all kinds of ways from gender and race privilege, and that I need to try to keep that into account whenever I join a conversation about those subjects. That said, it can sometimes be frustrating and uncomfortable to be told that certain discussions or virtual spaces “just aren’t for you” and that your contributions are automatically less valuable. It feels just a little bit too similar to the former bastions of white, male exclusivity that people have rightly been busting open for decades now.

  22. Justine on #

    KatG: Nah, your response to Tim in the last post was excellent. Also your and Scott’s responses to him did not derail things. Everyone else continued to talk about mansplaining. It’s only when those 101 questions become the sole focus of conversation that it becomes frustrating.

    Also it wasn’t the comments that I let through that were the problem more the ones I didn’t. I am letting everything through in this post to give people an idea of what kind of responses you generate when you try to talk about gender, race or class. Though, of course, now that I’m letting them through there are fewer egregious ones. Always the way. 🙂

    Little side excursions into Feminism 101 are pretty much inevitable. And anyone who’s read my blog for any amount of time will know I’ve engaged in it many many times. (Used to be an academic, didn’t I?)

    Rebekah: Feel free. All my posts on this blog are for public consumption. All I ask is that you acknowledge the source. I’m dead chuffed that you think it will be useful!

  23. TS on #

    I found the story of your friend accusing the restaurant owner who was nasty to everyone of racism very interesting. It’s so hard to tell what the reasons and motivations are for other people’s actions- the most basic problem behind human communication. Is it better to judge people favorably until you know otherwise, or at a certain point do you become a doormat?

    A while ago, I went on a Jewish tour of Poland, and got into a disagreement with some other members of the trip. I couldn’t believe every Polish person who stared at us or yelled something at us was necessarily an anti-semite! I was told I was just naive. I did see some nasty graffiti in Jewish cemetaries there, I know problems exist. But I came home from the trip saying I only saw a few small instances of anti-semetic graffiti, while someone else on the same trip with the same experiences came home telling everyone how she just couldn’t believe how obvious and virulent the antisemetism was. Who’s right?

    And now I’ve just done what you mentioned- taking a general problem and applying my own personal story to it. Human nature, there you go.

  24. Joanna on #

    I have seen a number of bloggers do this recently. I personally see nothing wrong with asking people to go away, read a catch up post and then come back to the conversation. Not everyone comes to a conversation from the same starting point and you certainly don’t want comments to get bogged down in explaining basic principles to newbies, no matter how earth-shattering their particular epiphany may be.

  25. N. on #

    Rebekah, I wonder if perhaps your students have something to teach you as well. They seem to be a sharp bunch. Specifically, they have already internalized a message pervasive in the US (at least): that the road to success runs through victimhood.

    Justine suggests that we privilege-bearers “want to be told that you’re the exception to all those bad nasty men” (or whites), but this is only half the story. In fact what many people want to be told is that they are victims, too. Not out of compassion or empathy but because victims get sociological (if not in fact literal) handouts, the value of which is exacted from the legacies of people who worked and fought and even died to put themselves and their descendants in a favorable position.

    I bear no responsibility for the “unearned privileges” society affords me based on the color of my skin. I will take every advantage that is offered me, earned or unearned, as would any other rational human being. The world is enough against us.

    And so I cannot blame anyone for turning victimhood and pity and guilt to their advantage through clever rhetorical tricks like the myth of “privilege.” But let’s not pretend it’s some kind of egalitarian dream being preached by benevolent scholars for the good of the human race as a whole. It is an attempt to conquer the conquerors by making them ashamed of the remarkable world their forebears have built, through their strength and ingenuity.

  26. Tim on #

    I’ve taken a while to put together a response to this particular post so that I can try and be as non-derailing as possible, but even though I’ve spent time trying to formulate a response I’m still not entirely sure if I’m conveying my message in the best way, but here I go!

    First, I want to thank you very much for not deleting my posts in the previous thread. Considering the record number of posts you’ve had to delete I’m very glad you allowed my posts to stay (even if only so they could be examples of what you would consider ‘what not to do’ posts). I would also like to thank Scott and the various other commenters for taking the time to reply to me – all in a very courteous manner. It really did help me understand better.

