David Olusoga, the British Historian and broadcaster, amongst many things, recently did an online event ‘An Evening with David Olusoga as part of the Brighton Festival 2023. One of the most interesting things when watching Professor Olusoga speak about what it is to be British, was not so much his talk itself (which was excellent). It was when the floor was opened up to comments and questions post his presentation. When the first person to stand up, a white middle class man, then stood up and used the phrase ‘I’m not sure if this is more of comment than a question…,’ I knew that the only thing I could do was to sit back and wait a few minutes because this man was about to hold court.
The whitesplaining had begun!
The theme of this month’s blog, whitesplaining, its connection to psychological supremacy, and its link to shame, are areas discussed in my latest work (D. D. L. Turner, 2023). Yet, to focus in on Whitesplaining itself, simplistically put, this is the phenomenon whereby those who identify as white will over-speak their ideas on top of those presented by those of colour (Johnson et al., 2021). The links here to mansplaining are fairly obvious, yet whitesplaining is a phenomenon which is not as well understood yet holds similar levels of pain when experienced. To offer an example out of the writings around mansplaining, as explored by Dular (2021) is seen as part of the epistemic injustice meted out on women within a patriarchal environment whereby the inability of men to see themselves as equal to women leads them to dominate, question or contradict women who often hold ideas, roles, or positions of power far superior to theirs.
Supremacy resides in both of these experiences. Yet, it would be wrong to think these are the only types of experience whereby the other is looked down upon by the subject. When we consider class, then we have to look at classsplaining, as posited by Hirdman, (Hirdman, 2016) who presented this idea through the realm of Reality TV, highlights the current cultural propensity to undermine and look down upon those who we see as culturally, or classically, inferior to ourselves.
This month though, we need to look at whitesplaining, an area of experience which I myself have endured on regular occasions. From the four page critique emailed to me to take issue with a minor issue in a paper published in Therapy Today , to the former white colleagues who decided to explain my work back at me in the past, whitesplaining is a common enough experience in my working life.
I suspect for many readers of this blog post, it is part of their experience as well.
Diary Note: This used to happen from time to time. I would walk into a room for a lecture and one or two of a list of things would happen. I would either be asked in a slightly challenging tone, ‘why are you here?’ Or when delivering said lecture there would be the same voices which would exclaim that ‘don’t I think it would be good for the group if I did it like this/that/some other way?’ Or I would be told my work was not real psychotherapy and that was what they wanted. The proponents were always white, gender was irrelevant.
There are many ways to look at shame, and some of these have been explored in my previous blogs, or in chapter three of my last work on privilege and otherness (D. D. L. Turner, 2021). One of the core ideas which ties into this month’s blog is that shame is a common facet of the relationship between those who have been taught that they are supreme and those who have been marked out as the other, with the shame of otherness being like a snowball rolling down a hillside to impact upon the other should they not be aware of its presence.
This is the meaning of the story of the white workshop facilitator who when informed that I was a psychotherapist tole me I looked more like a bouncer; the attempt to shame me into some form of conformity was always in the language (D. Turner, 2009). It is the edge which sits behind the story presented above of myself at a workshop. It is the constant attempt to undermine and establish white dominance over the intellectually prominent, yet also systemically threatening, blackness of the racialised other.
From other angles, this is nothing new. We see it in the language we all use or are aware of as well. For example, where the upper class try to establish their superiority by calling someone ‘new money’, when the working-class academic is told that he isn’t ‘academic enough’, or when the male politician tell a woman MP to ‘calm down dear!’ in the British Parliament.
Yet to stretch this metaphor further, the shame is not actually the other’s. When we consider shame and take a phenomenological look at this emotion through the lens of social constructionism then what we realise is that shame is the glue which maintains the sense of superiority of whiteness in the face of its opposite, darkness. To combine this with psychoanalytic psychotherapy, what I mean here is that these social constructs, whiteness, patriarchy and capitalism, have a hold upon all of us from our superego. We are moulded to be people, cultures, genders, sexualities, by the messaging passed on to us through all three of these intersecting systems, constructs of identity which often not only make us other, but also either more than or less than, superior or inferior. To then step outside of our prescribed roles, be they where the superiority of whiteness encounters a man or woman of colour who challenges this internalised narrative, then brings with it a sense of unexpected shame. The reaction to this is where whitesplaining comes in, where mansplaining appears, and where class-shaming and class-splaining arises. The fear that those at the centre are no longer as superior as they have been told they are by said system, so to rid themselves of the sense of shame they are left with, they have to cognitively, passive aggressively, or overtly, fight to have their position back.
Diary Note: I once dated a woman who worked in a totally different scientific field to myself. During our relationship I was often very happy to explore her world, as much as it would teach me things I didn’t know about as being a positive partner. Yet, the same was often not forthcoming in return. Over time, I realised that my ideas would be explained back to me, that I was told that the research I had done was not as valid, and I was left with the shameful sense that I was not a real scientist. It took a while to shake off the sense of being subtly belittled by someone.
A note of caution here though. I would like to suggest that whitesplaining is a facet in the silencing of the voices of the racialised other. Yet, this silencing is as much an internal event as it is an external reality. The superegoic compliance of those who sit quietly and objectively as the racial other is something which many of us have absorbed from when we were really quite young. So, it really doesn’t need much from the external environs of whiteness which we all live within for us to struggle to believe that our voices are as relevant as those whose actions have oppressed us from within.
The shame of speaking up, versus the drive to do just that, when fighting injustice, is a struggle we all have to undertake in order to be activists, to be voices for our communities. Yet, I believe that this call to vocalised arms, whilst shaming for the racial subject, returns not only our voices as the other, but gives us back a humanity which when recognised then proffers a multitude of ways forward towards greater empathy and therefore the greater potential of relationship between binary groups.
Shame becomes the difficult doorway all parties have to walk through towards unity.
Dular, N. (2021). Mansplaining as Epistemic Injustice. Feminist Philosophy Quarterly, 7(1). https://doi.org/10.5206/fpq/2021.1.8482
Hirdman, A. (2016). The passion of mediated shame: Affective reactivity and classed otherness in reality TV. European Journal of Cultural Studies, 19(3), 283–296. https://doi.org/10.1177/1367549415609325
Johnson, V. E., Nadal, K. L., Sissoko, D. R. G., & King, R. (2021). “It’s Not in Your Head”: Gaslighting, ‘Splaining, Victim Blaming, and Other Harmful Reactions to Microaggressions. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 16(5), 1024–1036. https://doi.org/10.1177/17456916211011963
Turner, D. (2009). Strange Relationship. Therapy Today, December, 26–28.
Turner, D. D. L. (2021). Intersections of Privilege and Otherness in Counselling and Psychotherapy (1st ed.). Routledge.
Turner, D. D. L. (2023). The Psychology of Supremacy. Routledge.