Stop Tone-Policing

Serena Williams of the U.S. reacts during her women’s singles final match against Lucie Safarova of the Czech Republic at the French Open tennis tournament at the Roland Garros stadium in Paris, France, June 6, 2015. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes.

“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 .”—Audre Lorde

What is tone policing?

The concept of tone policing is hard to identify often in line with narratives that preach of “respectability” “professionalism” and “politeness” politics. Tone policing is when there is a lack of understanding of the reasons why women of colour react in an “emotional” and/or “aggressive” manner to acts that they feel are injustices to them. Tone policing is often accompanied by the mindset that “she could’ve said this in a nice way” or “she can have an opinion and not be so aggressive about it”.

The major flaw of tone-policing is that it focuses on “how” something was said, rather than “what” and “why” these things were said.

Tone policing, most of the time is done onto women of colour, most often than not, black women in particular.

“Don’t be in such a hurry to condemn a person because he doesn’t do what you do, or think as you think or as fast.There was a time when you didn’t know what you know today.” —Sir Malcolm X

Tone policing is wrong for many different reasons:

Tone policing does not take into account the experience of women of colour as a marginalized group in society. Their experiences encountering injustices on a daily basis is often undermined and diminished, deemed not worthy of discussion or even acknowledgement they what they experience are hurtful acts.

In fact, most often women of colour are told not react in an emotionally aggressive manner, because their points will not be heard otherwise. This renders their feelings to be less valid, because had they reacted in a “polite” and “respectful” manner, people would hear them, they might even “like them”.

Minaj called out Cyrus’ tone-policing during her VMA speech.

Recently, the feud between Miley Cyrus and Nicki Minaj happened as a result of Miley tone-policing Nicki Minaj. Here are Miley’s original comments to the New York Times that tone-police Minaj:

“If you do things with an open heart and you come at things with love, you would be heard and I would respect your statement. But I don’t respect your statement because of the anger that came with it…What I read sounded very Nicki Minaj, which, if you know Nicki Minaj is not too kind. It’s not very polite.”—Miley Cyrus


This tactic, tone policing, alone attempts to silence women of colour. More than that, it also attempts to centre the tone policer’s feelings on the issue, deeming it more worthy to be heard than women of colour’s voices.Furthermore, tone-policing not only diminishes women of colour’s identity and voice, but also works to deflect the argument, and may even work to make the act of injustice to have been justice all along.

“But you don’t want to know how black women feel about something that’s so important?”—Minaj

One can express anger, and still validly express their point of view on mistreatments and inequities. If you’re tone-policing, you’re saying that your feelings are more important than the oppressed. Most of the time, it’s hard for women of colour to voice their opinions to start, without having to think about your feelings first.

“Code violation for this? I expressed who I am. We’re in America last time I checked.”—Serena Williams

It is widely known that Serena Williams is subjected to the most crude racist and sexist comments and treatment due to her being a black woman in a mainly white-dominated sport. The sad reality is that many of those racist comments and even acts come from women. When they should be supporting a fellow female on the field, they mock instead. I don’t see any kindness here.

The hatred and racism that Williams encounters is nothing new. It’s historic. Representation of the black female body throughout history was dehumanized.

Serena Williams said she didn’t feel offended from Wozniacki’s actions, but it still doesn’t mean what Wozniacki did was okay. In fact, it’s this type of behaviour that creates an unwelcoming, hostile and downright an aggressive environment for black women, and women of colour which often leads to the “emotional” and “aggressive” stance that they take on such issues of racism and equality.

“Usually when people are sad, they don’t do anything. They just cry over their condition. But when they get angry, they bring about a change.”—Sir Malcolm X

Anger drives change

Change will not occur if we all react to things in the same way. Here’s the thing, what you may feel is a polite way to express one’s opinions, concerns and experiences might not work for women of colour, solely based on the experience of oppression that they have experienced. Thus, tone policing often is spoken from the voice of the privileged: because you have never experienced and will never experience their experiences of injustice due to the colour of their skin.

Saying that anger is not a form of expression is another tactic that attempts to silence against acts of cruelty and injustice, and thus perpetuates oppression.

This post was originally published on medium’s The Absurdist.

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