    Since this post is a discussion-about-the-discussion, I was wondering if it would be alright if I brought up why I decided to post in the previous thread despite being a man? I don’t know what the other deleted comments by men were like, but my post was out of genuine curiosity about what kind of behaviour is appropriate for a man in discussions about sexism/racism/etc. Inevitably IRL these discussions do come up, and particularly when I have to engage in them for things like university I can’t simply sit back and not say anything at all (like, literally – many of these courses have participation marks). And this asking links in to my next point (which is relevant to both the previous post and this one, and is more of a question than a point) – how do we learn if we cannot ask?

    When someone is discussing you or groups to which you belong, it’s all well and fine to suggest listening – which is what I was doing (or trying to do) – but sitting back and listening doesn’t necessarily teach me what I need to know. The vast majority of the discussion by women on the previous thread was sharing stories of male d-baggery. The solidarity oppressed people find in sharing such stories is extremely helpful with coping with the unfortunate state of the world, and it gives me examples of how I shouldn’t respond, but not always about how I should in certain situations.

    If I’m genuinely interested in knowing more and engaging in two-sided discussion – isn’t that a good thing? Is there a more appropriate place to ask questions about privilege than a thread about privilege? Sure, I could write about them on my own blog where me and two other people might read it, but if there’s a discussion with passionate and interested parties participating I’m going to get more answers there. I don’t think such questions are derailing threads off women and putting them on to men because while the threads may be about the female experience of men, it’s still the female experience of men.

    What’s the point of talking about me if you won’t talk to me? What does that achieve? Though women have to essentially live Feminism 101 every day, most men don’t get a lot of opportunity to discuss this kind of thing. If discussions of feminism are reserved only for women, then where can men find out about the structures that privilege them in society? Like Kate said, wouldn’t it be great if more men were eager to discuss sexism?

    So… yeah. There were a lot of questions in there, and I hope that my tone came across as curious and interested instead of patronising because, again, curiosity is why I asked these questions. I’m genuinely interested in the answers. I totally understand the frustration (or boredom) one would feel from someone telling them that certain behaviour isn’t sexist, especially if they try to reverse-sexism you. You’re also well within your rights to delete any comments you want to on your own blog (particularly rude and offensive ones), but I’m finding it difficult to wrap my head around the idea that well-intentioned people wanting to learn more is a bad thing.

    Anyway, this post is already long enough – thanks for taking the time to read it.

  27. Jodie on #

    I just wanted to address a couple of points in Tim’s comment above. The idea that listening will not help you learn what you need to know is, I think, a very male one. While women are actively encouraged to listen (and thereby remain silent) men are encouraged to do, to talk, as this is the way they ‘learn’. When I was taking a counselling course, they actually recommend minimum active participation from the counsellor if you want to learn and encourage openness, active listening (as in listening and then showing that you’re still paying attention – hard to do over the net because there’s no body language but you could pop back and say you’re still listening) encourages openness because the dialogue lacks combativeness.

    Also the idea that men don’t have the opportunity for these discussions is a rather skewed way of looking at things, I personally am bursting to have a serious conversation with men about feminism/sexism but it’s impossible because men don’t create the space for these kind of conversations. It’s either never brought up, brushed off if it is, or derailed so women can’t talk about it. The opportunity for learning about this kind of thing is there – if you want to know what you should do simply ask ‘what should or shouldn’t I do’ and wait for answers that you can listen to.

    I realise that may sound rather hostile (and yes I’m totally apologising for myself which makes me feel icky, but that ingrained ‘please like me’ thing some up again) especially as I think you’re coming from a good place looking to learn, but you say you want to hear what women think about engaging in a dialogue and this is what one woman feels right now.

  28. claire on #

    @Bookwyrme: you missed my point. (And yes, I hesitated to post my comment because I was afraid that someone would miss my point.) You read my friend’s interpretation of the bartender’s behavior as “crying wolf.” She was not crying wolf at all. To extend your metaphor, she was a shepherd who had been attacked by wolves many times before. That night, she heard a rustling in the underbrush and cried out “Wolf!” No wolf happened to attack that night, but most of the previous nights when she had cried out “Wolf!” it was because wolves had actually attacked. Do you get the difference?

    Most bartenders don’t treat paying customers so outstandingly badly. When they do, it is ALMOST ALWAYS because they want to get a power trip out of making a customer who can’t fight back uncomfortable. And why did they choose this particular customer? Usually because of something about the customer’s appearance that declares her to be lower status or socially weak. When men do it to women, it is usually out of sexism. When whites do it to poc, it is usually out of racism.

