What’s Wrong With Whitesplaining

whitesplaining, talking about race, Dylann Roof, Charleston masscre

When the enslavement of blacks in America is linked to the heritage and identity of Southern whites, we cannot simply “whitesplain” the Confederate flag as a symbol of that Southern heritage and identity.

There’s been some really terrible “whitesplaining” going on regarding Dylann Roof, the Charleston shooter with an online racist manifesto who killed nine African-Americans last week in the historic Emanuel AME Church. Whitesplaining, in case you don’t know, is when white folks use commonly held notions about people, incidents, or historical items to dismiss any racist implications. Let’s first start with a prime example of whitesplaining to understand the concept.

Some have been saying Roof must have some sort of mental illness for doing what he did — walking calmly into a bible study group, spending an hour or so pretending to be interested in scripture and then killing nine people in cold blood. Oh, no doubt. Anyone who’s racist is in some way mentally ill. However, there is a huge difference between Roof and, say, James Holmes, the Colorado theater shooter.  Holmes did not target people because of the color of their skin; he was pissed off at everyone.  If we look at mug shots of both Holmes and Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooter, we can see that both appear to be suffering from something deep and horrible.  When we look at Roof, however, what we see is anger. Anger in and of itself is not a condition of mental illness. If that were the case, we’d all be mentally ill when we got angry. Roof’s anger is completely out of proportion to the state of the world and is stoked by an extreme hatred of black people for which there is no rational explanation.

But to say he’s mentally ill and to have some sympathy for him on those grounds is to excuse his racism.  White folks may find themselves wanting to say that Roof’s actions were precipitated by some mental illness are just claiming that to help keep their own racism denial going, seeing that as the only way to explain what Roof did. It is indeed all right to say he’s mentally ill AND a racist. The two aren’t mutually exclusive.

As a result of the images that have surfaced of Roof brandishing the Confederate flag, this past weekend saw plenty of debate about whether that flag is a symbol of white supremacy and racist hate toward African-Americans or merely a reminder of the South’s role in the Civil War.  Now, given that I have Southern ancestry, and realize that my ancestors probably fought on the losing side, I have a stake in the arguments about the Stars and Bars.  However, we—the South, that is—lost.  It’s like the Nazis in Germany.  They lost, too.  Flying the Stars and Bars in South Carolina is like flying the Nazi flag in the German state of Bavaria.  To do so, regardless of casualties and heritage and the suffering of a people, is an insult to the other group of people who were outright enslaved and murdered by the losing side. If I want to remember my Southern heritage as it is connected to the Civil War, I can keep a Confederate flag if I want to—but I’d rather see that flag in a museum, with an accurate history of what it represents.  That history includes lying to the poor whites of that time and sending them to fight in the place of the rich white landowners.

Yes, that happened; along with telling poor whites that they would lose status if the slaves were freed.

Poor whites in the South still, on some primal level, feel they’ve lost status to black Americans. That is one of the strongest bases for racism throughout our country, and is totally a false belief.

But let’s get back to whitesplaining of the Confederate flag. White folks, like U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham, say that it merely represents heritage, ancestors, etc. Sure, it does. But it can do that in an honest historical context in a museum – a context that explains what the South really stood for, how poor whites were treated, which wasn’t so good, and the feudalism of the South which really stood in the way of the progress of the country (like the GOP does today.) The need to tenaciously hold on to whiteness by enslaving others, which is just as reprehensible as holding on to Aryan-ness by killing Jews.

When the enslavement of blacks in America is linked to the heritage and identity of Southern whites, we cannot simply whitesplain the Confederate flag as a symbol of Southern heritage and identity. We must begin to look for other aspects of the Southern identity that are not connected to racism. In calling for the Confederate flag to be removed from the State Capitol, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley acknowledged that, “That flag, while an integral part of the past, does not represent the future of our great state.”

There are aspects to the South that have gone past the racism of Dylann Roof and others like him. Those aspects go beyond the Confederate flag, as well, which is, in actuality, a historical artifact, part of our nation’s past and does not need to be part of its future. Yet, we cannot whitesplain the racism that still runs so deep in this country as to infect not just unstable young men but also our militarized police force and individual patrolmen who felt “threatened” by an unarmed black man. We can’t whitesplain any of this away anymore. We need to face these symbols and actions for what they truly are and not hide them behind whitesplaining. Making oneself feel O.K. about something truly evil by expunging the racist motives behind it helps no one—most of all, the whitesplainers themselves.

Tish Grier is a writer and longtime blogger living in Easthampton, MA.  Even at middle-age, Tish is still a girly girl who enjoys blogging about fashion and beauty.  She also writes essays about her formerly dysfunctional life and wants to let everyone know that things change.  You can read her at High Fashion Average Woman. Tish is also a contributor to Midcentury/Modern on Medium.

Image via Wikimedia Commons/in the public domain

  • tamarz

    I agree with 90% of this and think you make your point beautifully.
    One little quibble. You said this:
    “If we look at mug shots of both Holmes and Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooter, we can see that both appear to be suffering from something deep and horrible. When we look at Roof, however, what we see is anger.”

    No, we can’t tell anything about mental illness vs anger from a mug shot.
    I don’t doubt that Rooff has some mental illness problems as do many other shooters including both the ideological/religious/racist ones and the just crazy kill-anyone ones. The problem is when people (white people) deny the racism and cover it by claiming it’s because he’s mentally ill. No, racism is there in abundance, as you state, and Rooff got a message from the white supremacists he found online similar to the message that Nidal Malik Hasan got from the violent Islamic Imam Anwar al-Awlaki.

    • latenightmoviewall

      Good points, tamarz…..and glad you brought up Nidal Malik Hasan. We can’t stop

    • Thanks tamarz–and good points. Glad you brought up Nidal Malik Hasan too. While it would be nice to be able to catch and limit every site that hosts hate speech, we can’t. It’s too big a job to do that. But, we can call hate speech just that, and that there are many groups, not just white supremacists out there, spreading messages of hate. The thing is to call it what it is–racism–and has nothing to do with any kind of religion or historical identity at all. People do like to look at the past to justify racist thinking, but we don’t live in the past, and we can’t go back, no matter how much certain people want to. We have to keep going forward, and forward means we know what racism looks and sounds like. From there, we can come up with strategies to continue to stamp it out, like firefighters stamping out all those summertime brush fires.

      • tamarz

        Yes, racism masquerading as “tradition” or “heritage” is still racism.

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