Have you ever been told to ‘lower your voice’, ‘watch your tone’, or to ‘calm down’, when you’re trying to make a point?
If so, you have experienced tone policing – and it is a tactic that is used disproportionately on people of colour.
There have been stark, high-profile examples of tone policing directed at female MPs of colour in Parliament over recent weeks.
Dr Rosena Allin-Khan, a Labour MP and A&E doctor, was told to watch her tone last year by then Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, in response to her putting questions to him on the government’s handling of the pandemic.
They were pertinent questions, asked by an individual with direct experience on the frontline of the NHS. Yet she was dismissed because of her ‘tone’.
Last month, Rosena was once again told to watch her ‘tone’ by a government Minister, Helen Whately, when she queried the handling of the NHS pay deal.
When Labour MP Zarah Sultana, raised Boris Johnson’s past record of making ‘racist’ remarks, in an impassioned manner, Home Office Minister Victoria Atkins, accused her of ‘shouting’ and told her to ‘lower the tone’.
It’s important to note that this was a debate on the prevalence of racism on social media, and Sultana was the only person of colour there to speak.
In a similar vein, Dawn Butler, Labour MP for Brent Central, was ordered to leave the House of Commons for the rest of the day, for breaking parliamentary etiquette by accusing the Prime Minister of ‘lying’.
She was told to ‘reflect on her words’ and the substance of her argument was disregarded.
All three examples reveal how women of colour are shut down, their arguments derailed, with accusations that how they are speaking or conducting themselves is somehow incorrect, regardless of what it is they are saying.
The official definition of tone policing is ‘a conversational tactic that dismisses the ideas being communicated when they are perceived to be delivered in an angry, frustrated, sad, fearful, or otherwise emotionally charged manner.’
It is a phenomenon that is especially prevalent in professional spaces.
Burnout prevention consultant, Subira Jones, states that: ‘When we experience workplace discrimination, bullying and victimisation, it adds to that fire, making people more susceptible to burning out.’
Tone policing contributes to this ‘hostile environment’, and, she says, it particularly affects marginalised employees within an organisation.
A recent email interaction Subira had with a colleague illustrates this. Her colleague insisted on meeting during Subira’s lunch break, despite there being ample opportunity to do it during mutually convenient times.
Subira shares: ‘I am someone who is disabled. I have a chronic health condition, so I take my wellbeing very seriously.
‘My response to her was; “thank you for the invite, just to let you know, I’m not available this lunch time and going forwards I don’t work during lunches in order to protect my wellbeing and ensure we have an inclusive culture. However, I am very keen for us to have this meeting. I can see that we are all free on Monday at three o’clock. Could we please meet then?”’
In response, Subira received a message from her manager saying there had been a complaint against her. She says that politely pushing back on a non-urgent meeting and asserting her own boundaries, was turned into an issue of tone.
‘It is easy to create a tone complaint when you have racial biases, such as the stereotype of the angry Black woman,’ Subira explains.
‘These spurious complaints directly harm the professional reputation of that individual and their credibility.’
The cognitive capacity taken up by navigating these all too frequent occurrences takes its toll.
For Leyla Okhai, CEO of Diverse Minds, defying expectations has had its challenges: ‘South Asian women can be seen as submissive, if you speak your mind it is very unexpected,’ she says.
It makes you second guess yourself and erodes confidence. You end up shrinking away, being quiet and you don’t feel like yourself.
‘Being labelled as “aggressive”, and told you are being “too emotional”, or “too involved”, you do start to internalise it,’ she adds, recalling her time working in an elite higher education institution.
‘It makes you second guess yourself and erodes confidence. You end up shrinking away, being quiet and you don’t feel like yourself. It takes a while for your confidence to return and to be able to use your voice.’
The insidious nature of microaggressions, means they can steal your truth from you, bit by bit. Your passion for your subject, which in another arena would be considered a strength, can be construed as a negative.
Dr Adjoa Osei is a clinical psychologist and inclusion consultant who specialises in trauma-informed and culturally sensitive practice. She describes just how tricky it can be to navigate other people’s inherent prejudices about you as a person of colour.
‘Even asking thoughtful and really on point questions, somehow you are speaking out of place,’ Dr Osei tells Metro.co.uk.
She adds that there are ‘norms and standards’ that assume ‘those who have more power, know what is best for those who have less.’
Dr Osei believes that there has been a shift towards better understanding of the lived experiences of people with marginalised identities since the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in 2020.
‘We were having these conversations in spaces where we felt more comfortable or safer, but it has started to move to the surface,’ she says. But there is more work to be done.
For progress to be made, psychological safety is needed. Google’s two-year study on team performance in 2015, found that feeling safe and secure in your environment is the most important component in high performing teams. Undermining behaviour – such as tone policing – diminishes that potential.
Dr Osei says tone policing often stems from the ‘informal rules’ that we are taught when discussing race – such as the notion that we are supposed to be ‘colour blind’.
‘If you talk about racism, somehow you are the real racist, which does not make sense,’ she adds.
So, to break away from these rules can be perceived as rebellious, challenging and combative – which is why people may be told to ‘calm down’ or to ‘stop shouting’ even if they are speaking quite calmly.
There is an unspoken expectation that we must discuss these matters neutrally, and that speaking passionately about your subjective, lived experiences, somehow invalidates it.
It is about the perceived appropriateness of emotions. If a woman is getting angry, society does not tell us that it is appropriate.
‘Racial microaggressions – like tone policing – speak to those every day, often subtle messages devaluing a person of colour,’ says Dr Osei.
‘They are called microaggressions. But they are not micro. It does not mean that it is insignificant, it means that it is commonplace. The stress of it, is accumulative.’
She notes that people who do not live with marginalised identities are very rarely told to ‘modify their tone’, and are even ‘empowered to police somebody else’s.’
Public speaking coach, Vanessa Cuddeford, works primarily with women, who make up 85% of her clients. She says there is a clear gendered element to tone policing.
‘It is about the perceived appropriateness of emotions,’ she tells Metro.co.uk. ‘If a woman is getting angry, society does not tell us that it is appropriate.
‘The language we use matters, it goes into our public consciousness and conscience.
‘Particularly when we are talking about people who are running this country, it legitimises a certain view that if a woman is being forthright, then that is not okay.’
Women used to routinely be labelled ‘hysterical’. But these days, the term has more or less vanished from the modern medical lexicon.
Maybe one day the same will be said for other forms of tone policing and oppression.
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