    My point with this story was not that she was wrong, but that she was RIGHT IN GENERAL PRINCIPLES, AND WRONG IN THIS PARTICULAR. But my story also illustrated something else: the people who challenged my friend’s interpretation of this incident were FELLOW WOMEN OF COLOR. We were able to see that her interpretation was correct in general principles while being incorrect in this one particular. And because of this discussion, the white male friend with us learned something he never would have otherwise.

    And Justine’s response to me was pretty much spot on: always be careful because intentions are pretty hard to parse out.

    An example would be, hiring a man over a woman, not because he’s a man but just because he’s better qualified. If I was the man, and didn’t get hired (and knew about it, which of course is unlikely) I’d be pissed. And you would think that the woman would be reasonable enough to realize she just wasn’t as highly qualified as said man and let it go. But some women immediately cry “sexism” in that situation. And that tells the employer that hiring women is not a good idea, because they’re too much trouble, and therefore makes it harder for the rest of us.

    Okay, *deep breath*. How the hell would YOU know what an employer was looking for? How do you know that the employer isn’t specifically looking to hire a woman because they’ve been having a hell of a time appealing to female markets and are finally copping to the fact that having no women managers was exactly why they had this problem? How do you know that the employer wasn’t looking at the woman’s, say, lesser experience in the workplace and was rather more interested in the woman’s greater volunteer experience … say because they were looking to hire someone to manage their pro bono work? How do you know that you didn’t rub EVERYONE the wrong way during the hiring process and the supposedly less qualified woman got along with everyone like gangbusters? Or you didn’t seem to get the company’s mission and she did? Or you didn’t seem to have any vision and she had it oozing from her pores?

    You’ve obviously never been in a position to hire somebody, or you wouldn’t imply anything so ignorant of the hiring process as that there is only one, single. universal set of criteria in operation when a person gets hired. All that matters in terms of looks-good-on-paper criteria is that a person is qualified, and NOT that a person is “more qualified” than everyone else. Once you’ve established a field of qualified people, then the questions go more in this direction: who can contribute most to our institutional culture, and whom do we need the most? And for many enlightened employers, yet another high-scoring, white man isn’t always the answer to those two questions.

  29. claire on #

    argh. Sorry, Justine, about the essay writing. I’ll try to contain myself from here on out.

  30. Colin on #

    “Understanding the effects of racism and sexism when you’re white and a man has to pretty much be theoretical.”

    White is a race, and male is a sex. Anyone who has a race can experienced racism. Anyone who has a sex can experienced sexism.

  31. Shveta Thakrar on #

    Tim, it’s not bad that you want to learn. In fact, that’s commendable. That said, again you’ve just made the conversation about you. As Jodi said above, sometimes it is better just to sit and listen. It’s not Justine’s job or anyone else’s to educate you; assuming the responsibility lies with someone else is a problem that goes along with privilege. The privileged person will often come into a conversation and demand the non-privileged educate him or her. But that’s nobody’s responsibility but your own.

    If you’re really interested in learning, all you have to do is research. It’s all out there. Google, for example, “male privilege” or “feminism 101,” and you can learn a lot on your own.

    Colin, I definitely recommend you read “Unpacking the Knapsack” and “The Male Privilege Checklist,” and I’m even linking to them to make it easier for you.

  32. Tim on #

    Hi Jodie, thanks for replying to my post.

    Firstly just wanted to say that there is no need to apologise at all. I really didn’t read any hostility in your reply to me, and was very glad that you took the time to write it.

    In response to the content of your post though, I think I should probably clarify something from my own post. First, I think listening can teach anybody a whole lot of things. It doesn’t, however, necessarily teach someone the answer to their question if the answer to their question is not being talked about. In the discussion that was going on I was certainly learning a lot about men who were capitalising upon their privilege to be assholes, but not about my (related-to-what-Justine-had-said) question. So I asked.

    I don’t know if learning through discussion is an especially ‘masculine’ way to learn, but it’s certainly a very ‘me’ way of learning. And we all learn differently – that’s cool. I’m studying to be a teacher so I understand that people learn in different ways. I don’t think I was combative, simply curious (though you may disagree?). I know it might be frustrating and boring for women who have to give the Feminism 101 talk hundreds and hundreds of times, but I was asking for extrapolation on something Justine had hinted at in the blog, so I thought it was relevant to ask for her opinion – which I thought was an okay thing to do.

