What Is ‘splainin’? And Why Should I Care?
‘splainin’1, a contraction of “explaining,” is a term which has been popping up a lot in the social justice sphere lately, including on this very website, and I think it’s worth exploring a bit. In the first place, not everyone might be clear on what is meant when people refer to ‘splainin’, and in the second, there’s a phenomenon around it which is critically important.
In a nutshell, ‘splainin’ is an “explanation” which is put forward in the most patronizing way possible. The ‘splainer feels passionately that ou opinion and beliefs outweigh actual lived experience and wishes to inform everyone of this fact. ‘splainers are unfortunately especially common in safe spaces in which the voices of people living in marginalized bodies are centered, because such spaces are threatening to people who find our voices contrary to their worldviews.
‘splainers feel the need to put their oar in on conversations where they may not specifically be welcome or even wanted, often with an air of entitlement. They approach the conversation from the position that people must be ignorant if they think/experience differently than the ‘splainer does, and that a few rounds in comments will sort them out and bring them over to the side of right. One of the many reasons that this can be harmful is that often people are just starting to come to the place where they feel comfortable asserting their lived experience, because they’ve been taken in by arguments like those presented by the ‘splainer for their whole lives, and seeing those arguments again can set off a spiral of self doubt, confusion, and self loathing.
Writing at Shapely Prose about mansplainers, fillyjonk said:
Here’s a thing about mansplaining and why I care a lot about it: it is annoying, and frustrating, and insulting, and deeply rooted in institutionalized sexism, and often profoundly harmful to women. We talk about all of that. What we don’t always talk about is how easily it shades into gaslighting: your reality is false, my reality is true.The biggest mansplainer I’ve known made me doubt my sanity for years; I am still recovering. This isn’t just a supremely sexist and problematic internet habit. It can be a psychologically violent act.
There are a few key components of ‘splainin’. The first is that the ‘splainer usually does not share the experience of the person being ‘splained to, or is in a place of denial about shared experience. For example, a white person informing a person of colour that ou doesn’t understand ou own lived experience (melaninsplainin’), an able person telling a person with disabilities to “lighten up, it’s just humour” (ablesplainin’), and a man informing a woman that her concerns about reproductive rights are baseless (mansplainin‘). Occasionally, professional credentials may be dragged out. “I’m a police officer, and no police officer would ever harass someone for being while Black!” “I’m a doctor, and there’s no way that kind of behaviour is acceptable, you must be leaving something out of the story!” “I work for a women’s rights publication, so I am very well informed about women’s rights issues!”
The second is the fact that the ‘splainer not only passionately believes that someone’s lived experiences are wrong, but that they need to be corrected, that there are right and wrong answers when it comes to someone’s life. This often involves an active erasure and denial: “I’m being discriminated against.” “No you’re not!”
Another troubling component of ‘splainin’ is that it’s viewed as acceptable to override expressed wishes of people involved in the conversation “just to make this one point.” Since the people in the conversation are very accustomed to dynamics in which they are told that their voices do not matter and should be silenced, and they may view the space they are in as one of the few places where they are not being oppressed, this attitude can generate a great deal of hostility. This is compounded when the ‘splainer becomes defensive after encountering pushback, and it feeds a very vicious cycle.
There’s an “outsider knows best” aspect to ‘splainin’ which is extremely troubling, especially when it is used in social justice communities to attempt to shut down voices. When people go to an effort to center voices which are often silenced, to empower people to speak up about their lived experience, to create insider conversations about their own communities, and outsiders come in to ‘splain, it can be very damaging. ‘splainers are often very upset by the suggestion that some conversations are not about them, and that some conversations need to occur from a place of shared experience, and, while open to members of the public who wish to view, are not open to everyone who wishes to speak. This upset can sometimes manifest in very ugly ways.
“My belief,” the ‘splainer says, “outweighs your experience. What I think matters more than the information you are presenting me with about what is actually lived.”
As for why you should care about ‘splainin’, well, I hope it’s evident after reading this. (And I want to note that this post is not a commentary on anything going on here, it’s just a definition and exploration of a term we use a lot so that everyone can be on the same page. Nor is it a gibe aimed at particular people or sites; it’s really just a discussion of a general issue.)
- See also: ‘splaining, ‘splain, ‘splainer, etc. ↩