Mansplaining: Sexism in Miniature

“Mansplaining” is one of those topics that will be responded to very differently depending on whose company you are in.

When you’re around women, femmes and people who are affected by sexism and misogyny, the discussion becomes a thing of solidarity and mutual understanding. A chat about mansplaining can very easily become an outlet for venting, sharing experiences and offering tips to overcome it, as well as considering the consequences of sexism in general.

Talking about mansplaining in a privileged, macho environment of ‘egalitarian’ bros – who are totally not sexist, yo, cause you know that everyone gets things explained to them by less-qualified people so why you gotta bring gender into it? – on the other hand, just makes you want to bang your head against the wall.

But let’s back up a second and look at where I’m coming from in approaching this topic. I am a non-binary person (come talk to me about gender sometime, it’s fun and will inevitably involve flailing hands); I was assigned female at birth (AFAB) but primarily present as what people perceive as masculine. However, the way I’m read and what gender I’m assumed to be is very much tied to the context of the situation. When I’m with women friends and we are greeted, the “Hello, ladies” being inclusive of me is both unsurprising and tiring; when I’m alone, the chances of me being read as a man are much higher.

Both situations are unsettling, as I don’t particularly want to be perceived as one or the other. Unfortunately, living in a decidedly binary world where masculine is the “default” – hey, if I’m not interested in being seen as a woman, that must mean that I’m a man, right? – means people often make assumptions anyway. Interestingly though, as someone who is located in the undefined, amorphous, outer-regions of gender, I have a unique perspective on mansplaining because of the very different experiences I have had with it while presenting as either feminine or masculine.

My femme presentation tends to be indelibly linked to my culture and religion, because for a long time the only ‘marker’ for me being treated as a woman was my hijab. Otherwise, my fashion sense – or lack thereof, to be perfectly honest – has stayed the same, which is why the sexism I encounter is both gender-related and intrinsically racialised. That is why the huge contrast in the way I have experienced mansplaining when doing gender differently is so disconcerting. At the end of the day, I think of myself as me. Yet, now I have a concrete lived-experience which proves that such a simple thing as the way I choose to dress and present myself on a day-to-day basis changes so much about how people relate to me and, in turn, how I relate to them.

It would take months to list every example of mansplaining I have ever experienced! One particular example, however, has been rattling around in my brain for quite a while. About a year ago, a male student tried to explain the basic foundations of gender studies to me, when it is quite literally the subject I have been immersed in for three years, and was also drawing on my own personal experience with. That, in and of itself, is not too surprising, and I am sure thousands of women and femmes are experiencing the exact same thing at this very second. The thing that struck me the most, however, was that he, by his own admission, knew nothing about the subject – except for some articles he had read, “biology and [his] own common sense”. I was flabbergasted, of course, but I also remember thinking man, I wish I had his confidence, especially on a topic even he professed to have no knowledge of.

This brings me to the recently-popularised adage: “Carry yourself with the confidence of a mediocre white man?” It is not only a witty and succinct way of expressing everyday frustrations at the compounding effect of sexist micro-aggressions, but is practical advice as well. People perceived as women are socialised to defer to others – hence the tendency for me and many women and femmes that I know to hedge our assertions with statements like “I believe” and “if I recall correctly”.  Meanwhile, the people who mansplain are used to being treated as the authority on a subject – even ones where they are demonstrably not – and going unchallenged. This is what leads to the frequent demands for “debate” and “rational discourse”, especially in online forums. But to demand such is to command unpaid, unacknowledged emotional labour from people who are already expected to educate others and rationalise themselves just by existing in the world. Not only that, but it is also an opportunity that many capitalise on to dismiss another person’s argument by painting them as emotional** and “easily offended”, when men have been trained to view their own emotional responses as ‘logic’. Case in point: how many men have written ginormous tirades online ranting about “special snowflakes” and “political correctness”, but have still had the gall to claim to be the pinnacle of stoicism and rational thought?

My experience of regularly being mansplained to and talked over feeds directly into the way I form and express my opinions today. The way I have learnt to speak up has always been connected to the way I often find myself to be the only dissenting voice in the room, whether that is because of my brownness, my queerness, or my not-being-a-man-ness. That is why it is so disquieting to realise how easy it is for me be on the other side of the issue. As soon as I started to be perceived as more masculine, I realised how differently I was being treated in everyday situations, such as classroom discussions. I am less likely to be interrupted or talked over and my opinions seem to be given more weight, even when they are exactly the same as they have ever been. Some of that is probably an effect of me gaining more confidence with the lessening of my dysphoria, but a lot of it is undoubtedly tied to the power dynamics that my current relatively-masculine presentation affords me. Being conscious of this makes it easier for me to identify these instances as they happen, and makes me careful to try to avoid actions that will perpetuate the cycle, by inadvertently mansplaining to or talking over other people.

The most insidious thing about having privilege is how ingrained it is and how normal it can feel when you are not the one affected by its absence. It takes real effort to identify its daily occurrences and unlearn our knee-jerk responses when someone points it out. If I had not experienced mansplaining for the first two decades of my life, I don’t think that I would have been able to comprehend how pervasive it is. Mansplaining, on the whole, acts as a microcosm of a far larger problem within a society that centres on the experiences and practices of men, to the detriment of everyone else. If you are a man or experience masculine privilege, please do be mindful of the way you interact with and respond to others, especially when trying to explain things to them. However well-intentioned you are, power dynamics underlie every interaction you have, and being aware of this can save you from frequent missteps.

And to everyone else, I wish upon you the confidence of a mediocre white man.

*I am very aware that the concept of feminine and masculine are complex and fraught, especially as to how they translate within cultures, but as I do have a finite amount of words and this is not a gender studies class, I will use the terms femme and masc to signify the socially-accepted classifications regarding gender presentations.

**There is nothing wrong with being emotional while talking about a subject. When it is your life and your rights being debated, you don’t owe it to anyone to be stoic and unaffected. Utilising the term “rationality” is often a way to tone police marginalised people who are speaking their minds.