Thoughts on Tone Policing

Onyx Contributor:  Johnny Silvercloud (@JohnnySilverclo)

Tone Policing

“It’s all about the content, it doesn’t matter how you discuss it, it’s the content they don’t want to hear about and that’s why every one of these conversations gets derailed.  Because they are desperate to not talk about the issues you are bringing up.” ~ One of the smart ones of the Oppressor Tribe

A while back I shared a thought on how on a sociological level, black people are not ever in their lives allowed to be angry.  (Upon further review I’d add that black people are only allowed to be angry in support of white supremacy, but that’s something for another column.)  I never thought about it, but technically I was kinda talking about tone policing back then.  Allow me to expand on it here.

“Our (black) bodies are the most policed in America.  Why would you wanna police our minds?”

Tone policing is a focus on the emotionality of a statement versus the content of a statement.  The intent of the tone policing is to protect whoever has the sociological privilege.  In this case, it is to project white privilege and protect white privilege.

What the white privileged person doesn’t understand (or doesn’t care to understand) is the fact that the oppressed person doesn’t have the luxury (read:  white privilege) to speak with the same psychological distance as the white privileged person.  Especially when a traumatic event occurs concerning racism.  I’m not sure if the white person is genuinely shocked or maliciously flexing white privilege, but it does seem like white people are oblivious to what modern day oppression in a First World nation feels like.  It’s like there’s a shock that a person may sound a little harsh.  The problem with tone policing is that the “well-excuse-me-can-you-mind-your-manners” white person places their fragile sensibilities in front of actual oppression, such as state sponsored terror which existed for over 100 years in America (cop immunity to law when murdering black people, lynching).  The tone policing usually fuels the flames of an already angry person, because it’s a white privilege flex.  Pretty much, it’s saying, “I’m white, my feelings trump your black life, so you better take care of my feelings or else I’ll leave the convo.”  By forcing people to not express anger at oppression, you are not only promoting your own personal comfort over that of someone who is in despair, but also forcing the oppressed to suffer in silence.  It’s cruel to assume a marginalized person isn’t to ever emote over  being oppressed by society, all while you defend the oppressor.

Tone Policing is Used on Many Levels

Tone policing doesn’t just happen on the person to person level; it also happens on macro levels.  You don’t have to try hard to find a concern trolling political commentator either on conservative or false neutrality media ranting and raving about protesters of “social justice warriors” in how protests become riots, and so on.  Instead of focusing on the CAUSE why folks are taking to the streets in the first place, mainstream (or whitestream?) media focuses on the RESPONSE to the traumatic event.  The whitestream media will often then naturalize the behavior, as in, instead of understanding the circumstances that leads to a riot, they naturalize the behavior onto the marginalized group, in essence saying, “Well they are black people.  They riot.  It’s what black people do.”

The Aim of Tone Policing

Tone policing is used for a couple of reasons. First off, it’s used to derail a discussion.  When it comes to race relations, white people (because of white fragility) are socialized to duck and dodge racism discussions.  The capabilities of the white person to evade racism discussions would rival Jason Bourne’s escape and evasion techniques.  One of the techniques white people use is tone policing.  When they tone police, they automatically shift the focus of the conversation away from what they or someone else did that was wrong, and onto you and your reaction.  Tone policing is a way of  dismissing the other person’s position by framing it as being “not nice”, and blame the problem of oppression on the one who is oppressed.  Overall, the objective here is to silence you.

Fuck Your Flies, Bitch.

A Scooby Snack eating black guy once told me that, “You can catch more flies with honey than vinegar.”  I then told him about carrion flies.  You know the type; those shiny bluish-green flies you see on dog crap and dead bodies.  After informing him of this species of flies I promptly pointed out that, “If I really wanted to attract flies, I’d leave bodies.” 

While tone policing in race relations is a white man’s fieldcraft, that doesn’t mean a black person doesn’t engage in this.  Black people have been recruited or unwittingly served as agents of white supremacy for a very long time, infinitely talking of civility to the colonized, without ever suggesting civility to the colonizer.

This also includes the Forgiveness Battalion of the Butter Biscuit Brigade when they make demands of the oppressed black people (i.e., please peacefully protest) versus making demands of the oppressor (i.e., can you stop murdering under your badge?).  Other examples include swiftly shoving black people into the forgiveness phase (see Dylan Roof) without ever properly acknowledging the trauma inflicted (media outlets deny racial terrorism).  Being that racism is rewarded behavior, scores of black people sign up to tone police other blacks.  It can get quite pathetic.  A Scooby Snack eating black man will always show up to tell you that, “Your tone hurts the cause, be the better man, we gotta be better than them” and nonsense, without ever thinking about applying the same time, energy and effort to the white person in the discussion.  Another popular one is the appeal to a white man’s fictionalized version MLK.

The Problem With Tone Policing

One of the implications of tone policing is that it assumes that the oppressive act is not an act of aggression, when it very much is.  The person who was oppressed by the action, suddenly is no longer a victim, but is “victimizing” the other person by not “minding their manners”.  

Tone policing nowadays, is a berserk button for me.  Usually when someone does it, there’s a genuine reason why one is speaking emphatically.  Considering the abolitionist fight, situation may concern the following; another black person, male or female, ranging from the full spectrum of human age, get murdered by a racially trigger-happy policeman.  We ALREADY KNOW that police officer will evade anything looking like justice.  Black people have NEVER known what peace — harmony — looks like in America.  Black bodies and minds have always been under assault since the first Trans-Atlantic slave ship docked American shores.  There is trauma, somewhere in our souls.  While the white collective enjoys to privilege to change laws whenever whites fear something (observe the Islamic terror concept), blacks have been living in a persistent state of terror ever since the dawn of the United States.  The only solace, is engaging in willful ignorance (and denial) towards the subject.

Ignorance however, isn’t freedom.  Ignorance is bliss, but it isn’t freedom.

When you are on the brink of freedom, you begin to understand things.  Like an engineer, you begin seeing the frames.  And with this knowledge and freedom, you get mad.  Angry.  Passionate.  Emphatic.  But being emotional does not make one’s points any less valid. 

When the re-occurring traumatic event happens again, there’s a lot of pain nested in the frustration of the futility of the matter.  In these cases, the suffering is so fierce, we (as black folks) are going to say some stuff that always ends up hurting white people’s feelings.  Technically, the essence of the tone policing goes like this:

  • White Comfort > Black Lives

Anytime the essence of this notion comes up, I have no choice but to refuse.

A possible side-effect of tone policing is a total lack of emotionality in regards to a statement what should elicit an emotional response.  Sounding emotionally detached all the time like a sociopath doesn’t work either.  When you lack basic emotionality, your statement registers as not important enough to consider.  Remember, the objective is to silence you, so if you totally lack emotion you’re damn near close to true silence.  A takeaway here is the understanding that anger is justified when it is in response to oppression and oppressive tactics.

When someone questions anger instead of addressing the issues raised, they are telling you — the marginalized — that you have a responsibility to make them comfortable at all times, as well as stating the facts.  White comfort doesn’t trump black lives.  Black people live in the “discomfort” of white supremacy their whole lives, and white people get upset when facts on the matter are mentioned?  No.  Stop.  You don’t have to coddle feelings of the colonizer, especially if you are of the colonized, marginalized group.  Good is not nice.  Nice is only nice enough to ignore.

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