    I was about to say there aren’t any “feminism 101” books out there, but a quick Google search will come up with a lot of links, lol. That said, pretty much all of these things are just the individual writer’s opinions. I was hoping to engage in a discussion with a writer who I have an immense deal of respect for, and who I know is well versed in these issues (both academically and practically), but clearly the kind of post I made is a kind that frustrates Justine – so I decided not to post again in that particular thread.

    On the opportunity for discussion, while I agree that our culture doesn’t make enough room for bringing up the issue of feminism – the same goes for a lot of controversial issues. This is, basically, because most people (myself included) don’t know how one goes about bringing these issues up in a sensitive fashion? “So… you’re a poc/a woman/gay/Muslim/Jewish/have a disability… how’s that working out for you?”*

    And while we live in a culture that does unfairly suppress the female voice, when discussions of feminism are actively brought up, well, let’s just say that not everybody is as diplomatic as the people who post/are allowed to post on this blog. Men often (not all the time, but often enough in my experience) end up getting verbally attacked, which has a tendency to turn off our responsiveness to polite and intellectual discussion. This isn’t to say it happens all the time and that all women are rude (as with Justine and men, I know some extremely wonderful women in this regard), but as is with any sensitive issue one is tentative to actively bring it up – especially if they fear that they might not know what to say and might inadvertently offend someone. Maybe this fear is unfounded and unreasonable? Who knows…

    Anyway, thank you once again for being great with your response. I really do mean that – I’m glad you took the time to answer my questions and talk to me.

    @Claire: I think you may have misunderstood Bookewyrm’s analogy. What I understood from it** was that it was a hypothetical scenario where a man was hired instead of a woman because the employer thought he was the most qualified and best person for the job (ie. had the academic qualifications, had the experience needed and/or conducted a better interview etc) and that gender was not a factor.

    I believe what Bookewyrm was saying was that in such a scenario where one is the rejected woman and where one doesn’t know the reason they were overlooked for the job, it might tempting for to cry sexism. However, reading sexism into a scenario when one doesn’t know the motivations of the employer is not necessarily accurate, helpful or fair for the employers. It might even prove counterproductive to breaking systemic discrimination if one was to vocally accuse someone of being sexist when they really weren’t. I know I’d be extremely upset if someone accused me of sexism like that when I was most definitely not being sexist (a hypothetical, employer version me this is). It might just entrench the (extremely unfair) stereotype of all feminists as unreasonable, rude and highly emotive in the minds of those listening to the woman’s cries.

    So the point is that without knowledge of why they overlooked the woman it might be entirely possible that sex was a factor (which, if true, is certainly unacceptable), but it’s also entirely possible that it was not. And it’s certainly unfair to actively accuse someone of sexism without knowing their motivations.

    *Okay so obviously that’s hyperbole, but most of the time it feels a bit like that.
    **And I may be completely and utterly wrong, so Bookewyrm – please correct me if I am.

  33. KatG on #

    Well, no, Tim, my husband is not a dastardly schmuck, but he does sometimes mansplain. It’s not always something awful. Sometimes it’s funny and entertaining and even enjoyable in movies and the like. You’re still trying to avoid the label, fix the problem and find out what you should say to be seen in the good, non-sexist camp as opposed to the bad, done us wrong sexist camp, and it’s a bit more complicated than that. One of the big obstacles for women in trying to talk to men about sexism, as was noted, is that many men don’t want to be seen as the “bad man” and they don’t like dealing with female anger or exasperation in the conversation. So the conversation does become male-centered, on how the man is bad or not, not on what women experience in the society.

    The first part is increasing awareness without freaking out about it. (Which is also useful if you have writing inclinations.) Male actors can show up on the red carpet, for instance, in a decent suit and whatever their build or appearance, they’re set. But female actors even in their sixties, like Helen Mirren, will still be judged by what they are wearing, how young and sexy they still look, etc. From the time she is young, every girl is very clear that the first and quite often foremost thing she will be judged on is her appearance. Whether she is a tomboy or becomes a business executive or astronaut, the chief thing that will be focused on is how cute and sexy she is or isn’t (including critical kudos for actresses who “uglify” themselves for a role.) And for non-whites, the situation is much the same with regards to their skin color.

