One of the ‘distractors’ or ‘disruptors’ from learning and growing with others on issues of class and culture is tone policing. The idea behind the tone argument is that if people would only use a more pleasant tone, they would be more successful in making the point. This argument is used in all types conversations and they are not limited to race.
It is sometimes overt…sometimes covert.
As a woman, and a person of color, I find this is a common occurrence. If I become animated in a discussion with a male colleague, he may tell me to calm down. As a person of color, I’m often told that I am very well spoken and articulate. That always gives me a giggle. Well spoken and articulate as compared to whom? *shrug*
When the hearer of a message claims that the emotion behind the message distracts from their ability to empathize or grow, that’s tone policing. If you come at me in a way that I receive, then, I’ll receive your message. This allows the privileged person to define how we are going to talk about the oppressed persons circumstances. As I’ve been considering a variety of discussions I’ve had with people on different things, I have found that at the core of the miscommunication is marginalization via tone policing. Don’t ask me how I feel….an emotional question…and then be mad that I’m emotional about the offense. Don’t begin the discussion and then try to avoid having to deal with the bondage and pain that comes from privileged people oppressing another less privileged group of people.
No where is this more evident to me than in the disconnect between the educational community and the Black Lives Matter Movement. The large majority of teachers love their jobs, love their kids, want to see their kids grow. Then you see images of an SRO beating a non-compliant child in a classroom and you’ll hear those same loving teachers say…if the girl was compliant that wouldn’t happen. The anger of the movement is in direct proportion to years of disenfranchisement, yet we denegrate the movement and its participants in our public and private spaces because they make us uncomfortable. We don’t like how angry the protester are. We don’t like that they aren’t ‘well spoken or articulate’ like other people. We don’t like that they constantly bring up race. We don’t like that they don’t trust or respect the police. Yet, the facts surrounding the inception of the movement call on people both black and white to speak to the atrocities being committed against black and brown youth by those who should be protecting and serving them. These are our kids and any one of them could be mistaken in the same way that Trayvon Martin or Tamir Rice were. And instead of standing along side the brave people bringing light to their stories…teachers are full throatedly supporting #alllivesmatter and #policelivesmatter as if the creation of the #blacklivesmatter movement is exclusive of any other demographic. As if just saying black lives matter at all is disrespectful to the police.
Implicit in tone policing is the idea that the only productive conversations are calm ones. Who designates what calm is? It’s really beyond insulting to expect oppressed people to be calm and polite about their oppression. Just because someone is emotional about their argument, doesn’t invalidate the argument. The oppression is still oppressive and that can not be ignored.
There are times when both sides of the argument are NOT equal though. It’s hard to debate something where the divergent position is not acceptable. This week, as I was discussing the presidents with my students, I had a little girl ask me why there were no women presidents. She couldn’t understand how something like that could happen. It was difficult to argue how that was plausible…yet, that was the position I found myself in. It was frustrating.
Tone policing happens in all areas of the schoolhouse work space. Between colleagues, between administrators and teachers…between specialists and teachers and even between teachers and their students. Anywhere that someone is fighting for the ‘little guy’…it can crop up. Remember that often times, tone policing benefits the oppressor. Think about interpersonal conflicts. Are you more interested in maintaining the status quo when colleagues bring up new ideas? Do you immediately shut down the energy of younger teachers because you’re tired? This is the essence of tone policing and it breaks down morale in a terrible way.
1: In your conversations listen carefully to understand the nature of the offense.
2: Restate the offense so that you are clear on the problem.
3: Be a part of solutions by asking what can we do next?
Tone policing is a major obstructor to building community with colleagues and peers. Let’s make sure to be part of the solutions and not part of the problem by checking our privilege at the door and being open to diverse opinion for the sake of unity.