Not So Nice: on the subject of tone policing

Not So Nice: on the subject of tone policing March 15, 2015

photo courtesy of
photo courtesy of


When I am ruthlessly mocking my husband, his usual playful response is “that’s not nice.” To which, I reply, “The last thing I would ever want to be known for is being nice.” There is a little truth behind that statement. Sure, I want to be compassionate and empathetic. But, being nice has always struck me as false politeness for the sake of being liked. If I have to choose, I would always prefer authenticity over just being nice.

My husband would never foolishly demand my niceness if I were talking about issues of oppression. He knows full well if I ever find the need to educate him about a racial or gender issue, I will not bother with niceties. However, outside the marital world, I am endlessly being required to be a nice POC and a teacher. White people are constantly harboring the false assumptions that Black people should be nice and helpful.

Recently, someone thanked me for voicing my opinion on a racial matter. They praised me for saying it in informative and non-confrontational way. They believe that those topics should be approached in a way that people can hear the message, learn and grow from it. Well, that is a sweet thought. However, I was quick to correct them. I was not trying to be nice or trying to educate. I was just speaking my truth.

What I did not say is that I am not here to make White people better human beings. Do not pat me on the back because I am no one’s good POC. I am not here to protect their feelings and frankly I do not care about their feelings. I am fighting for myself and my people. White people can teach themselves how to be nicer and less racist.

I once had a Black male professor assert that if we did not share our experiences with White people that they could never learn. I was quite irritated by this assertion for two reasons: I was not getting paid like him to teach white people and his idea of teaching White people was taking a class to watch The Help. Here he was continuing to teach White people that it is Black people’s life mission (especially Black women) to be their teachers and helpers. It is even our jobs to do for free!

My usual internal response to people wanting me to guide them to racial understanding is read a book. There are plenty of POC who have written books and made media to steer the racial conversations. Buy their work and reward them for their efforts. Stop expecting POC especially Black people to do your work for you.

I am always torn when a White person asks (from the goodness of their heart) for my help working on a racial or diversity project. I know that diversity education is needed and I know they are trying to do something good. However, it is nearly impossible to work with White people if they have not worked on their own entitlement issues. Otherwise, they ended up being in charge, taking up the all the space, and keeping the POC in the background. If you cannot handle a POC being at the center or being the leader, then the crucial racial problem will never be fixed.

If there is such a thing as a “good ally”, it is someone who assists POC. It is someone who helps to create spaces for POC’s voices to be heard. It is someone who knows when to talk against oppression and when to take a backseat. It is someone who can listen regardless of how the message is delivered. It is someone who values authenticity over niceness.

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