"Wow, you speak so well!": Tone Policing & Microaggressions
“Can’t you just calm down so we can talk about this like adults?”
“I hear what you’re saying about police brutality being a problem, but all your anger is just getting you nowhere and it’s taking away from the issue.”
“You don’t talk like a regular black person.”
”Yea but what country are you really from?”
Have you heard any of these before? Experienced them personally? You may think they’re just basic questions or statements, but they aren’t. They are examples of tone policing and microaggressions.
Episode 5 of my podcast is now available and you can tune in to learn more! You can tune in with Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Anchor, Google Podcasts and other major platforms!
So, what is tone policing? To start, it is a way of protecting privilege. People who hold privilege pull tone policing out of handy toolbox when they want to stop marginalized people or groups from voicing their experiences when it comes to oppression, racism, and more.
I cannot stand tone policing. I have personally experienced it more times than I can begin counting. It always seems to happen when I bring up racism and other social issues. Hmm. How convenient.
To be honest, tone policing is effective because it allows the person to critique the emotional level of the message rather than the message itself.
“It’s hard to take the Black Lives Matter movement seriously when you’re always so angry.”
”When talking about discrimination, it’s annoying to listen because people get upset and start talking forcefully.”
Those are just two examples.
Tone policing allows privileged people to define terms of a conversation that has to do with oppression and injustice in order for the conversation to continue. A great example of this is when someone says “There’s no way this can be discussed productively until you calm down.” This is suggesting that the only productive conversation is a calm conversation.
Newsflash: I can be angry, frustrated, and irritated about a social issue and STILL have a conversation about it. It doesn’t have to be on your terms. This happens a lot of the time with white people and it allows for an obvious display of white fragility.
Now, let’s be clear about tone policing though: This doesn’t mean you get to use this as a pass when you want to scream at someone about your reason for holding some racist or bigoted viewpoint, or a viewpoint that is rooted in ignorance and alternative facts. Let me just clarify that.
Microaggressions. This was a term coined in 1970 by Dr. Chester Pierce, a black psychiatrist and Harvard professor. He defined it as: “subtle, stunning, often automatic and nonverbal exchanges which are ‘put-downs’ of black people.” Since then, microaggressions have also been expanded to other people of color and marginalized groups.
Here’s an example:
White person: “Wow, you speak so well!”
Black person: “For a black person? That’s insensitive.”
White person: “Why are you upset? I was just giving you a compliment.”
Black person: “Don’t pat me on the head for “speaking well.” That is offensive. I don’t need to be applauded for simply talking.”
White person: “Ok well you need to calm down. There is no reason to attack me over nothing. You’re overreacting.”
See how that was a mix of a microaggression AND tone policing? The conversation showed how the white person was able to move away from their own inappropriate behavior and focus on the black person’s behavior. That’s not ok.
You’ll have to listen to my podcast episode to find out more about all of this. You definitely want to tune in! I also explain how tone policing is paired with other silencing tactics, other examples of microaggressions, why I always think of Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, and how you can check yourself and your tone.