    In John Scalzi’s blog, we tried to have a conversation about it one time, and there was unfortunately a woman who was very angry and strident, which didn’t help the conversation, but that was partly because the men in the conversation used her stridency (acting like a man instead of us more reasonable and less confrontational women,) to therefore discount and negate what she was saying. The argument was over a joke that had been told involving Princess Leia costumes and a parallel was made by the guys to a Mac computer ad using supermodel Gisele Budchen. Both were funny but were about the desirability of women in sexy clothing for straight men versus guys in women’s clothing.

    These were nice guys, who saw their female partners as equals, so they frantically mansplained that no women should be offended by the joke because it was making fun of men in the Princess Leia costume in contrast to women in the Princess Leia costume, and the fact that the joke and the humor in the Mac commercial relied on the idea of the beautiful, sexy woman was incidental. We had analyses of humor theory and everything. They enlisted the help of sympathetic gay guys in the conversation. It was in fact possibly the most extensive example of mansplaining I’ve encountered. By feminist guys. Because they were really uncomfortable with some women not liking and being angry at the joke and other women not being upset at the joke and being huge fan of Princess Leia, but still noting the sexist aspect of it.

    So the next thing is a willingness to accept female anger and exasperation without trying to deflect or minimize it. And that’s really hard, and no one is perfect at it, but it will count for a lot. So when you are analyzing a piece of literature in class, look at what roles the female characters may be forced into, even in a contemporary story, at what the constraints on them are there that aren’t on men. And in most works of fiction, female characters are given more detailed physical descriptions than male ones are, which is something you can look for and comment on. And it might not hurt to read some of the articles by females who used to write for the late night shows who talked about about their experiences after the Letterman scandal, because those show you some of the Catch-22 situations women can be in in terms of social interaction, which are also often reflected in fiction.

    (Apologies for the length of the post.)

  34. Gillian on #

    Something has been bugging me in reading the recent discussions on so many blogs. Really thoughtful guys ask questions about the processes and end up mansplaining or saying “Hey, it’s just my opinion” and other commenters feel discomforted by it.

    In this context, I read it as a privilege differential. The guys in question (and they were all guys) have often asked good questions and presented good thoughts from their perspective, but in each and every case they have assumed that their personal tuition needs on matters related to sexism and racism takes precedence. It’s like a student in a class of 100 insisting on private tuition from the professor immediately. I wonder if that differential in learning expectations lies at the heart of some of those unintentional blog derailings.

    It’s a quandary. How do the well-intentioned get the style of learning they’re used to, without reinforcing underlying problems?

  35. Jodie on #

    While I understand that dealing with an angry person can derail sympathy and understanding from the opposite party, it is exhausting to be told that women have to keep ourselves calm all the time because men will not be inclined to listen to us if we ‘can not keep our emotions under control’. While anger can make everyone say irrational things, it does seem that any kind of passionate response from a woman is characterised as irrational, too emotional, too loud, or too angry. And to put ‘angry’ responses in context they’re often reactions against this historical idea that women are too emotional to do about a million things. Women want our ideas to be taken seriously so we suppress our emotions, so men will engage in a dialogue, but we have a right to be openly passionate about these issue which affect us every day and the serious oppression that only went away in the last 100 years. Angry responses are a reaction against a life time of biting your tongue because if you bring up the subject of female rights you get told in so many subtle and not so subtle ways that you are angry, or no fun, or a harridan. They’re a reaction against a box women feel themselves put in and while an angry response may not always go down well with men, not everything is about them and the way they perceive things, the fact that a woman gets angry about something that affects her should not be enough to derail the conversation and cause male ears to shut down.

    But currently it is and so I do feel that to have
    effective conversation with men about the issue right now it is important for me to keep my feelings way, way, way in check, but I long for the day when they will finally get that just because a woman is passionate about something doesn’t make her irrational, it doesn’t mean you can stop listening to her. If she starts spitting out crazy, wrong ‘facts’ along with her passion, or personally insulting you, then you get to close down and step back, but if what she is saying is true but loud you have to push through and hear and try to understand the reasons behind her anger.

  36. Jodie on #

    Oh and duh this was suppoused to be at the top of that last comment but I didn’t cut it: Kat you explained the issue of men’s perceptions of female anger much more eloquently than I ever could, awesome.

