Educators Must Mind Tone Policing

Tone policing happens during conversations or debates when one person, typically of greater privilege, thwarts a speaker's thoughts or opinions by reacting to their emotional tone. 

I used to work in a district that didn’t allow any cheering or applauding during high school graduation ceremonies. Mind you, this was a district teeming with first-generation high school graduates. Their families’ joy must have been immeasurable, but it was not allowed to be expressed. This is an example of tone policing.

Tone policing happens during conversations or debates when one person, typically of greater privilege, thwarts a speaker's thoughts or opinions by reacting to their emotional tone. It detracts from the speaker's intended messages by focusing on the tone of the delivery rather than the content of the message thus allowing the distractor to establish their power in the conversation. Tone policing is often witnessed on social networking sites when Black women are accused of being “angry.” This age-old angry black women stereotype delivers an insulting distraction from the message when the conversation is suddenly derailed by accusations of incivility or impoliteness.

Many of us have been perpetrators in this game, expecting those in our care (or even our peers) to act “civil,” “appropriate,” and “respectful.” I hear my mother telling me to “stop being so mannish” when I would question why things were a certain way. As a young girl, I guess I was expected not to question things and to just accept them; to have a more ladylike tone. I have experienced tone policing both because of my race and my gender by those who expect me to act in ways acceptable in a society dominated by Whiteness.

I remember white teachers trying to remove inflections of my blackness from my speech, a subtle form of tone policing where children of color are expected to speak the (white) queen's English. I trace my impostor syndrome—my internalized fear of being called a fraud—back to those days in majority-white schools where I was never allowed the safety of being my true black self. It was compounded by the crisis of coming home to an all-Black neighborhood where Whiteness was no longer enforced and not knowing who the real “me” was.

As an adult, I believed, as did many teachers of my generation, that we needed to continue policing the tone of young Black children by insisting they obey the rules, properly ask if they “may” rather than if they “can”—essentially that they learn to conduct themselves by Eurocentric standards.

We knew our white colleagues were trying to maintain dominance and wipe away any stain of blackness among students. I would cringe when I heard them say “these students”; it was like hearing “you people.” But some of us Black teachers didn't realize our own complicity, because we were, after all, working to instill a love of Langston Hughes's poetry among our students and we wore Kente cloth.

In classrooms and libraries, Black children were shushed by those outside their culture who did not want them to be too brash, too disruptive, or too Black. These children were policed to deport themselves in ways that maintain order and leave the teacher or librarian feeling as if they are in control.

We believed we were keeping our Black students safe by tone policing them, protecting them from releasing too much of themselves in ways that wouldn’t be understood by the dominant society. We were, after all, helping them find their place in the world that would never value their blackness.

Up to and including much of the 20th century, Black children were taught that our feelings didn’t matter, our language was wrong, and our loudness was offensive. What was really being taught was that we of African descent weren’t good enough. Not finding ourselves in books or movies, not seeing reflections of ourselves as teachers or principals, let alone as doctors or politicians, only reinforced this message.

In fact, all marginalized young people—whether low income, children of color, Indigenous, LGBT+, or children with disabilities—got the message that they didn’t belong here, and that what they knew was incorrect. These young people shut themselves down when the ways they knew to express themselves were oppressed by the dominant society.

Gen Z (generally those born after the mid-1990s) is moving away from accepting this oppression. Many in this generation are growing up in schools premised upon student-centered learning and belief systems that solidly affirm their need for emotional expression (check out draking), and our tone argument falls flat with them.

Those in Gen Z use new technologies that empower more young people than ever to be content creators, telling their own stories through their use of their vernacular and their expressions of fashion, body language and art, hair styles, and gestures. When tone policed, black teens of this generation may still shut down, but they may also persist and resist.

I admit that I am feeling conflicted here on this tone argument, and that’s why I’ve chosen to write in a way that doesn’t set me up as an expert; instead, I'm expressing my doubts.

How do we protect everyone’s right to learn when we stop tone policing? How do we create a new norm free from Whiteness? Are educators able to be fully human and emotional in the classroom as well?

These may be rather naïve, beginner’s questions; but I'm wrestling with this. I do think there’s somewhat of a ripple effect when people feel valued and cherished thus leading to more compassionate learning spaces. The security experienced when young people feel as if they are seen and heard has to increase their capacity for academic success. I have no doubt that tone policing is harmful, I just need to find ways to put new behaviors into practice.

In considering my uncertainties, I contacted Cornelius Minor, lead staff developer for Columbia University’s Reading & Writing Project, for his thoughts on tone policing. He shared a recent event concerning his child's disappointment when they were unable to do something they were really looking forward to. Of course, this young child displayed their emotions. At the time of the event, he chastised them for their behavior but retrospectively questioned himself for not allowing them to express their legitimate anger and disappointment.

Yes, even as parents we manage our children’s behavior wanting them to “act” right and not let them just be all right. Cornelius questioned the impact he was having on their behavior, reflectively asking "What am I doing? I hold all the power." He preferred that his child be able to authentically express themself and that they feel accepted and appreciated for just that, rather than for being the person who stuffs their feelings inside. In this way, they would not only feel safe with him, but they would also feel safe with their own self.

When asked how a teacher could avoid tone policing, Cornelius, a young African American male educator, said that in his teaching he would start by recognizing his own power and privilege. From there he developed three basic rules he plans to implement to guide him through the next year.

First, he plans to “invite my students into the conversation in a way that we are equals.” Extending an invitation to students gives them an option to participate or not, and it begins to establish a sense of equity between teacher and students. For Cornelius, removing inequity mandates being fully present in the conversation, actively listening to students, but also sharing with them while still quietly acknowledging his position in this equation. He wants to hold conversations in spaces where they are geographically equals. This would include neither physically looming over a student who is sitting at their desk nor calling them up to the intimidating teacher’s desk. In doing all of this, Cornelius "honor[s] the time and place of the conversation." This could be recognizing when privacy is needed or not taking away from a student's library time. Students will know he understands their situation if he shares a similar event in his life while keeping in mind that this is a teacher to student conversation, not peer to peer.

Next, he will work to “control my body language; my reactions and hands so that I could receive their full communication.” He wants his school students to be able to freely share the thoughts and emotions behind their behavior. His reactions will also help prevent the situation from escalating. Finally, he plans to “offer support and not judgment.” Support begins when he invites them into conversation in a shared space. It continues as he maintains a listening posture while the student talks as well as in the language he chooses to navigate the situation. He wants to support them by validating, not judging, their feelings and by listening to hear and understand their particular situation.

Cornelius’s students will ultimately make meaning of their experience with him. He’ll teach them how to connect their personal stories to larger ones thus expanding their capacity for empathy as they come to recognize our common humanity.

He and I suspect his children will learn some code switching as they navigate situations that are more or less formal, or perhaps even more or less safe, for full disclosure of one’s self. Most important, Cornelius's guidelines may ensure that students will feel that they are seen, heard, and valued. This newfound sense of security will create better pathways for learning.

Cornelius and I, two generations of educators, have both come to believe in teaching young people how to create their own space in the world. We both have a lot of work in front of us! Perhaps if we can teach children how to not judge each other but to truly listen and support each other, then perhaps we can create a new norm.

Edith Campbell is an assistant librarian at Indiana State University. She's planning to get back into the classroom this year and is considering innovative methods to teach African American Youth literature to undergrads. She tweets at @crazyquilts, blogs at CrazyQuiltsEdi, enjoys growing her own food, and is looking forward to getting back into quilting and traveling. Literacy helps us create our place in the world!

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