How to explain mansplaining to a mansplainer
“Henry, can you please let Catalina finish speaking before you interrupt her again?” I begged my friend for the fourth time as I twirled a straw around my drink.
We were out for drinks at a famous mezcal place in Ciudad de México with Catalina Ruiz-Navarro, an experienced Colombian journalist I had met through a friend. We had agreed to talk about the book she was writing on feminism in Latin America and my best friend Henry happened to be with me when she reached out, so I kindly invited him to join us.
What was supposed to be a friendly encounter, however, turned into a battleground dominated on one side by Henry.
“Uhm, yeah, sorry,” Henry mumbled at my request to let Catalina speak. “But I would like to play the devil’s advocate,” he said, and demanded that she defend every argument in her book, as if this were the Spanish Inquisition. Catalina answered all of his questions patiently, even though he continually cut her off. I sipped more mezcal feeling deeply frustrated and embarrassed.
I began to think of all the different ways I could silence Henry. Shooting poisoned darts came to mind, as did sticking a fork very close to his overly expressive fingers. Later that night, after we said our goodbyes, I started to think about how I could make him understand why his behavior had been so offensive to me instead of wondering how I could’ve simply shut him up.
“I kinda got the feeling something was off,” Henry said apologetically when I confronted him about that night a week later. “I also felt like maybe she didn’t like me very much. I hope I didn’t ruin a networking opportunity for you,” he added.
In fact, when I had apologized to Catalina for my friend’s behavior, she had casually brushed it off. She said it was fine because she was used to it, adding, “My husband is the same; don’t worry about it.”
“But see, that’s not the problem,” I explained to Henry before taking a gasp of air and proceeding to list the reasons why I was upset.
“You didn’t allow this woman, who clearly knows much more about this topic than you do, to explain her point of view because you interrupted her every ten seconds. You confronted her about her book as if she owed you something. She does not. And evidently you have never thought about the privilege you have as a man, including your entitlement to speak over other people. How could you have not understood that you should have kept quieter?” I spat.
His blue eyes widened as I spoke, opening so much I worried that they might escape their sockets at any moment. He was silent. Then he offered a question, measuring his words with a cautiousness I had never seen him practice before.
“Don’t I have the right to confront her arguments?” He asked. “Should I have just kept my mouth shut and pretended I agreed with everything she said?”
“Yes, you can question her,” I started patiently. “But you see, there is something that lurks beneath the surface of an argument. Maybe, for example, if you had let her complete her thoughts before interrupting her, you could have understood her argument better. Also, listening makes for better conversation,” I added.
“You also don’t have to win an argument, you can also learn something new. You can contribute to an idea. You don’t have to tear apart every thought that doesn’t immediately seem to agree with your opinions,” I said. “I would also question the reasons why you feel like people need to justify their arguments to you, why it is that you feel entitled to this.”
His demeanor changed suddenly. I could tell he felt ashamed.
“Yeah,” he said. “Maybe I have a lot of things to think about. But about privilege,” he carried on. “I can’t do anything about who I am. I can’t change where I was born or that I am a man.”
“This is all true,” I replied. “We are all born with privileges. Being a man is just one of them. But this doesn’t mean we have to be blinded to what privilege means and how we can be sensitive to it when we come into contact with other people.”
I told him about the political philosophy class for which I was a teacher’s assistant in college. Even though roughly 70 percent of the students in that class were female identified, the conversations were often dominated by men. One day I approached the female students and asked them why they kept silent. The most common answer I got was a version of the response: “It seems like the guys who talk know more than I do.”
Since I had been reading the students’ essays all semester, I knew that most of the women in the class had brilliant ideas that were being left out of class conversations, resulting in the whole class missing out terribly on what could be a much better discussion. When I brought this observation up in class, the dynamics changed. Towards the end of the semester, the women who had previously kept quiet were speaking up more and the quality of our discussions increased dramatically.
Other academics have noticed this same phenomenon. According to one study carried out by the Brigham Young University and Princeton, the amount of time that women spend speaking in most groups is significantly less than the time men spend; women speak less than 75 percent of the time that men do, to be exact. If anyone were to carry out the experiment in their own classrooms or group settings, I believe they would find a similar distribution of talking time among genders. There are exceptions to the rule, most certainly. But they are exceptions.
“Wow,” Henry said when I finished telling him all of this. He was silent for a few minutes. “What can I do about this?” He finally asked. I smiled.
“You can listen more,” I said. “Continuing to think about your privilege is a good start.”
This conversation was the first time I confronted a man about mansplaining and didn’t feel like doing so had completely wasted my time; Henry was receptive and understood the issue at hand. But this is not always the case. When marginalized folks find ourselves confronted with a privileged person who, malevolently or not, is completely unaware of and abusing that privilege, we are often caught between not wanting to take the time and effort of teaching those people how to behave better, and wanting to open up a space for a productive discussion.
At least in this case, I’m glad I decided upon the latter option. Maybe we should all confront unchecked privilege in our lives more frequently. While doing so is often discouraging and can leave us feeling exhausted, sometimes it does lead to growth. Perhaps if we could have honest discussions with the privileged people (like mansplainers) we love and care about in our lives, gender inequality could shift further, and at the very least would make for better conversations.
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