What Cissplaining Isn’t

I had a professor (not an adjunct, full Phd) who was a great anthropologist, feminist & activist. I’m not pretending to know a tenth of what she knows about anthropology, but the course was on gendered violence – a topic I do know a lot about – and she had obviously thrown in some stuff about violence against trans people without bothering to read or understand it. I would guess that she got some feedback about needing to included in a course about “gendered violence” but just wasn’t interested in studying trans people (fair, everyone has their own speciality and interests).

I don’t mind that she didn’t know anything about trans experiences of domestic or sexual violence, but when she got to the one week of the course where we were talking LGBTQI she said some things that were **obviously** wrong. Badly wrong. I was wondering where she got her info …

… then she cited me.

I could not have been more embarrassed. There was no way I wanted to correct her in front of everyone as if I knew more about gendered violence generally than she did. She clearly knew more in general. But this one little bit about trans & intersex lives & she got it so badly wrong. And if she just hadn’t cited me, I could completely shut up about it, but the class had about 80 people in it, and some people who had worked with me in group discussion or whatever earlier in the term knew my name & knew I was trans & knew I was an older, returning student who had worked in the anti-violence field. They correctly guessed that there couldn’t be that many trans people with my unusual last name who worked in anti-violence.

I did not tell a soul that she was citing me, but the people who guessed it was me were whispering. Then during the break between lecture & group work someone told the professor. She came up & asked me if I wanted to talk about my work with her, maybe even speak to the class the next time we met for lecture. I declined.

This was horribly awkward – probably for both of us – but it wasn’t cissplaining as I think of it. In this case, she was the professor of a class on gendered violence. Everyone there volunteered to hear what she had to say on the topic, and she is a legitimate expert. She also had the education to make sense of what she was citing. She failed to understand it, exactly why I don’t know, but she didn’t seem to be interested in the topic so one reasonable guess is that she just didn’t put the time in. But what she was saying had its own logic. It wasn’t self-contradictory, certainly not on the surface. The problem was that the logic depended on certain assumptions of hers that didn’t hold true and were cissexist in their nature. Thus using them to try to understand trans & intersex experiences of domestic & sexual violence was doomed to fail.

So her statements, backed up by citing work she likely either hadn’t read carefully or simply hadn’t been able to understand through her presuppositions, could easily have amounted to cissplaining in another context. In fact they superficially resemble the circumstances of this story:

In Dr. McCarty’s story, however, the white male post doc had no reason to think that McCarty was his intellectual inferior on the topic. My professor was addressing her students: there was every reason to believe that we were her intellectual inferiors on the topics she taught. (And I was – on all the things she was teaching save TI & maybe, possibly LGBQ experiences of domestic & sexual violence.)

My professor’s in-class behavior was reasonable. It seemed pretty clear from how she approached me that she thought I disagreed with what she said. Again, I hadn’t spoken up, but perhaps I had given something away in a facial expression to the people near me, or perhaps others simply had enough experience with trans perspectives to know that what she was saying was unlikely to be correct. However it happened, she would have had to get that information from others. But she did not seem to take that as an affront. She legit wanted my input.

Instead of compounding her error, then, when she heard that I was the author of the two papers she was citing & that I was in the audience she approached me personally & gave me a chance to speak. I have some problems with a couple of things: I don’t know how she came to misunderstand the material she cited, but it’s possible that she never actually read the papers at all. We weren’t assigned my papers, but a reading that cited two of them. She could have simply read abstracts of the two of my papers that reading cited and thought that was enough. Again, I don’t really know how she came to the misunderstanding she had. She came across a bit lazy & arrogant (whether that’s fair to say of her more generally I wouldn’t guess) for saying what she said so confidently when it was so wrong, but not all that long ago I made a solid, no misinterpreting assertion about legal procedure for Human Rights Tribunals in BC and I was flat out wrong. It happens.

So if you’re in a situation where you’re expected to be teaching others, and you get something wrong, I have sympathy. It’s what you do afterwards that demonstrates whether you will retrench your privilege or show your willingness to learn.

Rather than seeing condesplaining in teachers’ every mistake, I think the concept is better applied to people who volunteer themselves as experts when no one asked them to teach them anything. My prof fucked up, and I hope she got better, but I asked her to share her expertise by signing up for her class. I think that situation is fundamentally different from that of Dr. McCarty’s NASA meeting or my own experiences at other times when the person being educated asked for nothing of the sort in addition to not needing anything of the sort.



  1. ardipithecus says

    IME most teachers want to learn. I would have been inclined to speak up, but to discuss it with the prof first, so as not to blind side, nor usurp lecture time the prof wasn’t prepared to lose.

    If the prof did want to learn, not speaking up deprived her of the opportunity.

  2. sonofrojblake says

    I think the concept is better applied to people who volunteer themselves as experts when no one asked them to

    IMO that’s the only context where it’s appropriate to apply it. There’s an annoyingly frequent tendency for “look how feminst I am” types to characterise any instance, at all, of any man explaining anything to any woman as mansplaining, even if, e.g. the man is a legit expert on the thing and the woman isn’t, and they’re in a context where she’s seeking help.

    As I understand it, proper ‘splaining requires:
    1. the splainee is a legit expert in the subject, ideally female or presenting as such
    2. the splainer is NOT, or at least nowhere near as much as the splainee, and is ideally male or presenting as such
    3. splainer is entirely oblivious of (1) and (2), sometimes even after it’s pointed out.
    4. optionally, splainer actually cites splainee TO splainee

    I feel I need to point out that what I’m in danger of looking like I’m splaining here is NOT what splaining IS, merely what my understanding of it is. And if you think I’m egregiously wrong in that understanding… tell me.

  3. says

    I appreciate the irony of a bloke chipping in on this subject. I think the term was a really useful descriptor of a particular phenomenon. A sort of special case patronisation (and note the origin of that word too).

    Like so many useful things though it can get misused. A humorous example was when an Apollo denier accused someone from NASA of mansplaining when they pointed out all the flaws in her argument. More seriously, I’ve seen the term used a lot by anti vaxxers/covid conspirators,

    So when used in its original context it describes a very real thing. Often now though it’s just a thought terminating cliche. On a par with “snowflake’, “ok boomer” et all. And it has the extra dimension that challenging an accusation becomes further evidence of its existence.

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