Everything You Need to Know About Tone Policing, Including What to Do About It

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A. Rochaun Meadows-Fernandez
May 28, 2024 at 2:14PM UTC

We know that one in four Black and Hispanic employees report workplace discrimination, which impacts marginalized employees’ mental health and comfort, and shapes their likelihood of future contribution. We also know that roughly half of LGBTQIA+ individuals report having experienced unfair treatment at work, and many “cover” to avoid further harassment or discrimination. There are the obvious examples of workplace discrimination, like not promoting someone because of their sexual orientation, religion, pregnancy status, genetic information, or disability, and unfair treatment at work, like harassment. But if you’re here, you’re curious about a lesser known issue that disproportionately affects marginalized employees too: tone policing. 

Tone policing is a conversational tool or tactic and is most often wielded by someone of privilege or power to dismiss the concerns, ideas, or even emotions communicated by someone with less power, according to Amira Barger, the executive vice president and head of health communications and DEI advisory for a global consulting firm. “The individual wants to detract from the message and the content being shared and distract from the actual cause of the issue, which is usually white supremacy or systemic racism,” says Barger.

Peyton Wilburn, Black woman working in healthcare administration, says she’s experienced tone policing first-hand. During a cross-team meeting, for example, Wilburn observed a coworker inaccurately describing a high-stakes process that Wilburn led. She interjected, saying, “It sounds like there isn’t a clear understanding of the process, so for clarification,” and explained the correct steps. “Then I asked everyone if they understood, and they did.” Not long after, Wilburn’s manager informed her that two members of the other team were “extremely offended” that she corrected them so “aggressively.”

“When I asked where my correction was too harsh or offensive, they couldn’t give me a clear answer. Instead, I was told, ‘We all understand that you can be passionate, but the other team still seems to be learning,’ she says. “So they may be confused about processes.”

Wilburn was afraid she’d be further misrepresented and chose not to respond. She felt unsafe because her manager hadn’t advocated for her, and she stopped speaking up in subsequent meetings. At the time, she wasn’t aware of the term “tone policing,” but she felt it.

"What is tone policing?" answered in more detail

Abenaa Hayes, DEI strategist and CEO of Elysee Consulting, sees tone policing as a form of gaslighting and passive dominance. “The actual act of tone policing, and using like micro-aggressive language, is an attempt to take power or voice away from that person who’s actually trying to articulate,” she says. “You gaslight them into submission almost so it’s reaffirming power dynamics of power structures and used quite frequently against people who’ve been historically marginalized.”

Audre Lorde, a Black feminist writer, scholar, and equal rights activist provided a poignant example of tone policing in The Uses of Anger:

“I speak out of direct and particular 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?”

Tone policing can also sound like this:

  • “More people would listen to you if you expressed your concerns calmly.”

  • “It would be easier to listen to you if you weren’t so aggressive.”

  • Labeling those who speak out against injustice as angry, abrasive, or aggressive.

Hayes says tone policing often happens because a person of privilege and power is uncomfortable. “And often, it’s not only the [inappropriateness] of the words but of the potential reality for their lot in life to change.”

She and Barger note that an “imbalance of power” makes tone policing different from everyday conflict. “We’re talking about an imbalance of power where you believe you have the right to comfort, you believe you have the authority, the unearned power and privilege to tell someone that their experience with systems of oppression with white supremacy and inequity are not valid, because they didn’t say it nicely,” says Barger.  

Who is vulnerable to tone policing?

Marginalization, whether through culture or access to power, is a good predictor of who can be tone policed. People of color, disabled people, women, and LGBTQIA+ people are especially vulnerable to being tone policed. This is because their perspectives are most likely to disrupt the hegemonized workplace and that prioritize the experiences of white, cis, hetero individuals.

Barger says tone policing can happen because those in power are more concerned with pleasantries and perfection of message instead of egregious practices and systems or injustice. 

“Racism isn’t nice. White supremacy is not nice. So that’s an unequal expectation,” she says.

White and Wilburn had experiences shaped by stereotypes, like the “threatening Black man” or the “Angry Black woman,” that suggest Black people are never rightfully indignant, hurt, or frustrated—only angry.

How is tone policing harmful?

