Black women are the most tone-policed people on earth… and I would say Black people in general, but far too often we Black men participate in the tone-policing of Black women.
That’s what I said at the beginning of a very recent and now-viral TikTok post, which I called Policing Black Women’s ‘Tone’. A wave of candid, sometimes crushing comments followed. Black women poured out details of dying ‘deaths’ by a thousand microaggressive cuts daily, from having their words and even silence turned against them.
As a Gullah/Geechee binya (native born in Low country, South Carolina and reared Gullah, a generational descendant to the first Black people brought to my home state) who speaks English as a second language, I can relate to my manner of speaking being misconstrued in negative ways. I recall folk, mostly da bakra dem (white people), constantly projecting their ignorance onto me. Still, what inspired me to post about the tone policing of Black women was that I also recall Black women and girls in our own community being told “main ya mout” (mind your mouth) and [rhetorically] asked “hu yu tauk’n tu” (who are you talking to) whenever something they said made whomever they said it to–most often an elder and/or a man–feel some type of way.
More than that, being a Pentacostal Holiness PK (preacher’s kid), I grew up in a fire baptized Black church and a Black community within a broader white power structured society that all literally preached that for Black women and girls, ‘bridling their mouths’ was a virtue. Unlike their male counterparts, for Black women and girls, “saas’n” (being sassy) was a deeply frowned upon and swiftly punished “sin,” second only to being [branded] “faas’tel” (promiscuous). Once I knew better, I felt compelled to do better–much better–and haala ad ma boba dem (impress upon my brethren) to do the same.
A message needs a megaphone, and social media is exactly that. TikTok is currently the biggest megaphone of them all–thanks to Black users–and I use it accordingly.
In fact, in this particular TikTok, I mentioned my eis (close friend) shooting his shot and nearly poppin’ himself in the foot by misreading his Black female crush’s compliment. Here a whole Black man fluent in Black English couldn’t tell that her flirty “okayyy” in response to his bird-chested thirst trap was a yayyy, not a yawn? Of course, the misreading of his crush earned him my patented twist-lipped “this Nigreaux here” side-eye and a free “lecture” on how Black men’s implicit biases about Black women would “block” more than his blessings… *ahem* ya dig? That said, had my talk with him not convinced him to wake up, the way sisters clowned him in my TikTok comments would’ve been the smelling salt ina im nuozhol (in his nostrils as we Gullahs say).
I closed the TikTok post with the following request, which would become the most important part, “Black women and girls, please, tell me about a time when your tone was perceived as negative, despite your intention being otherwise.” I hoped for responses, but, honestly, didn’t expect that the volume of deeply personal, impactful responses would keep this my number one trending TikTok post well over a week after it first posted… and is still going.
The sympathy pain I felt while taking it all in reminded me that no amount of alliance, alignment, or even empathy on my part could ever quite capture the way so many Black women and girls are made to feel, that they’re too much or not enough for others at all times, at school, at work, even in their own home, in their own skin.
Like @arnellerenae, who spoke of how even not speaking at all still speaks volumes, “My silence is often interpreted as being angry. I’m usually in deep thought or listening.”
The workplace is no exception, with little to no remedy for sisters like @chavonnaspencer, who said “I went to HR about being mistreated and they asked me was I talking to my coworkers in the tone I was speaking to her in. My tone was hurt, just hurt.”
Black women’s Black male co-workers not only don’t always have their backs, they sometimes stab them in the back, as was the case with arcement, who said, “When a BM colleague described what I said in a meeting he added yelling, flailing arms, and neck rolls. None of which happened.”
One of the comments that really wrenched my heart was @diamondhealerintl speaking of how a common gaslighting phrase was used to literally hurt her where she should have been safest, in her own doctor’s care. “The time I had an ovarian cyst and the white male doctor told me to calm down – I was literally explaining the pain,” she said.
Finally the bittersweetness of @adorable_china’s comment really spoke to the lifetime of weight laid on the shoulders of Black women, starting as little girls, and the need for a safe space for them to breathe… and just be. “wow… I have never felt so seen by ur post n by this comment section ppl have been doing this to me since I was a child,” she said.
Some of these sisters’ situations may not seem like tone policing to you in the strictest sense, but think about its definition—“a conversational tactic that criticizes or dismisses a presented argument when it is perceived to be delivered in an angry or emotionally charged manner.” The operative word being “perceived.” Because how you see Black women and girls influences how you hear them.
Sure enough, a few misogynoirists dismissed the need to even talk about tone policing Black women and girls while “Black men and boys have to deal with actual policing.” As if the dashcam video of Sandra Bland’s arrest isn’t a stark example of tone policing and so-called “actual” policing working in tandem to harm Black women and girls, too.
Black women made this post go viral, virtually by themselves, for themselves. Still, virality is such a fickle, fleeting thing on social media. Users tend to quantify care and find meaning in metrics that can, in an instant, be diminished by an algorithm or deleted due to so-called community guidelines violations. Which is why making meaningful content for those who mean the most to you matters even more offline than online.
As an educator I try to find teachable moments from wherever they are. I think a lesson here is to listen to Black women and girls, and learn how to hear them, even when they’re silent.
Sunn M’cheaux is the Gullah language instructor at Harvard University