How to Stop Racist Tone Policing Online | by Naomi Day | Aug, 2020

Correcting language instead of responding to an argument reflects a much deeper hierarchy of superiority

Serena Williams with tournament referee Brian Earley at the 2018 US Open Tennis Tournament on September 8th, 2018 in Flushing, Queens, New York City. Photo: Tim Clayton/Corbis Sport/Getty Images

“You don’t need to get all worked up over this.” “You’re too angry for me to understand the point you’re making.” “Calm down.”

These phrases are all examples of tone policing, or responding to the presentation of an argument rather than the content of the argument itself. At its best, tone policing is an irritating behavior pattern that blocks meaningful conversation. But at its worst, tone policing is an insidious and sometimes hard-to-grasp method of reinforcing elitism and structural racism.

Tone policing is as rampant online as it is in person. As workplaces, schools, friends, and family groups continue to responsibly social distance, we’re spending more and more time communicating virtually. In these online arenas, tone policing can create space for pile-on responses, derailing a discussion when someone from the privileged side of the conversation focuses on the presentation of an argument rather than its content and all the following responses “pile on” to this language critique.

Tone policing happens often on Twitter, a tool with a structure and space constraints that make it particularly easy to respond in anger to just one part of a comment. Take the following example, from a tweet by Black writer Ijeoma Oluo, author of So You Want To Talk About Race. A responder to the tweet begins by apparently agreeing with Oluo’s overall point but then derails the conversation by focusing on her belief that Oluo’s word choice is not helpful.

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