Let’s Talk About Tone Policing and (A Lack of) Reading Comprehension In Conversations About Racism In Fandom

In the sidebar for my website, I have the following block of text and a link to a resource on Adult Literacy:

Struggling with selective reading comprehension issues and think I’ve said something I clearly haven’t? Use this resource to brush up on your lackluster reading comprehension skills and consider leaving me out of your journey!

It is a snarky note, for sure, but this response to that block of text (from a Dreamwidth user who was responding to someone else who’d shared What Fandom Racism Looks Like: White Silence/Violence is really fucking out of pocket and nonsensical:

Image

Also from stitch (their sidebar):

Struggling with selective reading comprehension issues and think I’ve said something I clearly haven’t? Use this resource to brush up on your lackluster reading comprehension skills and consider leaving me out of your journey!

I suspect the reason they’re not getting the engagement, signal boosting, and podcast invites they desire is that interaction with them in any manner other than 130% agreement and praise carries a significant risk of verbal abuse.

I’ve certainly preemptively blocked them on every social media account I have.

[censored DW user who recommended my work] And when I say verbal abuse I mean verbal abuse, whether or not it’s couched in progressive terminology.

I can clock someone who’s likely to verbally abuse me at 140 characters because I lived over 20 years being subjected to that treatment on the regular. My dad is no longer in my life because of it. I’ll happily die on the hill of “no one is obligated to open themselves up to abuse for *any* cause”.

(And please note that I am assuming this person is white based on prior personal experience with white people in fandom who weaponize their trauma to excuse blaming me for how they treat me despite us usually not interacting ever. If they’re not white, that’s… a whole problem there, but nine times out of ten… Well.)

To be clear: I agree with that Dreamwidth user: that no one is obligated to open themselves up to abuse for any cause.

But as we’ve covered repeatedly: what happens to me because I talk about racism in fandom at any tone and with any level of audience is never seen as abusive by the people harassing me. Even though, it is not… not that. What do you call a harassment campaign trying to “deplatform” me and cost me my job that’s so intense and awful that it was briefly news on ONTD?

What do you call the fact that even though I do curate the shit out of my space, people harass me anyway and say things like that user where they take a mildly spicy tone and accuse me of ongoing or future harassment?

I mean, this user who doesn’t know me and just blocked me everywhere (except Dreamwidth, lol) just said that I was likely to verbally abuse people who disagreed with me (about racism in fandom, mind you). That’s it.

We have had no engagement. This user has no proof of me even actually interacting rudely with people – though I’m sure they’re sensitive enough that all the bullshit proof of harassment that didn’t work on the people defending me last week will work on them.

They didn’t even bother to go “hey what’s with your tone there”. Just an immediate “well this stitch is rude, YEET” and comparing me to their abusive father. (Which of course validates how they talk about me because they were “triggered” by my tone.)

And as a reminder: the “this scary Black person shouted and it scared me” is a tactic used to great negative effect against people like me. As Reni Eddo-Lodge points out in the “White Women Crying is Racist!” episode of the About Race podcast:

 What Angelica and Kelsey are speaking about, the deference, the tears, is a really destructive byproduct of anti-racist conversation, in which white ears hear black voices talk about racism and interpret it as information designed to make them feel like they are a bad person. So, my self expression at the general state of play becomes a very individual and personal attack to whatever white person happens to be within earshot.

In circles where people consider themselves to be progressive, like feminism, that destructive individualisation doesn’t always come out in anger and defensiveness, but folds in on itself in the form of guilt. What this does is takes the conversation away from an analysis of structural power, and  moves it to a place in which we all need to look after that white person’s hurt feelings, give them a tissue and a hug, and tell them they’re not a bad person. Somehow the conversation ends in the place anti-racists are trying to drag it away from, which is tiptoeing around white people’s feelings.

I think that’s what Angelica meant when she said white women crying is racist.

It’s usually mainly white women/femme aligned people who do this – although some cishet men have done this and I have seen a few examples of this particular fragility on display with trans dudes.

What that Dreamwidth user does by saying I will (or already do) abuse others for a “cause” – anti racism, again – and connecting me with their abuser is a purposeful tactic to make sure that people who would think to engage and go “hey, that’s not appropriate or fair” would… hesitate.

Because I have hurt their feelings – even though we have never spoken and all they’ve read are a post and my sidebar – I must be an abuser waiting in the wings. For speaking about something that is clearly actively hurting me and is coming from people who want to hurt me.

