Racism 101: Tone Policing

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I recently started a series to explain terms and other basic concepts that have rushed into the forefront over the last year of frenzied discussion on hard topics like systemic racism and the pervasiveness of misogynistic ideas in all levels of American society. For those of us who are members of marginalized groups, we are well acquainted with what these terms mean because we live with the effects of them every day, but that’s not good enough. Everyone needs to understand their meaning, because the behavior they describe continually contributes to systems of oppression in this country and it has to stop.

So, what exactly does tone policing mean?

It’s simple, really. Tone policing describes a diversionary tactic used when a person purposely turns away from the message behind her interlocutor’s argument in order to focus solely on the delivery of it.

Still confused? Well, allow me to elaborate…with an example!

White person: Wow, you are surprisingly well spoken!

Person of color: For a black person, you mean? That’s really insensitive and I can’t believe you thought you had the right to say that to me.

WP: Why are you so upset? I just gave you a compliment.

POC: Do you not even realize what you said and how racist it is for white folks to pat black folks on the head for ‘speaking so well’? Seriously, think before you say things to people.

WP: You need to calm down. No one is going to listen to what you have to say if you’re this angry about it. There’s no reason to attack me over nothing. Have you considered the fact that you could be overreacting to this?

I’ve had a similar conversation to the one above multiple times in my life. It’s aggravating, but it’s also classic tone policing at work. By laser focusing on the emotions behind what the person of color is saying, the white person is able to move the conversation away from her own inappropriate conduct and back onto the POC. In this way, the problem ceases to be the racist comment and instead becomes the POC’s reaction to it.

The suggestion that you can’t deliver a razor sharp argument against racism unless you employ a chilly brand of academic detachment from the subject matter is pure bullshit. Being subjected to any form of injustice is infuriating. The last thing I want to hear from someone who has just said or done something completely out of line is how I need to check my emotional response to it. But tone policing works so well as a defense mechanism because it renders a perfectly legitimate complaint irrational, especially when the offending individual maintains his or her own saintly calm. If you can successfully shut another person down based on her anger or frustration, then you don’t ever have to answer for your own racist conduct. And, bonus, by remaining cool as a cucumber, you appear to be in the right to those around you, especially in comparison to the irate person you just insulted with your belittling behavior.

It’s pretty fucked up, right?

Here’s a good rule of thumb: when you are out of line, you don’t get to set the conditions in which a conversation can occur. That’s privilege at play. You need to truly listen to how and where you went wrong, and then do better in future.

Calling out tone policing whenever it’s employed is the only way to rid ourselves of it. I’m committed to doing that, and despite my mostly logical nature, I don’t plan to be nice about it. So, tone policers beware…