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Racism 101: Enough With The 'Angry Black Woman' Stereotypes. Let's Talk About Tone Policing

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Serena Williams argues with referee Brian Earley during her finals match against Naomi Osaka at the 2018 US Open, Sept. 8, 2018 in New York City. (Elsa/Getty Images)
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Donna Simone Johnson and Carene Mekertichyan are two Racism 101 panelists, a group of diverse Angelenos with strong voices we tapped to answer questions asked by our LAist audience. Visit laist.com/racism101 for more information on the project and to read other panelists' responses. Click here to ask your own question.


By Giuliana Mayo and Dana Amihere

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We've solicited questions from our audience -- awkward, tough-to-ask, even silly questions -- that they've perhaps wanted to ask people unlike themselves but have been too shy, embarrassed or afraid to ask.

We created Racism 101 to help our audience facilitate their own thought-provoking talks around race, with a conversation "starter kit," and extensive anti-racism resource guides to inform and educate. To field these questions, we assembled a panel of Angelenos willing to answer so folks didn't have to ask their friends, or even strangers.

Since we began Racism 101 last fall, tone policing has come up many times in conversations with our participants, in public discourse and even in our newsroom. It's a term that's being used more frequently as more attention is paid to racial inequality in our society. But, what does the term "tone policing" really mean?

Ashleigh Shackelford is a contributor to Wear Your Voice, a digital magazine for and by LGBTQIA+ and BIPOC women. Shackelford is a self-dsecribed "queer, nonbinary Black femme writer, artist and cultural producer," and she had some real talk about tone policing:

"Tone policing is the act of invalidating or derailing a call out/call in/discussion based on your reaction to the incident...

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"How I say or deliver what I feel shouldn't invalidate what I'm saying, especially if it's in response to violence. If someone rear-ends you, and you cuss them out, does that mean you shouldn't get an apology or the driver's insurance information? Nah...

"...Black women are erased, violated and invalidated...So, when someone does something violent to me in a world that protects and enables that violence against me, my response should never be invalidated.

"And if it's about anger. Let's be clear -- anger is valid. Anger is an agent for change. Anger does not mean hatred. Anger is power, pain and survival."

Tone policing doesn't have to be race-related. But, in the wake of George Floyd's death last May and the summer's Black Lives Matter protests, tone policing in a racial context took center stage. Protests in cities across the U.S. were tainted by mainstream media's depctions of acts such as vandalism and arson as widespread.

People, especially BIPOC women, encounter tone policing everywhere from the office to online encounters on social media to the workplace. No women saw this more than the three founders of Black Lives Matter, whose tone, approach to protest and even the name of their movement were questioned by everyone from the far right to Martin Luther King III, son of the slain civil rights leader.

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Black Lives Matter co-founder Opal Tometi told The Guardian in an interview last September: "There's a lot of right wing thinktanks and nativist organizations that are putting out a lot of fake information about us to distract, confuse and give people any excuse to not support this movement. I say, look at the data."

Last October, The Washington Post analyzed the outcomes of more than 7,300 demonstration and protest events from May to June 2020. Data analysis by The Post suggested that 97% of events involved no property damage or police injuries, and in 98% of events, no injuries were reported among participants, bystanders or police. On June 6 alone, the height of the protests, more than half a million people in nearly 550 locations across the country participated in a protest event.

"...I'll be really honest: I'm not really concerned about broken glass," Opal said. "I'm concerned about people's broken faces, their broken bodies, because they had the audacity to stand up for human rights. Property can be replaced, people cannot ... I know it can be very confusing for people, but it really shouldn't be."

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Demonstrators march during a peaceful protest against police brutality and racism on June 6, 2020 in Dallas, Texas. This is the 12th day of protests since George Floyd died in Minneapolis police custody on May 25. (Cooper Neill/Getty Images)

Largely seen as a way to put aggrieved people back in their place, the harm tone policing does by dismissing real grievances that aren't delivered in the "right" way is real.

Now that we're having more difficult conversations about race in society, we wanted to use Racism 101 as an opportunity to take a deeper, more intimate look at tone policing, especially as it affects BIPOC women.

Below, Racism 101 participants, Donna and Carene talk to each other about what tone policing means to them, where they see it occur in their lives and how it affects them.

BEING TONE POLICED IN SPACES SHARED WITH OTHER PEOPLE OF COLOR AND ALLIES

"There might not be anything that's specifically 'wrong' with your tone; It's just that they don't even necessarily want to hear the content that you're sharing."

(Video by Caitlin Hernández)

PEOPLE OF COLOR'S BURDEN TO CALL OUT TONE POLICING

"I mean, it depends. Some days I feel like teaching. Some days I want to go off. Some days I ignore you. It all depends, because we're not monoliths, either. We're people."

(Video by Caitlin Hernández)

FIGHTING FOR YOUR PLACE IN THE ROOM

"I don't want to be having this conversation. I don't want to be sitting here trying to convince you of the value of my life."

(Video by Caitlin Hernández)

WHY WE CREATED RACISM 101

The country erupted into protests, unrest and a renewed dialogue about systemic racism following George Floyd's killing. We held the first round of a virtual conversation event series, Unheard LA: A Deeper Listen with a tie in to Race In LA. The discussion repeatedly returned how Black and Brown people were being asked for their opinion, for resources and to answer questions on racial issues -- and how exhausting it can be.

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