The idea that if you don’t agree with me 130% – about racism in fandom, mind you, this isn’t about ships – you’ll be lined up for abuse for multiple levels is really messed up and unsupported by anything I’ve ever done.

For one thing: There are people who have criticized my work in comments on this very site or who engage with something I’ve read and go “I like what you’re saying BUT here’s why I disagree at points”. I’ve even have a few “darling you’re dead wrong” comments up too.

Truthfully, I have never verbally abused anyone – being mildly spicy in response to people being racist in fandom and/or about me, is not abuse – and even when I have directly/generally insulted people it’s been insults related to like some food I’m in the middle of eating or… “PickMe POC”.

For another thing: when it comes to people engaging with me over my work, I am the one being harassed and abused by people in fandom because of the fact that I write about racism and because my tone isn’t… soft and sweet the entire time.

This is tone policing.

Tone policing is a tactic used by non-Black people to silence Black women (and femmes). Tone policing can be used by anyone, that’s true, but when it comes to the common response to my work, it’s clearly used in that capacity.

Because I cuss every so often, because I poke fun at racists and racism in fandom, and because I do not have respect for people who have been invested in dismissing racism and crapping on me… my tone is why I cannot be trusted. (Even though it’s milder than most of the backlash I get…)

Take this example of tone policing from the Blackburn Center’s “How Tone Policing Is Used to Silence Black Women”:

Consider a situation where a Black woman and a white woman are discussing an incident of racism at work. The Black woman gets emotional as she explains to her white colleague just how wrong the situation was. Her coworker doesn’t think what happened was a big deal, and responds, “You don’t need to get so angry about it.” She goes on to tell her colleague, “If you approached this nicely, then more people would be on your side.” The Black woman gets frustrated and walks away. In this instance, tone policing was a successful diversionary tactic, as the conversation ended without ever getting to the heart of the racist incident.

Tone policing often relies on an argument that a person must be able to address issues in a calm, rational, detached way. Of course, if you are not personally affected by a particular topic, it is much easier to be levelheaded about it. Demanding that others who are personally affected be just as calm as you are is a way to shut down conversation.

Even though I actually write with a sense of mild snark for humor’s sake – because again, I am dealing with racists in fandom and they are trying to Deal With Me – I’m rarely expressing even 15% of the pain and anger I experience from the constant attacks on my character by people who managed to read like one of my pieces and then choose to write me off as “unhinged”, “aggressive”, and “potentially abusive” without once ever interacting with me.

Let’s look at Rachel Cargle’s experience with tone policing from a DM that basically tells her to anticipate “an angry backlash” for her not being “nice enough” and for a “steady, underlying hostility” in her anti-racism work.

Simply put: if you expect anti-racism to cater to your needs as a white person (or a non-Black person learning how to fight antiblackness), you are racist/anti-black. You are fragile.

You do not have the right to demand people of color be “nice” – and we are rarely ever actually mean when we talk, just somewhat sharp because we already know what y’all are like – when we’re talking about racism in a space and how it hurts us.

And it doesn’t help that no one else is ever expected to be “nice” to us at first or in return.

No one in those groups ever manages to tone police the strangers who are calling me “arrogant and unhinged”, a “whore” or who call me a cunt/bitch on the regular. No one tone polices the people planning to destroy my life and online reputation.

For years I’ve been subject to aggressive comments, intensely personal insults, and targeted harassment for writing about racism in fandom. No one in those spaces publicly shuts that shit down and says “okay if you don’t like stitch, don’t read their work or tweets but don’t lie about them”.

In fact, people like the Dreamwidth user up there actually tend to think I deserve that treatment… because I’m not “nice” – even though I do not even speak to anyone and I never @ people unless it’s a necessary correction.

But let’s say I was Actually Mean about talking about racism in fandom: why should I be nice to racists in fandom and the people who think racists in fandom have more of a right to freedom or escapism in fandom than I or any other person of color who care about racism do?

But I’m not mean. I’m not the one calling people slurs, trying to get them fired, comparing them to my abuser (even though they are literally the same class of racist online user trying to destroy me).

And because that Dreamwidth user has already decided that they’re dealing with an aggressive Black person, I cannot engage with them. I cannot reply to that comment and say “okay but that’s not fair and this is contributing to mental stress and harm I experience because you’re not the only white person to take my tone as a threat and tell others that” to them because they will take that as a further threat. They will use that to validate what they already believe about me… somehow.

Which means I have to write out my pain and frustration here.  I have to get it out here. I have to hope that maybe this user will stumble across it and realize that my tone is always rather mild, that they’re participating in unthinking antiblackness, and that they also need to figure out if what they read was what I actually wrote.


