Tone Policing: What is it and How to Stop it
November 15, 2021
I came across a Business Insider article written by Janice Gassam Asare, PhD and founder of BWG Solutions, LLC. on Tone Policing and had no idea what it was referring to, until I read it. While I may not have known the term, I have experienced and witnessed tone policing.
So, what is it?
Tone policing predominantly happens to women, especially Black women. It refers to being asked to remove any emotion as one speaks, makes a suggestion, or recommendation in a meeting. In other words, women are being asked to tailor their message, so the recipient is “able” to hear them and what they are trying to say. The article labels tone policing as a microaggression because for Black women is propagates the “angry Black woman” stereotype. It also furthers the notion that women who stand up for themselves or those around them are “aggressive,” while men who do the same are labeled as “go getters.”
So, what exactly does this look like and sound like? Managers who pull women aside and tell them that their tone is coming off as aggressive or challenging is tone policing. At a previous institution, my manager called me and a fellow woman colleague into his office and suggested that we needed to “tone down” our frustrations because it was coming off as “aggressive.” He was referring to a complaint lodged by a white man in his mid-60s, a peer of ours. He argued that we were too aggressive. In what way might you ask? First, we advocated for one of our students who was asking this student to take on work that was not appropriate for a graduate assistant. Second, we raised concerns about a process to create a new program. Third, we expressed frustration when one of our events had not been promoted as promised. In no way was our demeanor aggressive. Were we frustrated? Yes, but encouraged open dialogue in hopes of finding a solution. It was the mere fact that we, as women, were questioning leadership. His complaint was not tone policing, but his intent was and certainly our manager’s request to us to “tone it down,” was tone policing.
I am certain most women reading this have experienced this form of silencing women in one form or another. While it is problematic to women, it has deeper implications for Black women because it harms anti-racism movements. Asare argues, “Managers striving to create a workplace based on equity and inclusion must understand how tone policing silences members of marginalized groups and allows discrimination to persist…Tone policing undermines anti-racism efforts because it can cast doubt on the validity of statements of oppression, racism, and discrimination shared by people of color.” She goes on further to point out that “I am told that if I modify my message to be more palatable to the masses, my message will be better received. This demonstrates that people will dismiss your experiences unless it fits in the box of how they want to receive it.”
I grew up hearing that one must tailor their message for the audience and while aspects of that are true – you need to understand with whom you are speaking; however, there is a HUGE difference in understanding your audience and being forced to shy away from your message because someone in the room might not want to hear it.
So, how do we change this culture? There are several ways:
- If it happens to you
- Label it with your manager and explain how this promotes both gender and racial stereotypes
- Share the directive with others to draw attention to it because the policing often happens behind closed doors
- When it happens to others
- Call it out and label it – do not sit in silence
- Support women and their perspectives, even if you don’t agree
Change cannot occur when the conversations and methods to silence certain people remain in the shadows. Change occurs because it bubbles up to the surface for all to see. Yes, it is messy because it pushes back against the status quo. But it is time to recognize that the status quo is merely a means of keeping things the way they have always been, which benefits predominantly older white men, so they can cling to their power. So, we must stand – as women - arm in arm – so, we can help shift this approach and put a stop to tone policing.
Anne Converse Willkomm
Assistant Dean, Graduate College
Assistant Clinical Professor & Dept. Head, Goodwin College