Before Manspreading, There Was Whitespreading

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

“Manspreading”: It’s a classic case of a minor bother (rudely taking up too much space on public transit) that is, or is alleged to be, representative of a broader, major problem (prevalent, unchallenged sexism and male privilege). The portmanteau inspires strong opinions. That includes lexically framed complaints even among those who dislike the actual practice of, well, manspreading. Oxford Dictionaries even produced a meticulous etymology of the term.

The October cover story in Harper’s is an essay by Randall Kennedy in defense of “respectability politics” on race (against, among others, my colleague Ta-Nehisi). I don’t want to get into that argument, but I was struck by a quotation from a 1910 pamphlet published by the Woman’s Convention of the National Baptist Convention, a civic group for blacks with advice for riding streetcars. You may or may not be able to view the piece online, because Harper’s, but here’s the relevant passage:

a certain class of whites have set a poor example for the Negro ... by making it a point to rush in and spread out, so that we cannot get seats .... We have seen our people provoked to act very rudely and to demand seats, or squeeze in, and almost sit in the laps of the “spreaders.” Here is an opportunity for us to show our superiority by not squeezing in .... Let us at all times ... remember that the quiet, dignified individual who is respectful to others is after all the superior individual, be he black or white.

I gasped: “spreaders”! It’s even a parallel usage, describing an obnoxious practice, carried out on public transportation, that served a larger, more nefarious system of racism. We might even call it “whitespreading.”

The Woman’s Convention might not get a sympathetic hearing from women today, 105 years on: Calling out manspreading, rather than quietly bearing it, is socially celebrated these days.