Now let’s talk about the reading comprehension issues on display.

A lot of people struggle with selective reading comprehension when they interact with my work. People literally actively make up things they feel I’ve said.

They can read a post about weaponized white womanhood and literally come out of it with “you are racist against Black women” as their first thought. They are reading to react or reply, not to understand. That’s why so much of the response to my work is about how it makes racists or POC Too (“I’m a POC Too and this is not racist”)  feel, not about where it is flawed.

(Like the slavefic article, three years later, is incredibly flawed and I’m working on doing an update for that. Rather than say “hey, I get that you were in your feelings here, but here are some ways you could make this better and more accurate”, people get angry because slavefic is their thing and I have just insulted it/made it seem bad. They read to react, not to understand and offer actual feedback.)

There are people who literally go around telling people that I’ve said “[Reylo/Kylux/Snowbarry/ETC] shippers are automatically racist”. They can’t, of course, link to any of that or even an actual post where I say that, but hundreds of people sure do believe that this is a ship war and not ongoing commentaries on racist shipping patterns in fandom [because they are simultaneously white-centric and antiblackness]  that combine with harassment.

How about the way that the following paragraph from What Fandom Racism Looks Like: Phone A Friend of Color is used to claim that I am racist against other POC/dehumanizing them when I’m actually clearly talking about the ways that racists will basically launch POC with differing opinions at each other:

I’m going to let y’all know right off the jump that this behavior actually isn’t good for either the fan of color being used as a Social Justice Pokémon or the fan of color who now has to deal with another person of color that will go “I’m [identity] and I don’t think that was racist” – but then accuse them of using their shared ethnicity to gain some kind of clout in fandom. (Even though the Social Justice Pokemon of color actually is doing that!)

It’s a paragraph referencing how there’s a thing people do where they tag in a POC to derail and dismiss conversations about racism in fandom or cultural appropriation in K-pop. The person actually doing the dehumanizing in this situation is the racist who thinks POC are interchangeable and that we should perform Not Caring About Racism to excuse their bad behavior in fandom.

Not me, Black person pointing out that this is happening and hurting us all. And yet, it has repeatedly been used as an “example” of my “racism” against other POC. Somehow.

Or how about how, every single time I reshare my piece on queerbaiting villains  and the Kylo/Hux fandom from 2018, people tell others that this is an anti-villain piece and that I’m an anti of the ship? The piece doesn’t say “I hate this ship” or even “I hate this fandom”. I simply poke fun at the fandom in 2018 in the process of pointing out that queer-coding villains tends to trade on stereotypes and that white male villains are often the only ones who get that kind of coding layered onto them in Western/English language media.

I put the link in to those adult literacy resources in my sidebar because I am constantly subject to people willfully turning off their reading comprehension capabilities off in order to read the worst from my work. It is not ableist, abusive, or whatever to be a Black person fed up with people who only seem to suck at understanding what they read when what they’re reading is about racism in fandom. Or to provide a resource for people to Level Up and understand what they’re reading if they’re having genuine issues understanding.

But also… how do you get “stitch will verbally abuse people that disagree with them even a little bit… just like my dad” from “please don’t make your reading comprehension problems my problem”?

It is a choice that lots of people in lots of fandoms make. They assume the worst of me based on their own reactions to me saying that the things they do and love in fandom can be or even are racist… and they tell people the things they believe out of nowhere. And ultimately, they decided that the “bad” tone they read in my work excuses how they and others treat and talk about me, dehumanizing me and allowing me to be mistreated by their friends in fandom.

People choose to be bad at reading when I am writing about racism. They choose to read violence, aggression, and abuse into me being a Black person dealing with direct antiblackness in and from fandom and writing in a way that’s not all sunshine and rainbows.

I would like people to stop and think about whether they understand what I’m actually writing or if they need to reach out for clarification before deciding I’m just like some abuser in their life… for writing on my own site about something that is actually actively traumatizing for me.

It is exhausting – truly draining – to constantly and purposefully be read and misrepresented as cruel, abusive, aggressive, and mean-spirited simply for talking about racism in multiple fandoms and how racist harassment, white silence, and weaponized POC Too-ness or white womanhood directly hurts me.

