Ever heard of the term “tone policing”? I hadn’t until a few days ago, nose buried in Layla Saad’s fantastically eye-opening Me and White Supremacy. Tone policing is the act of taking offence when a person of colour/people of colour (POC) talk with emotion about their experiences of racism, particularly when that emotion is anger. It can take the shape of preferring one black speaker over another because their tone is lighter, more forgiving, and less angry, or can revolve around feeling attacked by what a POC has to say because their tone is “too aggressive” for you, or needs to be “dialled down”. It can be internal or external; it can be overt or covert; it can be conscious or subconscious. Whichever form it comes in, it’s wrong.
In her book, Layla Saad writes that “BIPOC (black, indigenous, people of colour) are expected to cater to the white gaze…and the comfort level of a person’s white fragility when talking about racism”. The white gaze, Saad writes, being “the white supremacist lens through which people with white privilege see BIPOC”. And it’s true, white people often get scared and defensive when they have to hear about a POC’s experience with racism, especially so when there are strong emotions accompanying their message. Black rage has time and time again been viewed as unjust and overreactive; too angry and too direct. These reactions almost always come from a place of white fragility: that special breed of discomfort and defensiveness that many white people don when the conversation turns to racism.
And what of the term “gaslighting”? It comes from a 1938 play by Patrick Hamilton called Gas Light, wherein the husband secretly turns down the gaslights in their home but continuously denies that he’s doing so to his wife, who eventually believes that she’s losing her mind. This gave rise to the term “gaslighting”, which relates to the psychological abuse of presenting someone with false information with the intent of making them doubt their own memories and perception.
By telling POC who are protesting right now in the US that they are overreacting, you are doing both of these things. You are tone policing the righteous anger of black voices. You are gaslighting POC by telling them that the deaths of innocent black lives do not justify these (occasionally) violent protests. This has to stop. Buildings are not being burnt for no reason, stores aren’t being looted on a mere whim, people are not risking the spread of a deadly disease because they aren’t aware of the consequences. There is only so much time that a vast population can be murdered, hated on and discriminated against, all the while being told that it isn’t happening before patience must be put aside and greater action is taken. In all honesty, I am surprised that it has taken so long for all this suppressed anger to finally be unleashed.
Of course, in an ideal world, these protests wouldn’t be taking place. Those out on the streets protesting now would be safe within the confines of their home, socially distancing from others. Businesses would not be burnt to the ground. A vehicle would not have been driven into a crowd. But, and I cannot stress this enough, we do not live in an ideal world. People of colour living in the white west do not live in an ideal world. Instead, they are living with inherently racist systems with people who would rather silence them with police brutality and military force than to listen to what they have to say.
These protests are justified. Listen to the voices of those in pain. A business may be able to claim insurance and rebuild their livelihood, but do you know what can’t return after it’s been destroyed? Every innocent life snatched by the hands of racists living in a country that furthers their white privilege at every step.
Focus your attention not on the wrongs you see in a violent uprising: focus instead on the many wrongs that caused this violent uprising. This is happening now because white people have not been listening. We have closed our eyes and blocked our ears to the voices calling out in pain: the voice calling out “I can’t breathe”. You may douse those physical fires with police force and military intervention, but the only way you can douse the internal fires searing in the hearts of millions across the globe is if you open your eyes and unblock your ears. Listen to the people of colour around you, hear their stories, and know, everywhere you look, that black rage is justified.