You’ve Got Some ‘Splaining to Do: The Privileged Refusal to STFU

A friend recently posted to Facebook a great collection of photos that were gathered immediately after gay marriage was legalized in New York. They were wonderful, heartwarming, and honestly made me cry as I celebrated-by-proxy with these couples as they enjoyed another great step toward equality in America. And yet the first comment my friend earned on this uplifting post was pointlessly negative, criticizing the couples for their attire, stating that the couples weren’t appropriately formal in their choice of dress, and “some of them look like getting married was just something to do while they were out grabbing a quick lunch.” It was an irksome demonstration of classism (not everyone can afford black-tie attire) with possible undertones of homophobia (’cause aren’t those gays supposed to know about fashion?) and sexism (those lesbians just don’t pay proper attention to femininity). I replied calmly but frankly that this was an event about love and justice, not fashion, and was greeted in return with defensiveness and “at least my only…problem with what is going on in these picures is what they are wearing.”

And then it hit me: I was being straightsplained to.

Clearly, I had no right to get my little rainbow undies in a bunch about his objections to an event that had no implications for him as a straight man–I should just be grateful he wasn’t waving a “GOD HATES F*GS” sign. This decision that greatly impacted the members of my social group, my community, totally warranted his unrelated complaints because he, as a straight person, decided it was so. I’d totally forgotten that it’s my responsibility as a queer person celebrating a queer victory to take a step back and kiss the feet of every straight person who doesn’t consciously forbid me and other queer folks from enjoying such brief glimpses of equality.

Oh, hang on a moment–I think my Ally Cookies are ready!

Bon appetit.

This fallacy is pretty common among those who consider themselves allies to marginalized people in social justice. I’m certainly not immune to it, and sometimes I need to take a step back and check my own privileges in discussions of race relations or transgender issues, for example. But commonality does not make it acceptable. One of the most important things you must keep at the forefront of your mind as an ally is that it is not your place to jump on the ‘Splainin’ Train and straightsplain/mansplain/whitesplain/etc. away a minority’s objections to your words or behavior. If someone objects to something you’ve said or done, take a step back and try to see it from their perspective. Apologize for your insensitive slight, reword your comment (or rework your thinking) and approach the situation with a little humility.

Also, the concept of deserving reward or praise simply for not being an active bigot is ridiculous. Behavior deserves praise if it is beyond what can be normally expected. Do you really want to live in a world where hatred and bigotry are the accepted norms? Because you can’t challenge that ugliness without first deciding that humans should hold themselves to higher standards, such as demonstrating compassion, understanding, and respect. Those are basic tenets of humanity, and we shouldn’t have to fawn over you for possessing them.

Being active in feminist circles, I hear my fair share of mansplaining. They ‘splain to me how rape isn’t that serious of an epidemic, and it is in fact the insidious invasion of false rape reports we should be worried about. They ‘splain how sometimes we ladies deserve physical punishment, and men really can’t be blamed for rising to the occasion. And let’s not forget that they’re really the oppressed ones, anyway, so we just need to aim a fire extinguisher at our bras and calm down already.

Even male allies can fall into these traps, and it leaves a feminist woman walking the delicate line of not alienating someone who could potentially help the cause, and not stroking the ego of someone who still doesn’t get it. An ally who perpetuates harmful stereotypes isn’t helping the overall movement, and it is that ally’s responsibility to react calmly and with self-reflection when called out for a misstep.

As I’ve mentioned before, sometimes the most important thing you have to do, as someone not on the receiving end of bigotry, is simply shut the fuck up. Marginalized people are not trying to oppress you by demanding your occasional silence–we’re just asking for a level playing field. In a world that never stops you from having a say, we’re asking that you not drown out our voices. And please, don’t tell us why we don’t understand our own oppression; while you were busy observing our lifestyles, we were busy living our lives, having legitimate applicable experiences that you do not have the right to ‘splain away. So sit down a moment, have a cup of tea, and relax while we take the helm of our own movements.


About bunnika

shout at the brick wall; if it doesn't hear you, shout louder
This entry was posted in challenging privilege, feminism, queer rights, sj allies. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to You’ve Got Some ‘Splaining to Do: The Privileged Refusal to STFU

  1. Asia Morela says:

    Love the cookies! LOL
    That comment about making marriage an unimportant affair… is actually very close to the wish to limit who should get married, which is perhaps the main argument that’s been brought in recent years against gay marriage (and not homophobia, which straight-out regards ‘gay marriage’ as an oxymoron). In the sense of: we’re not against gay marriage because we’re against gay love, it’s just that Marriage has to stay the sacred, till-death-do-us-part, frozen-in-time thing it’s always been! In reality, legalizing gay marriage isn’t just a ‘gay issue’, but holds a much broader meaning; it is the affirmation that “the times, they are a-changing”… and that nothing can limit the absolute aspect contained in the democratic principle (liberals have tried since the 19th century; wouldn’t it be time they give up?).

    • bunnika says:

      You make an excellent point about the undertone to this particular argument, and I admit I hadn’t really noticed that connection before. The concept of marriage being “sacred” in a society where half of marriages end in divorce is simply ludicrous to me, but there are a lot of people who paint the issue in those colors.

