Confronting Racism

 Glenn Bigonet, M.A.

Social Activist for Racial Equity

Facilitating Discussions about Racism





Tone Policing


"I speak out of direct and particuar anger at an academic conference,

and a white woman says, 'Tell me how you feel but don't say it too

harshly or I cannot hear you.' But is it my manner that keeps her 

from hearing, or the threat of a message that her life may change?"

Audre Lorde


Tone policing is a technique used to shut people down who are pointing out an instance of racial harm. Usually when someone confronts someone else about such a painful topic they are feeling a lot of emotions in the moment such as fear, anger and hurt. Most people, when trying to make a point when they are having these types of feelings, will speak with a tense or sharp tone and in some cases raise their voices in anger. When the reciever of the message hears this emotional energy they quickly make the conversation about the person's tone and insist that the person stop talking in that tone and refuse to engage in the conversation. The message is essentially "I will not talk to you about how you've been harmed when you talk to me in a tone that makes me uncomfortable."


When it is a white person bringing up the issue it's a classic case of supporting white silence. When it is a person of color it is a reinforcement of the message that black people can't be angry because when they are angry they prove that they are scary and dangerous.


In discussing tone policing Ijoema Oluo makes another strong statement about it's opressiveness: "To refuse to listen to someone elses cries for justice and equality until the request comes in a language you feel comfortable with is a way of asserting your dominance over them in the situation. The oppressed person reaching out to you is already disadvantaged by the oppression they are trying to address. By tone policing, you are increasing that disadvantage by insisting that you get to determine if their grievances are valid and will only decide if they are so if, on top of everything that they are already enduring, they make the effort to prioritize your comfort."(p.207) 


The truth is as white people we all have a certain amount of white fragility meaning that we may never feel comfortable no mater how it's spoken to us. We need to allow those who are in pain to speak from that pain and be heard so that they can heal it and move on. Shutting them down only reinforces and deepens the initial wound. Layla Saad makes the addtional point that "when you insist that (people of color) talk about their painful experiences with racism without expressing any pain, rage or grief, you are asking them to dehumanize themsleves."(p.51) Without the expression of the emotions that go along with racism the harm of racism can never be truly communicated. We need to allow ourselves to eperience that discomfort through our empathy so that we may be able to start to address the systemic racism that is so pervasive today.

Copyright © 2020   Glenn Bigonet, M.A.