Keenan White has worked in many industries but can’t recall a job where he wasn’t concerned about the lingering impact of being misinterpreted. Most recently, his former supervisor, an Asian woman, requested proof of his work-from-home status. The situation escalated.

“The problem was that she was not asking any of my other co-workers, who also worked from home, to provide proof that they were working,” White says. “She couldn’t say I was not meeting metrics because no metrics were discussed. I asked her to provide me with metrics, and when she couldn’t do it, it became an issue about my tone and she went to HR.” His supervisor wasn’t white, but her retaliation shows discomfort can motivate people in power to weaponize white supremacy, regardless of race.

Tone policing is larger than interpersonal conflict. Barger says DEI exists to create a more equitable workplace culture collaboratively. This requires buy-in at every level and policy that filters through hiring and promotion policies, communication, and conflict resolution. Tone policing sabotages this and can’t be divorced from concepts of cultural fit, professionalism, and whiteness.

“I think the whole idea of cultural fit assumes that a marginalized person is going to assimilate and follow the norms of a dominant or majority culture,” says Hayes. She adds that many companies are perpetuating systems, structures, and stereotypes for the sake of cultural fit when they need us to disrupt the way they operate. “It’s moving past the level of comfort with the established systems,” she says.

How tone policing reduces organizational integrity

“Unfortunately, some people are threatened regardless of what I say because I’m a Black man,” White says, noting he prioritizes approachability and agreeability over clarity of message after the incident with his former supervisor. 

“Instead of saying, ‘I don’t believe X is true,’ I make suggestions: ‘OK, I see what you’re saying, do you think that maybe XYZ,’” He believes there’s a benefit in knowing how to communicate with diverse populations but knows it’s extra effort. 

Hayes notes tone policing can be detrimental to brand effectiveness, as it enforces uniformity and discourages employees from exercising their unique perspectives. She recalls a circumstance where a Black male co-worker was tone policed for identifying himself as a Black male, but his comments prevented an insensitive campaign. She also says tone policing prioritizes personal comfort over progress and suggests team members get comfortable with being uncomfortable if they want diversity of thought or new, disruptive thinking.

What can you do about tone policing?

By now, you may be wondering what you can do if you are tone policed, witness tone policing, or are concerned that you’ve accidentally silenced someone through tone policing. Barger outlines actions for each scenario below.

If you are tone policed:

  1. Speak up (or don’t): Some individuals will be empowered and comfortable enough to challenge offensive statements head-on. Others will make decisions based on what keeps them socially and financially safe. Neither is incorrect.

  2. Find community: “Surround yourself with others that can validate and affirm your emotions,” says Barger noting it’s crucial to have individuals you can communicate with safely, especially in a setting you’re uncomfortable speaking up.

  3. Give yourself permission not to educate: “Self-care is an act of revolution and one we must engage in," says Barger. "We can choose ourselves and leave some of the educating to the accomplices who have self-identified as willing to do the work with their peers."

If you witness tone policing: 

  1. Acknowledge it: Acknowledging that something has happened and someone has disrupted and attempted to distract or detract from what a person is saying.  

  2. Affirm the offended party: Check in with the person and ask, “Are you OK? I saw what happened,” she says. “Whether you’re checking in directly in the moment or after the fact, that’s something powerful you can do.” 

  3. Take action and follow up with that person: “Say something like, ‘Hey, Joe, I noticed that you interrupted Abby, when she was expressing how she was experiencing this situation, and I want to help you understand why that might have been harmful or how your actions might impact the way she experiences our workplace.’”

If you’re concerned you’re the offending party:

  1. Raise your awareness: “Do the work of raising your awareness about tone policing and its forms.”

  2. Check yourself: “Ask what emotions this brings up and what specifically am I reacting to. Remember, anger, fear, and sadness are valid, says Barger. “When someone is expressing a grievance, a concern or an experience with inequity, it makes sense that they would be emotional because these things stem from oppression and suppression.”

  3. Unpack it: “Ask yourself why you feel the need to assert faux authority to shut down someone’s comments, make a judgment of sorts, and think that you can enforce silencing them. 

  4. Be mindful of what you learn and work to change. Unlearning harmful patterns doesn’t happen overnight. Expect the process of integrating this into your life to take practice and time. It’s also OK if you need support from a therapist!

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