About Stitch

Stitch writes about what needs to be written.
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6 Responses to Let’s Talk About Tone Policing and (A Lack of) Reading Comprehension In Conversations About Racism In Fandom

  1. kazei5 says:

    A friend of mine, Shawn Harris, once ran a website called Ars Marginal, where she and others, myself included, would have submissions talking pop culture, sexism, racism, etc etc… and one time a friend of hers submitted an article talking about comic book writer Dan Slott’s racist and sexist writing.

    Now, it was his writing they said was racist and sexist, not him, but he didn’t make that assumption. Like that Dreamwidth reader, Dan decided to read the very worst into it and not actually think about any of it. When he came onto the website, he was given a chance to talk, ONE chance… and quickly proved he w3as there to fight.

    When he was banned, he immediately started griping about how we were the real racists and that Shawn was an angry black woman with solders and other stuff ready to hound him for nothing of consequence.

    Long story short, just another piece of evidence you’re talking about, that they’ll automatically see black people, and especially black women, as angry and ready to fight while they’re the calm, logical ones even as they say racist and sexist stuff or try to undermine the point via the methods you’ve pointed out; tone policing, pick mes, and others.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. militantlyromantic says:

    With the admission that my Jewish-lesbian ass is having a couple of WEEKS that unquestionably color this comment, sometimes I think the best anyone can hope for from people who just want to Be Right is to be left alone by those people. (I recognize that in many instances you are not being left alone, that is a different issue and one that, frankly, I have negative eleven wisdom about.)

    I HEAR your frustration that this person who has blocked you has decided who you are based on your skin color and the fact that you’ve chosen to point out problems inimical to living inside that skin in our society, so, you know, racism, and I even agree with the fact that our world would be a way better place if people could let you respond and LISTEN and then STOP doing that. All on the same page there. At the same time, I know we’re supposed to believe that everyone has potential to be better, but…like. People have to want to be better. They have to want to admit that shit they like can be wrong (sidebar: very much looking forward to your updated slavefic post as you know I like it despite it being problematic AF), and that there are assumptions they make that have to be grappled with. And if a person blocks you before even interacting with you on an actual level, like…that person doesn’t want that. That person wants an excuse for their racism, that’s all. In the same way that Cargle points out that she’s NOT looking to address a wider audience, necessarily, that she’s looking for people who can hear her anger and frustration and accept that because it’s VALID, there are certain people you can’t reach. And frankly, it wouldn’t matter if your tone were different, because they would find another way to demonify/villify you, that’s literally how racism/reactionary behavior works, and I know you know that. (Which is not to say that your points about tone policing aren’t legitimate, they are, I’m just saying that I think it’s bullshit not JUST on its face but on its actual merits, which is a special kind of bullshit.)

    I don’t mean to dampen your enthusiasm for what you do, the education you provide, because I find it invaluable. But I also just think there are people you’re never going to reach because they don’t want to be reached. Privilege is a helluva drug and anyone who knows that, knows it.

    Like

    • Zeenah says:

      It’s a lot and incredibly frustrating because I do love being challenged. Part of why I’m trying to work on the slavefic update post is because I was challenged by someone who did bring up their own experiences and as a result, I rethought how much of that post was colored by these incredibly personal experiences I had and it is biased – which doesn’t make it invalid, just… Biased as shit. So I want to engage with the fact that I didn’t present my best argument but also that there are probably actually ways to write this sort of power imbalance narrative without the stuff that i find problematic or potentially iffy about race.

      But most people aren’t actually challenging me right? And I think… I know that. I know that people like that dreamwidth user is never going to challenge me and that there’s no way I can write in a way that will appeal to the people who complain about my tone because there will always be SOMETHING.

      I guess I just wish they’d say plainly that they just don’t care and they have no interest in learning, rather than coming up with excuses why I’m supposedly so harmful and awful. Because I don’t need people to agree with me 100%. Challenging my actual words is great and helps me become better… But this stuff is never engaging with what I actually wrote… Just what folks feel about it? 😫

      (Also remember how I said I had hope that people weren’t being racist on purpose in fandom? A bunch of things happened this weekend that proved uh… I was wrong to have hope? Yikes.)

      Like

      • militantlyromantic says:

        I’m really sorry to hear that about this weekend. Genuinely. As you know, I’m not surprised, but that doesn’t make it less shitty, and I wish, for your sake, that it were different, I do.

        I understand wanting to be challenged. I remember the first time I read Sedgwick’s Axiomatic, and it changed my damn life, forced me to challenge myself in ways I had never even known existed before, and it was a rush. That was over twenty years ago, and I still remember that feeling. It’s why I read your stuff, and other blogs/articles/books of people’s whose experiences and understanding of the world is different than mine, because, yeah, it challenges me.

