Tone Policing & the Sound of Equality in STEM
I was asked by a scientific organization to write a piece on “diversity and inclusion.” This is what I turned in. They didn’t like it because they didn’t think it was relevant to science. Ok.
When I was in my first year in a PhD program in theoretical physics, I watched an associate professor informally present some research to two senior professors from different institutions. I couldn’t really follow what was going on, but suddenly the man at the board started punching it, before walking off yelling. A couple of years later, the director of our research institute had a yelling match with one of our speakers, who I later found out is infamous for yelling at students. All of the white men in these stories had tenure and are well-known and successful, despite displaying what one might argue are “unprofessional” behaviors in the work place.
By contrast, I’m a first-year assistant professor in theoretical physics and women’s studies, the first Black American woman to hold a faculty position in theoretical cosmology, and recently, I received a phone call from a senior person in my discipline that I was on a committee with. I knew the agenda ahead of time, or so I thought. “I have to start by playing the tone police,” he told me. What didn’t happen next: I didn’t say, “Do you? Really?” The person I was speaking to had been told that I used a profane word (in a casual, non-professional environment) and as a result, we were discussing my use of the word, instead of the much more serious topic that I had expected to discuss.
The story sounds ridiculous but nonetheless, it happened, and it is emblematic of a larger trend in conversations about diversity, inclusion and equity. What outspoken advocate for the well-being of people of color and other minoritized people in STEM hasn’t been told some version of, “It’d be easier to hear your message if it was more pleasant to listen to”? The people making these kinds of comments always think they are saying something of great practical importance, but really what they’re saying is that they will allow injustice to persist until its victims grovel with sufficiently pleasing manners.
As a Black woman who learned details of the stories of Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman before she learned how to multiply, it’s not complicated to interpret these kinds of comments which propose that if I make white people uncomfortable when I talk about racism, they are justified in refusing to end racism. Slavery outside of prisons may be illegal in the United States, but it is still widely socially acceptable to treat white feelings as if they take precedence over Black feelings. The relationship between this type of behavior and science is so mundane that it can be difficult to point to. It’s not unique to STEM, but it exemplifies the kinds of problematic behaviors that enhance marginalization in STEM.
More broadly, whenever someone in a position of social power experiences discomfort at the cries for justice by those with less power, the wider social expectation is that the person with more power must be accommodated. So, when a wheelchair user sounds angry when an airport employee is mishandling their wheelchair, the disabled person is often framed as unnecessarily rude and angry. Society attacks the victim, not the system that often translates into disabled people having essential, expensive medical equipment casually damaged by able-bodied people.
Under the guise of encouraging “civility,” this focus on problematizing people’s responses to injustice rather than simply eliminating the injustice actually reinforces the injustice. Withholding allyship until demands of emotional fealty are met is a way of taking justice hostage. In my view, this is deeply uncivil behavior, and in academic spaces it targets minoritized people, especially folks who are Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color the most.
The analogy with policing is worth interrogating. No one is killed by tone “police,” you might say. But the fact of the matter is that Sandra Bland ended up dead in a jail cell in an incident that began with a police officer feeling she had taken the wrong tone with him. Moreover, scientific research shows over and over that racism is not merely experienced by its victims psychologically but has real physical consequences. Is tone policing racist? Is it ableist? Is it transphobic? The answer to these questions must be a resounding yes, it is -ist and -phobic to put the feelings of minoritized people last in conversations about their own experiences.
There’s another side to this civility discussion too, which is treating certain English dialects as more acceptable than others. Scientists like to pretend that how they do things is rooted in objectively “best” practices, but they are usually just a matter of tradition. The way we speak to each other in the scientific workplace — and the way we understand the workplace — is organized around straight white middle class notions of social norms and “proper English.” Communities that have been forced to thrive outside of the tent of power associated with being straight, white, middle class, and neurotypical have developed other ways of talking to each other. Sometimes those ways of talking involve using words that are considered impolite in certain quarters or when used by the wrong speaker. Ironically, in this publication, it is difficult to share examples because it would be considered unprofessional. Those aren’t the rules that Black queer people would write if we were in charge. [Note: Of course, said Publication decided not to publish. For anyone confused, for example, Black people get to say the N word, non-Black people don’t. In case you’re feeling like this rule is unjust, just remember that’s actual injustice out there, like deathly racism.]
If our working environments are going to become more diverse, people who are from traditionally dominant communities need to accept that people will have different linguistic traditions from them. The diversity and inclusion discourse is too often oriented toward assimilating people into behaving exactly like people who have always been in the room, rather than making the room more welcoming for people who are different. In fact, there are so many rules about diversity and inclusion that work in opposition to the existence of difference that I recently published a list of 50 of them. The focus on diversity and inclusion can act as a dangerous distraction from a needed focus on justice.
How else can we get white/cis hetero/able-bodied people to listen? The unfortunate reality of the situation is that if someone won’t attend to cries of injustice until those cries accommodate their socialized notions of civility, they won’t attend to injustice. Robin DiAngelo has named this phenomenon of intense sensitivity “white fragility.” White fragility will not be ended by accommodating it, just like no one learns their times tables by being allowed to avoid dealing with multiplication.
Rather, white fragility and other forms of power-based fragility must be confronted. These forms of sociopolitical-emotional dominance must be confronted by people who share access to the dominance but who know better than to invoke it. In other words, white people must confront white people about their white fragility. It’s a lot easier to pick up the phone and say, “Another white person asked me to talk to you about your tone,” but it’s more important to say to the white person who made the request in the first place, “You know what? Your white fragility is dangerous.”
Underneath this danger is fear. Audre Lorde poignantly addressed this in her 1981 keynote speech to the National Women’s Studies Association, “My response to racism is anger. I have lived with that anger, ignoring it, feeding upon it, learning to use it before it laid my visions to waste, for most of my life. Once I did it in silence, afraid of the weight. My fear of anger taught me nothing. Your fear of that anger will teach you nothing, also.” Rather than fearing the anger being expressed, we must learn about the causes of the anger. We must tend to the deep, multi-generational wounds that produce the anger. We must end the injustices that wounded in the first place.
There is of course an element of complexity to this. We may find ourselves in different locations in the matrix of domination. I’m Black, agender and from a working-class background. But I’m also light skinned, cissex, and thanks in part to my marriage, living an upper middle-class life. My experience is different from, for example, dark skinned Black trans women in academia who have not formed life partnerships that helped shift their class status. Within the communities that center our overlapping identities, the dream of a common language remains a challenge. We will sometimes hurt each other and sometimes not be generous enough with each other as we learn and grow. Patience is required.
But whoever we are, we must work to understand the deep roots of the anger prompted by injustice and keep our eyes on the prize. We must understand that no amount of tone policing will make the anger go away. Returning to that phone call, I wish the person had started with, “I heard you felt strongly about a persistent harasser. Someone complained to me about the language you used to express your concerns, and I told them that my primary interest was in helping you address the abuse. I hope in future you feel comfortable coming to me with your concerns and don’t feel like you just have to vent in private.” I can guarantee that if the call had gone that way, I would have used fewer profane words in my explanations to my friends about what happened on that call.
The most effective form of tone policing is to let go of policing entirely and instead to become an accomplice in the fight against injustice. Contacting someone to say, “your tone rubs people the wrong way,” does absolutely nothing to end injustice. In fact, often this kind of behavior reinforces the injustice at hand by focusing on silencing critics. Ask yourself who you are serving when you do this. This isn’t to say that you have to like everyone or enjoy what they are saying. But you should focus on the message more than the delivery, and if the message is about the urgency of needed change, the best thing you can do is make the change happen.