Clifton, Ellison Help Explain Whitesplaining

Clinton listens to Black Lives Matter protesters

Clinton listens to Black Lives Matter protesters


Hillary Clinton said something in a speech recently which reminded me of a Lucille Clifton poem—a poem, I should add, which takes me personally to task. And when I say “me,” I don’t mean a general me. I mean me, Robin Bates. Clifton, who used to teach at our college, told me that I was the specific person she was referencing when she wrote it.

I don’t write this post to claim any sort of dubious honor, however. Rather, it is to help the supporters of Democratic candidates, especially Bernie Sanders admirers, to understand why they are having difficulty reaching black voters.

Here’s the Hillary quote, included in an excellent Vox article by Michelle Garcia:

“White Americans need to do a better job at listening when African Americans talk about the seen and unseen barriers they face every day,” she said. “Practice humility rather than assume that our experience is everyone’s experiences.”

We’ve seen the word “whitesplaining” emerge in recent years, to go along with the term “mansplaining.” Each of the terms points to an annoying tendency by certain people of privilege to “explain” to others (Blacks, women) why they are mistaken. Those who whitesplain do not listen and they are not humble.

Hillary, who has been guilty herself of whitesplaining in the past, may be making progress. Garcia notes that

the speech…seemed to mark a turning point for Clinton, who used the opportunity to show black voters she’s heard the criticism directed at her, while also asking white voters to actively participate in dismantling racism.

Maybe Hillary’s sensitivity stems from being the target of mansplaining.

The Clifton poem is “note to self.” I’ve recounted the backstory in a previous post, where you can read the poem in its entirety, so I’ll only summarize here. Some white students had objected to a message on a shirt worn by an African American student (“it’s a black thing you wouldn’t understand”) so we got together as a community to discuss it. The student participated in the panel, along with me, a white student who had objected, and a black faculty member.

While my intentions were good (that’s why Lucille refers to me as “even the best”), I didn’t appreciate enough the source of the student’s anger. Clifton writes,

amira baraka—I refuse to be judged by white men.

or defined. and i see
that even the best believe
they have that right,
believe that
what they say i mean
is what i mean
as if words only matter in the world they know,
as if when i choose words
i must choose those
that they can live with

Clifton worked as a kind of unofficial black student councilor while she was at St. Mary’s and so could see what I overlooked:

as if i have not reached
across our history to touch,
to soothe on more than one

Her frustration, I’m sure, lay in the way whites at the school wanted to move too quickly past black grievances. It is why African Americans have been so frustrated when whites have responded to “Black Lives Matter” with “All Lives Matter”:

as if my story is
so trivial
we can forget together,
as if i am not scarred,
as if my family enemy
does not look like them

Sanders supporters often don’t understand why many African Americans fail to appreciate his candidacy. After all, his economic prescriptions would greatly benefit those in poverty, who are disproportionately people of color. But class and race, while intertwined, are not entirely the same.

Perhaps Sanders supporters have some of the blindness of Brother Jack in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Wedded to a communist party platform, he can’t appreciate the cultural dimensions of Invisible Man’s organizing efforts. His partial blindness is symbolized by his glass eye, which catches IM unawares.

No one who is white can know what it is like to encounter the endless stream of micro-aggressions (and sometimes macro-aggressions) directed against people of color in this country. We can at least, however, practice humility.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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