Mansplaining and intersectionality

I found myself “mansplaining” recently and it got me thinking about experiences shared (and not shared). The story will serve as a jumping off point for the Mainstreaming on Main Street® (MoMS) Connecters Table and Servant-Leader roundtable taking place in April. The story is a quick read, with a little food for thought. Comments and sharing are always welcome.

In this post:


Story: Mansplaining and intersectionality

I have been working with Milwaukee’s Ex Fabula on a collaboration to bring persons with disabilities into a storytelling space. A recent conversation with Alea McHatten brought us to ideas of how we might focus the experience to allow participants to explore the intersection of disability and inclusion. I explained that a challenge of inclusion in professional settings is that organizational infrastructure often lacks the capacity to support the inclusion of diverse individuals. As a result, the individuals within an organization often reflect a narrow profile. Those who are outside the capacity of that infrastructure either are looked upon as being a poor fit for the organization or thought of as not being qualified for inclusion.

Thinking back on the conversation. I realized Alea might have wondered why this old white guy felt a need to mansplain white privilege to them. I sent Alea a note saying, “I realized, later, that you may have not needed an explanation of how people have a narrow view of the world and don’t relate to what is outside their understanding.  It would have been completely appropriate for you to say, ‘You don’t need to mansplain: I know what white privilege is.’ Sorry about that.” Alea was understanding and thanked me for my self-awareness.

Later still, it occurred to me that I was describing ablism – the conscious/unconscious lack of awareness of accessibility. My intention was not to mansplain white privilege, even though it sounded a lot like it. The fact is, ablism and white privilege have similar structures and presentations. Describing ablism does sound a lot like explaining white privilege.

Lessons learned:

I am fortunate to be able to engage with a variety of individuals from a variety of backgrounds. The hopes and dreams of people reflect common themes. So do the fears and challenges of individuals. The experiences of inclusion (and exclusion) echo across groups. The recognition that ablism sounds a lot like white privilege isn’t surprising. I explored a similar pattern in a recent essay, “The Binary and the Yin Yang,” describing the experiences of my queer peers with their religious upbringing.

Social constructs, such as ablism and white privilege, reflect principles found in accounting and quality management. The “relevant range” describes the boundaries where expectations are not likely to be challenged. The experiences of my queer peers were illustrative of the concept of the relevant range. The experience of being seen as “other” is a common feature of those who see themselves as a member of a disenfranchised group. As the United States becomes more diverse, and as more people seek to validate their own unique identity, there is a natural fear of someday ” being othered.”

My wife, Helen, introduced me to the idea of “learning edges” during her Chaplain residency. A definition of learning edges that resonates with me: “Your learning edge is located just above your competency zone – just inside your anxiety zone” (Mitchell , 2014). The challenge of acknowledging diversity through equity, inclusion, and belonging is that embracing diversity requires us to recognize the discomfort that goes with learning edges.

My conversation with Alea gave the impression that my understanding of ablism gives me an equivalent understanding of white privilege. This presumed equivalency implies that I expect that Alea has a clear understanding of what it means to be an old, white, blind guy. Both assumptions seem a bit nieve. I might even be offended if Alea suggested that to me. This understanding each other stuff can be messy. The fact that understanding diversity is complicated seems a poor excuse to give up on “Liberty and justice for all.”

“We are more alike, my friends,

than we are unalike” Maya Angelou

Applying the lessons:

I am grateful to Alea for the opportunity to reflect on how I (sometimes) explore hard subjects with others. In my work facilitating Servant-Leader roundtables and the Mainstreaming on Main Street® (MoMS) Connecters Table, as well as other groups I am a part of, I welcome the opportunity to think with others. This isn’t always easy work but it’s satisfying work. It is especially rewarding when our collaboration extends our level of understanding of each other.

A few of the questions that came up for me as part of my reflecting:

  • How do I recognize when I’m facing my learning edges?
  • How do I let someone know I am reaching the limits of my learning edges?
  • How do I honor the discomfort of others as they embrace their learning edges?
  • How do I honor the fact that empathy is different from having a clear understanding of the experiences of others?


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