  37. KatG on #

    Well to be fair, it works both sides of the coin. Women don’t do well with male anger either, and women often need to not bite their tongue and challenge guys like a guy would in the face of male anger in conversation. A lot of conflicts come because guys want women to act like guys in conversations but then may sometimes be discomforted when they do so, and women want guys to act like women in conversations but then may sometimes be discomforted when they do so. There’s sort of a happy middle, but getting to it is hard. And when it comes to race, it’s even harder.

  38. Napalmnacey on #

    Tim, it might help if you didn’t characterise women’s complaints about sexism or oppression as “cries”. It’s really condescending and smacks far too much of the “Women are over-emotional and hysterical” narrative.

    And by mentioning men being attacked by angry feminists, you’re making it all about men again. Just thought I’d mention that.

  39. G on #

    Gosh, this seems so elementary. This is a repitition of a million posts on a million feminist blogs and in every single case men do this. Why can’t they spend a minute looking at the FAQ for men who want to derail feminist commentary?

    Fwiw, I live in Berlin and blithely spent the first year not understanding the antisemitism around me. Then I started understanding German. Now, when Jewish tourists tell me how there isn’t any here, I laugh hysterically. For the woman who disn’t see the antisemitism in Poland, I assume she didn’t speak Polish. I was out with a Polish(Catholic) friend when another (Jewish)friend met us, who I introduced as Russian. My Polish friend turned to her husband and said some things about Jews in Polish- when my friend answered in Polish. Lots of embarrassment there.
    Racism, sexism, antisemitism, the other -isms: they are there. Its amazing how people who aren’t sensitized call the victims of it oversensitive. Americans (North) seem not to notice it as much, because it’s often not as egregious there. That is, it’s not acceptable to openly revel in it, though it exists withing hearts and minds.

  40. tekanji on #

    This comment is a slight derail from the topic of mansplaining, but it concerns privilege and intersectionality, which are underlying themes of the post.

    In explaining the difference between simple rudeness and mansplaining, you said:

    I described some of my own past rudenesses… [explaining] someone else’s religion to them… But in both cases I was not speaking from a place of privilege… [The Jewish friend] was white middle class and female just like me.

    The implication here is that since both you and your friend where white, middle class, and female that you are on a level playing field and therefore it was rudeness and not privilege at work. But there are many more privileges than just race, class, and gender (heterosexual privilege, cissexual privilege, and able-bodied privilege, being few of the more commonly known ones) so saying, “we were both [list of privileges unrelated to the subject]” is not really useful in determining whether or not an action was rooted in privilege, and can easily descend into oppression olympics.

    The salient privilege at work here is Christian privilege. Now, I don’t know what religion, if any, you subscribe to. I don’t know whether or not you were coming from a privileged position in that conversation, but a non-Jew explaining Judaism to a Jewish person — even if they are also part of a minority religion (or are an atheist or agnostic) — isn’t just rudeness, it’s Jewsplaining.

    It may seem like I’m harping on a non-essential point, especially since the incident caused no ill-will between you and your friend, but as a Jewish person who has grown up with my culture and heritage being constantly marginalized (even by other anti-oppression activists, most of whom overlook Christian privilege) when I saw Judaism being overlooked as a factor in determining privilege I felt the need to speak up.

  41. attack_laurel on #

    Awesome post. Just awesome.

    I, too, get tired, because it’s always the same questions, and comes off like someone coming into an advanced cake-decorating class and asking “how do you make icing? Where do I get icing tips? Why won’t you help meeeeeeee?”, except that the class is interrupted constantly by a chorus of people in the back all asking the same question over and over again, though it’s been answered multiple times.

    This is what well-meaning men do in these comment threads; it’s not just that they’re asking for a personal education tailored just to them and their needs, they’re asking the same questions that have already been answered. It’s not enough to listen to the current conversation, men need to go back and read previous conversations.

    It’s funny that many men get very put off by the refusal to answer basic questions in these spaces, when those self-same men would react with intense mockery and disdain for a newbie coming into their spaces (say, for technological stuff, or video gaming) and asking 101 questions.

    All I can surmise is that men assume they deserve the attention, and when a woman tells them something they don’t like, it gets characterized as “yelling”. Once again, women can’t win, because White Male Privilege holds all the cards.

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