Tone Policing People of Colour

When White people try to dismiss Indigenous and other people of colour’s (POC) discussion of colonialism and its present-day impact by focusing on “tone,” that’s racism. Consider this exchange. I shared an important article by Teila Watson , Birri Gubba Wiri and Kungalu/Gungalu Murri woman artist, who wrote about the impact of colonialism on Australia’s past, present and future. Originally published in The Guardian, Watson was unimpressed that the editors changed the title from White “Australia” Has a Black Future, to “Indigenous knowledge systems can help solve the problems of climate change.” So she chose to self-publish the longer version of her article with the original title on Medium.

A White woman writer decided to reshare my tweet, which includes a quote from the Medium piece.  By doing so she informs me that she refuses to read the article due to the title, which she sees is “uncivil.” I shouldn’t have to explain this, but in the course of my interactions it was obvious that I did, in fact, have to point out that refusing to read the words of an Aboriginal woman is racist, and calling an article reflecting on Australia’s history of genocide “uncivil” is the epitome of White supremacy.

Racism and White supremacy

Racism describes the belief that some groups are innately superior to other groups. Racism rests on the attitudes, actions and policies that reproduce the false ideology that other groups are inferior. Racism rests on power relations, such as historical and cultural processes and social institutions (like the law, education, media, and science). People mistake racism as overt acts of oppression between individuals, such as calling someone a racial epithet. Instead, racism encompasses both covert prejudice and systemic forms of discrimination. People can be unaware of how they both benefiit from, and reproduce, racism, and so their words and actions may have unintended consequences, even if they do not mean to consciously discriminate. Racism is powerful

White supremacy is one mechanism of racism; it involves the values, conscious or unconscious beliefs, and formal social structures that maintain the idea that White people are superior to people of colour. Notions of “civility” is part of the ideology that maintains racial hierarchies, with White people at the top of the social ladder, non-Indigenous people of colour subjugated beneath lighter skinned people, Black and Indigenous people at the bottom of the racial system. (In Australia, Indigenous people are both Black and Indigenous.)

A White woman claiming to be “offended” by Australia’s history is enforcing White superiority, by refusing to acknowledge that racial violence is the offence, not the words used to correctly describe genocide. She could have chosen simply to ignore my tweet or quietly decided not read the article. Instead, she made a spectacle of her White fragility, enforcing White supremacy by publicising her disgust, and ensuring I would bear witness to her White outrage.








The language of “civility” has been used throughout history to justify the colonialisation of Indigenous people, the slavery of Black people, and racial stratification all over the world. All of these patterns are part of Australia’s history.

Adding to the incredulous nature of this interaction, it was National Reconciliation Week, a time when Australia reflects on two human rights issues: first, the 1967 Referendum, which formally recognised Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as people (before this, Indigenous people were not counted as people, they were classified as “flora and fauna” and were not included in the population census, and state could not make laws in their protection). Second, the Mabo Case, which established Native Title, the overrulling of “terra nullius” (land belonging to no one) clause used to disposess Indigenous lands.

Moreover, 2017 is a special year, where Australia observes the 50-year anniversary of the Referendum and the 25-year anniversary of the Mabo Case, as well as the 30-year commemoration of the launch of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (published in 1991); and 25 years since the publication of the Bringing Them Home report, which documented a generation of Indigenous children removed from their families.

Given this context, to use the language of “incivility” in response to a title written by a Black woman (Watson), on the tweet by another non-Indigenous woman of colour (me), is an example of tone policing.

Tone policing

Tone policing is when members of majority groups focus on the language and perceived emotion of marginalised or underrepresented groups during discussions of inequality. The majority group sees themselves as entitled to infer “illegitimate” arguments based solely on the words being used, rather than the meaning of what is being said. This is an attempt to silence or derail discussions, to shift power away from the lived experiences and knowledge of minorities or disempowered groups.

If White people can’t handle POC talking about racism, it doesn’t matter what words we use; the issue you have is that we’re talking at all. It’s striking; whether it’s my blog, my Twitter, or when I’m interviewed – people say they want to hear “positive” language on racism. Why? There’s no “nice” way to talk about racism. Racism is structural; it envelops us; it ruins the life chances of POC. There’s nothing “positive” about racial inequality.

White people who imagine there’s a “rational” way they deem acceptable to hear discussion of racism is actually them saying they want to dictate how POC express their lived experiences and knowledge of racial oppression.  As POC point out all day, every day, White people put more effort into policing discussion of race so they don’t have to work on themselves.

If White people take offence over how POC talk about racism, but actively dismantling racism is not a concern, then they’re part of the problem. White people don’t get to subjectively define racism; they don’t get to silence POC’s suffering and experiences of race. That’s White supremacy.

Comic: “Why Tone Policing Sucks” (excerpt), by Transcript below.


A version of this article was published on 13 June, via my Twitter, @OtherSociology

Comic transcript: 

Panel 1: [Two people face each other, only one speaks, with mocking facial expressions]

[Top] “That’s pretty offensive man. Oh no!”

[Bottom] “You’re not going to make it in the real world with thin skin like that!

Panel 2: [Top – listed items as below, with the word “real” written to the side]

[Left-hand-side list] Other likely responses *Here’s why yo’re wrong: * Stop pulling the racecard! *I don’t like (unrelated trivial thing) but you don’t see me complaining! *There’s no proof that these bad things happen. *Freedom of speech.

[Right-hand-side list] *If (PoC) did this, it wouldn’t be racist, so. * I’m tired of this White hate! *You’re not special. *Let’s focus on “real” issues instead. *You’re an idiot race baiter.

[Bottom diagram with “A” and “B” drawn as a forked line leading to “C” and a hashed line to “D”]

D is the rare chance someone listens to protest.

So if both being nice and being angry towards ignorance end up in the same spot, what does that mean?

Panel 3: [Top – person talking to audience]

It means ignorance will stay ignorant regardess of the delivery, Duh! But it also means, if your comfort is more important in equality than the lives and experiences of the oppressed, then –

[Bottom – writing against red background for emphasis]

You’re part of the problem. The end.

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