If you’ve ever wondered what people mean when they refer to “mansplaining,” this exchange illustrates it perfectly.
Hilary Jerome Scarsella took to Facebook recently to describe an encounter she had with two men in an airport. Scarsella, who holds two Master’s degrees and is completing her PhD in Theological Studies at Vanderbilt University, researches the intersections of religion, trauma, and gender-based violence. She was on her way home after speaking at a conference.
As Scarsella waited for her flight, sitting near a male colleague who had also spoken at the conference, a random man sat down across from them and started talking—a lot.
“He finds out we were speakers at a conference about trauma, theology, sexual abuse, and the church,” she wrote. “He thinks this is really interesting. He’s into theology and trauma. He asks what my degrees are in.”
After finding out about her expertise, this happens:
“He launches into explaining his belief that everything happens for a reason, that the universe is filled with forces that even out all wrongdoing, that everyone is where they are supposed to be at all times, that something good comes from each thing that is bad, and so on. I listen and ask him questions and let him know kindly that I disagree. Did slavery happen for a reason? Has the Native American genocide been evened out? Was that woman really supposed to be in the room where she was raped? We argue. He works hard to show me that he is right. I look at my laptop. My work is not getting done. I say ‘I understand your perspective and I disagree.’ He reiterates his points and then says, ‘It was great talking to you, I’m gonna go catch my flight!’”
Now, this woman, by every measure, knows more about the topic at hand than this gentleman. She has advanced degrees in the subject. It is her life’s work to study it and understand it. And yet, he presumed to explain her subject matter to her and made no attempt to learn from her.
This is what we mean by “mansplaining.”
Her colleague, on the other hand, showed what being a male ally can look like.
Scarsella described what happened next:
“Then this brilliant thing happened. My new friend leaned forward as airport guy was about to walk away, and he said, ‘Dude, you missed an opportunity. You had an expert in theology and trauma sitting in front of you. You say you’re interested in these things but you didn’t ask her a single question. You didn’t try to learn anything at all from her. You know she has advanced degrees and is published but you just tried to show her that you know more about her work than she does. You missed out. Big fail, man.’”
Her colleague hadn’t interrupted during Scarsella and the man’s conversation. He didn’t swoop in to insert himself in the middle of it. But afterward, he pointed out to the man where he’d gone wrong.
To his credit, the guy did try to make up for his faux pas. Scarsella continued:
“The guy got uncomfortable and tried to defend himself, but my new friend and I smiled and shook our heads. Nope, we weren’t having it. Then, the guy sat back down and asked me to “teach him” for 5 minutes before he went to board his plane. He was trying to make it right. I smiled and said no thank you, I didn’t want to be put on the spot or responsible for him missing his flight (which had been boarding for 15 minutes). My new friend added, “No, man, you gotta live with the consequences of your mistake. Time’s up.”
Time’s up, indeed.
Scarsella explained the effect the exchange had on her physically, mentally, and emotionally.
“This was (for me, in this particular situation) an awesome experience of a man (my new friend) using his male privilege to call bs on another man’s (airport guy) entitlement and sexism in a way that redirected power and dignity, and honestly, needed emotional energy back to me,” Scarsella wrote.
“When he spoke up, my body relaxed. My new friend wasn’t the least bit concerned about hurting airport guy’s feelings or making him uncomfortable. He was concerned about interrupting men’s patterns of lowkey dominating women. I found his priorities startling and refreshing. They made the physical space I was in change. It went from hostile space to safe(er) space in the time it took to speak a sentence.”
Scarsella then explained that what her new friend did wasn’t extraordinary, though it feels extraordinary.
“The ease with which my new friend expressed his priorities signaled a long term, practiced commitment to not only holding them in his mind but to embodying them as well. I wish I encountered this more often. My new friend shouldn’t get accolades. I’m not writing this to praise him or put him in some kind of weird male savior position. His priorities should be normal and interrupting sexism should be mundane. But they’re not, so. Here we are.”
Finally, she left men with a call to action. “Menfolk, will you please make this happen more often?” she wrote. “I could get by on half the energy it currently takes me to exist in the world if y’all would each take on one or two airport guys a month.”
Men may not realize how much energy dealing with sexism on a regular basis actually takes. If more did what Scarsella’s colleague did—speak up for a woman without speaking over her when a man exhibits sexist behavior—it would make life so much easier for half the population.