My human shell is small and of a woman of color. My melanin has much baggage with it but one of the most painful pieces of baggage that I have been given is one of “the angry black woman”. The Angry Black Woman is a trope nearly as old as time. We’ve all encountered her. She’s usually large, has short hair and can hit you with a pot of grits from one hundred paces. For examples, see literally most Tyler Perry movies or many 90s sitcoms written by men (black men are not immune to this trope, in fact, they may be the worst perpetrators of this as the “crazy black girl” is a real form of sexism in the African-American community). The Angry Black Woman could be its own blog post but because of that trope, because of that stereotype I am very aware of tone and am very aware of my tone.
Which brings us to today’s topic. Tone policing, speech and and how one can properly express indignation.
It was actually Amber that got me thinking about tone. She is a proud member of a local African-American community group and her discussions about our shared history, our legacy of mistreatment and our slow but steady rise to semi-equality are insightful and brilliant. Remember a few years ago when I mentioned that now, just now, I became a somewhat angry black person over the history of mistreatment and the cruel legacy of racism and slavery. But my anger is tempered mostly. Because I am at the stage with casual racism, casual misogyny, casual transphobia and casual homophobia and just the regular versions of all of those things that my response to such is just a deep and beleaguered sigh.
I am tired. I am so tired of this. I have endured such things now for nearly 30 years. And I am tired. I am tired of being explained my history by mostly white people who are wrong. I’m tired of people saying they are an ally but and I am tired so so tired of people talking over me or talking for me.
But I am a well-trained Southern prince. I am not to speak out of turn. I am not to raise my voice and I am not to be too firm on anything. It’s unbecoming. It’s unladylike. I’ll never get married if I keep saying such hot button things like “Women are people.”
The training is hard to rewrite and thus, my tone is mixed between shrieking harpy and somewhat passive-aggressive pageant contestant. I was trained to avoid religion, politics and the Great Pumpkin in public speech. And whenever I have been more openly political and aggressive with expressing my own views (if you’ve ever seen one of my panel videos, you know what I mean) I find that my tone is oftentimes sharp, pointed and somewhat irked that I even have to “defend” statements that to me and those I surround myself with willingly are not controversial, brave or a surprise. And that’s difficult to manage as a panelist, podcaster, and person. I have to be able to explain why my family’s history only goes back so far. I have to be able to explain why my hair is relaxed or why my human name is so white sounding. I have to be able to explain those things because explaining them helps people understand the complicated legacy of slavery, racism and white hegemony that rests on mine and the shoulders over every person of color in this nation, nay, the world.
I am a communicator by trade be it both in my professional life and my panelist life and that means I am aware of how people listen. And I can promise you this: no one responds well to a shrieking harpy. It shuts people down. And while my indignation is valid, yelling, being pointed or being terse is no way to further a narrative.
But here is where Amber steps in. She seems no need to police tone. When she is terse or irked, she expresses so. And she passionately defends others who can be terse or aggressive with their tones. A showing of a local black-centric documentary brought up this conversation. I was hung up on a use of a word and Amber finally pressed me on why that bothered me. I said because it has the potential to make things sounds more intense than they were and Amber in the way only really she can said: “So?”
I didn’t know how to respond to that. Because I was taught to be measured, I expected this film to be measured and when it wasn’t, it angered me. Why couldn’t they just sit quietly and let civil rights infractions happen? Why didn’t they have my training? Why didn’t they have to deal with what I do?
And here is where I’ll pause to say there’s a fair amount of misogyny in that answer. My human shell is female and thus me being opinionated, blunt, educated and vocal is oftentimes framed entirely differently than if it were a man in my shoes. A man who confidently speaks over women, interrupts them, confidently spews the wrong thing is a smart, brave and driven man. A woman who does even one or more of these things is a shrill harpy and she’ll die alone because no man wants a woman with opinions, merely a set of ovaries and some bangs.
The reasons behind this are rooted in the patriarchal nature of Western culture and that’s a battle I cannot fight on my own.
So because of that double standard, I am hyper-aware of my tone while simultaneously being my most tired of having to police my tone. If someone is wrong, you should be able to say so respectfully. But challenging the status quo is how change happens. We would never have achieved freedom, emancipation, suffrage or the close grasp at equality we have now if people did not challenge the narrative. And sometimes that means not being nice. Pageant answers can only get you so far. Sometimes to really be an agent of change: one has to throw tone out the window.