Imagine you are a black person on Twitter, expressing your feelings about racism. These feelings come from a place of deep pain, angst, and even rage. Perhaps you’ve been pulled over for driving while black, or followed through a store for shopping while black. But as a black person, your message is authentic and real, and you are simply stating that on Twitter. And along comes a white person who tells you to “calm down,” or “I can’t talk to someone who’s angry,” or “I don’t see skin color, why do you?”.
That white person is engaging in tone policing.
Tone policing is a tool used by privileged members of society to silence the oppressed and marginalized. Over the past few months, privileged people have tone policed black women and men, transgender women, women who have survived sexual violence, and people who support Kamala Harris.
Privileged people who use tone policing as a tool tell the oppressed and/or marginalized groups they are trying to silence that emotions have no place in a discussion. What they mean is your emotions have no place in a discussion. We know this because when a person is tone policing, and is told what they are doing is harmful, suddenly, their emotions become the most important thing in the world.
A good example of this is the language used by a small group of Elizabeth Warren supporters on Twitter. These supporters are predominantly white, well-off women, who believe that Elizabeth Warren “understands black people” better than the black women who are being vetted for vice president under Joe Biden. And when black women tell this small group of Warren supporters they are, in fact, wrong, the white women begin aggressively tone policing.
Black women have been told they only support Kamala Harris because she’s black, and that supporting Kamala Harris is “racist.” When black women (and men) correctly point out the Warren supporters are tone policing by dismissing black people’s experiences, they are told “Calm down!” or “Why are you so angry?”, or “I can’t be racist, I voted for Obama!”.
Dictating how someone who has lived a different life is allowed to express themselves is tone policing. If you are white, you cannot tell a black person how to feel, think, or act. If you are a man, you cannot tell a woman how to feel, think, or act. Listen to marginalized people, don’t talk or write over them.
Listen to why a woman who benefited from Planned Parenthood’s services is uncomfortable with John Kasich giving a speech at the Democratic convention. Listen to why a transgender woman who has struggled to be herself is angry at JK Rowling. Listen to why black women are so excited that Joe Biden is vetting women who look like them for vice president.
Tone policing is one of the many tools privileged individuals or groups use to silence the powerless, thus maintaining their own power. Telling an oppressed person their feelings do not matter, or using sexist, racist or misogynistic language, rather than taking the time to understand those feelings, is harmful and demeaning.
Most women have come to expect misogynistic tone policing from men online. When women dare to write words on the internet, it’s like tying a steak around our necks and wandering into a pack of hyenas. What is shocking is how many women seem to really enjoy tone policing other women.
One of the worst kinds of tone policing comes from white feminists. Hand-in-hand with misogynoir, this behavior has been used for decades by white feminists to center their own issues over the voices, pain, and oppression, of black women. It is so prevalent, it even has a name: Toxic White Feminism.
Tone policing can simply be an act of ignorance, and sometimes, once the tone policer sees what they’re doing, they stop, apologize, and listen. More often than not, the opposite occurs. The tone policer doubles down, centers themselves in the conversation, begins claiming to be a victim, and continues to dismiss the oppressed or marginalized person/people who are trying to share their feelings.
If you are told by someone who has survived trauma, or someone who has been oppressed and marginalized, someone who has lived a different life than you, that you are tone policing, consider the possibility they’re right. And stop.
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