        FWIW, I was talking about your work with a friend of mine on Friday. She’s someone who was in fandom when I started–she’s fifteen years older than me–and we’ve been friends since I was twenty-one, so basically half my life. She’s truly one of the smartest people I know, currently working as a librarian at the Harvard libraries and finishing her PhD in MLIS with a specialty in an area that’s too specific for me to understand but has to do with data and research. This is like her…third or fourth career? And I really value her thoughts on this subject because she’s a literal expert on archival matters. She had some fascinating points on what she actually thinks she should be done. She disagrees with what you want for her own reasons, but she has thoughts about how what you want could be achieved if there were the resources to achieve that end, which we both recognize is a significant issue. My point in bringing it up is, there are people out there reading your or at least familiar with your work who are challenged by it and who are thinking about it, but like…you know how pollsters think that for every response, that represents a certain 100s of persons? I think it’s like that. A lot of people are just lurkers. Or are too crazy busy and think “oh, I’ll respond later,” or whatever.

        I read the original slavefic post a while back and it was interesting because I actually have read most of the books you recommend re: slavery and seen most of the shows (I read Roots rather than watching b/c I just don’t watch a lot of stuff, honestly), and in my case I actually think those texts WERE formative. But also, I’m not sure what you mean by “sexy slavefic.” Like, I’m not saying that I don’t know what slavefic that is meant to be sexy is, that would just be dumb. And I actually do like CP, although I fully recognize the reasons it’s a problematic text, it just happens to work for me, and I can explain why but in the end, frankly, I don’t think it matters. What matters is that emotionally I can stomach something that you can’t for systemic reasons. But what I am saying is that…I don’t find the slavery in CP sexy. Like. Everything sexual that happens between Damen and Laurent, every action taken between them before Laurent lets Damen go HAS to be seen as non-consensual, as rape. And that’s not sexy. I think the split in whether the trilogy is enjoyable or not is whether you can accept that Laurent does what he needs to to truly apologize for his behavior/if that behavior can even be apologized for. And honestly, in most cases, I would tell you rape and enslavement cannot. Again, there are reasons CP works for me, but ALSO, I understand why, objectively, that’s not really OKAY.

        My point is, though, that like…I don’t find slavery sexy. I find recovery from trauma and the possible pushing against systems comforting. I don’t want to read about slaves having sex with their owners, I want to read about slaves managing to get free in some manner, and then learning the trust again, to exercise that freedom in ways they desire. And usually to start working against the larger problem by the end, if that’s viable.

        And I can’t figure out if this is argument four “but the slavery is necessary.” It’s genuinely not meant to be, and what’s more, and this is a big one–I’m not looking for your approval. I like you and I think you’re hella smart and I’m going to keep reading and learning from you, but I don’t need you to approve of everything I like. I’m a big girl who can have her problematic faves and be okay with Being Wrong. Mostly, I’m just trying to figure out where the core of your real concern is. Because if it’s in the concept that anything about the state of being enslaved is sexy, then, well. No. No, it’s really fucking not.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Zeenah says:

          I’m heading to bed but three points right quick:

          A) with your friend, I don’t even know what I want beyond us to be able to have conversations about racism in fandom and fanworks that don’t write upset POC talking about this stuff off as wank or censorship instantly and if she ever wants to pass along solutions for how I can develop my own thoughts better and come to these conversations more effectively, I’d be happy to have them. Especially as I’m trying to provide more solutions that aren’t “salt and burn” because… That’s not a solution at all actually and I know that 😩 this is all so complicated but I’ll keep trying to level up and come to these conversations about the fiction better and in ways that are nuanced

          B) and yes exactly like you don’t need my approval and you shouldn’t even want it like what we have – really good conversations where we learn new things through talking to each other – is so good like the thing I am trying to figure out how to walk along the line between information and judgement and it’s hard and talking to you has helped me pause to think “am I helping display an issue in fandom/providing solutions or am I talking about something I am upset by” (which is valid but… Not always helpful outside of the harassment stuff)

          3) I’m going to actually bug you (positively) to run some of the update post past you because it is something I think that I need help with? So once I rework my schedule over the next few weeks I will email you about like… How do we talk about this effectively and acknowledge multiple complexities and everyone’s access to different understandings of what this subgenre of fiction means to them.

          Like

          • militantlyromantic says:

            Also heading to bed, but I can give you an overview on what her thoughts are tomorrow, and yeah, absolutely, use me as a sounding board. Sleep tight!

            Like

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