  2. frenchtoast says:


    I believe I understand your argument about ‘splaining. I see why you resent the idea that allies deserve brownie points for simply not being oppressors. I’d like to point out, however, a basic principle of successful communication: it can be very effective to praise someone for doing something that is expected of them, rather than reserving praise for actions above and beyond the call of duty. For instance, if you expect your roommate or child to do their share of chores, it’s helpful to acknowledge their efforts, to tell them that it means something to you, even if those efforts fall short of the spectacular.

    I realize that this example doesn’t take into account the power imbalance that exists between the men and women, WASPs and minorities, etc. Something to think about, though.



    • bunnika says:

      There is a problem in your analogy that defeats the entire argument: A roommate is an equal, and I don’t think I need to expound upon how minorities are not treated equally in society. As for children, they are not the ones in power. Parents have power over children, not the other way around. Men, heterosexuals, whites, etc. are the ones with power, therefore they are not the children who deserve praise, they are the parents. Do you praise parents for feeding their kids? For giving them shelter? No, because the children have a right to such basic levels of care. (For that matter, do you praise your roommate for allowing you access to the bathroom, or for not locking you out of the house in the rain?) Until the oppressors, the parents in this analogy, provide the oppressed with basic human rights (gay marriage, female bodily autonomy, etc.) why should they be praised? I’m a mom, and I don’t expect my daughter to lavish praise upon me for providing her with someplace to get out of the weather. I also share living quarters, and do not expect my partner to thank me for letting him use the toilet.

      It is also very important to note that we are not talking about children, we are talking about grown adults who still feel childlike entitlement to all the toys in their preschool classroom. You do not praise a bully for only shoving his victim rather than punching her in the face; you tell him to stop being a bully altogether.

      Another problem is the power dynamic at play when allies expect constant praise. They are not expected to praise us, because we are simply “knowing our place” when we are subserviant to them. When was the last time you saw a straight married couple thank a gay person for not campaigning against heterosexual marriage? When was the last time you saw a white person thank a person of color for not calling him a cracker? It is expected that we should respect our oppressors, when they don’t think they owe us such basic levels of human dignity. It is just another way to tell us we are lesser human beings.

      And where is the line drawn? Should black people thank white people for not enslaving them? Should gay people thank straight people for being able to use public restrooms? And how would you feel if the women in your life thanked you for not raping them? You can call the examples extreme if you want, but they are born of that same privileged mindset that tells those in power they deserve praise for every crumb they toss to those minorities they oppress.

      Every time an ally demands praise from a minority, they are displaying their privilege to do so, they are being passively oppressive, and a bad ally. No oppression, whether active and violent or passive and self-aggrandizing, deserves praise.

      I get that your basic theory is “you attract more flies with honey than with vinegar.” It is a sound theory, with a great little coloquialism to go with it, and I’m not gonna argue it. But here’s the thing: We aren’t trying to attract flies, we’re trying to get them to stop biting us.

  3. AM says:

    ‘We aren’t trying to attract flies, we’re trying to get them to stop biting us’. That is perfect, can I steal it for future use? I wish I was as good at snappy wording 🙂

    When some privileged commenters trot out the tone argument, I don’t think they realise just how many times we’ve had this exact same discussion. It IS easier to catch flies with honey than with vinegar, but when you’ve tried with the honey over and over and over again and the next wannabe ally who shows up just trots out the same old cluelessness, it gets really difficult to stay calm, hold their hand and explain things to them nicely when there are more pressing matters we are trying to discuss.

    Actually I’ve just had this discussion from one guy who claimed that ‘just shutting up and listening’ is difficult for him, it’s not his learning style, even at college he always learned more by asking direct questions, can’t we see he means well?

    Well, it is good that privileged people want to learn. We want them to understand. The trouble is that, even if they’re just asking questions, they’re treating feminist spaces as educational establishments which were set up for the purpose of teaching them, not women’s spaces for discussing the things that harm us. It’s the idea that they’re doing us such a huge honour just by being there at all, that it’s ungrateful of us to not drop everything and teach them.

    But being quiet and listening really is the basic principle of being a good ally, isn’t it? And with the internet, you’ve got no excuse. If you lurk and read, nobody even knows you’re there or expects anything of you.

    I do have some sympathy for newbie feminist allies because I’ve done it myself in minority spaces: been entirely too pleased with myself and more focused on my progressive brownie points than the actual racism in question. I’ve totally white-splained myself, just by dominating the conversation when it was not my place to do so. I didn’t realise it at the time but I was totally trying to show off what a good ally I was and talking over my Asian friend in the process. She didn’t say anything but looking back I can tell she was thinking will you please STFU and let me talk about my own life?

    I’m long-winded, sorry!

  4. robertsloan2 says:

    Another good one. Thank you.

  5. Chris says:

    “privilege” “splaining”, “STFU”. All terms that let you know you’re in the presence of an identity Nazi.

    • bunnika says:

      Using the term “Nazi” to flippantly describe something other than actual Nazis, surefire way to know you’re in the presence of someone who makes light of genocide.

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