Who is being heard?

Bridget Harilaou on the power dynamics that shape the way we listen to others

Bridget Harilaou on the power dynamics that shape the way we listen to others

It is always extremely obvious to me, in both social situations and formal activist spaces, who is speaking – a lot of the time it’s me. I am loud, I’m extremely talkative, I know how to carry a conversation and keep it flowing and I’ve never had a problem interacting in large groups. I don’t get drowned out because I’m confident, and I come from a culture where butting in, shouting over the top of each other, and being raucous is how you know a conversation is going well.

I see this as my personality, able-bodied and neurotypical1 privilege (in particular, but of course my cis, straight, thin, middle-class privilege too) outweighing the fact that I am a wom*n of colour, especially as I do not have social anxiety or any neurological difficulties with understanding social cues and social communication. In this way, I manage to speak out, have my voice heard, and usually even direct the conversation so that people who do not speak up as often can have their turn. There is a fine art to facilitating meetings or social interactions, so that privileged voices do not dominate, and it’s something I am still working on.

There are still problems when I manage to speak up though, and I often get labelled as too aggressive or dominant, by both white people and people of colour. Apparently, having the audacity to call things out, speak bluntly and do so confidently is threatening, and many then feel justified in taking issue with ‘how’ I speak or go about conversation. This is called tone policing.

Not only does tone policing derail a conversation from the actual issue that is being discussed, it places the onus upon wom*n of colour to act ‘politely’. The racist undertones of comments like these is that what is deemed ‘polite’ is distinctly cultural – and in a White Supremacist society, it is distinctly White. Phrasing a sentence as a question or a statement, using words like please and thank you, the directness of speech and how a problem with someone is articulated, are all deeply ingrained in culture. By placing one set of cultural norms for ‘politeness’ over any other culture, you perpetuate racial superiority and racial hierarchies.

This easily leads to the stereotype of the ‘angry feminist’ or the ‘angry black wom*n’ or the ‘angry brown girl’. A stereotype that is used to devalue and de-rationalise wom*n of colour, as if we are not capable of logical argument. By defining emotion as the sole basis for our arguments, wom*n of colour are cast as irrational, as if we are the ones who ‘don’t understand’. Honestly, the audacity of White people (some who claim to be feminists: White Feminists™) to feel as though they are the victims of people of colour’s unjustified anger and then agree with each other about how they are right, shows just how successful White supremacy is in creating psyches that could not possibly fathom their own privilege.

Respectability politics also plays a role in defining politeness, and what is a palatable person of colour, or a likeable wom*n of colour. Apparently there is a way to go about our oppression nicely and politely. Not only must we give up our culture to assimilate, and any hope of ever truly receiving equal treatment, we must talk about this process in a palatable way, lest we be labelled aggressive or a bully.

Even when activist movements or events make an effort to create space for the voices of wom*n of colour, I notice who speaks first. I was recently at an event run by the USYD Wom*n’s Collective, and on a panel with only trans wom*n, where a majority were Aboriginal trans wom*n, who do you think spoke first after every single question?2 The unspoken code between White people that they unconsciously relate to each other is so extremely obvious to me, and I know where the authority lies. But let me ask you. Who do you think spoke first? Who did the White facilitator make eye contact with to answer questions?

Who is being heard?

1 A person with typical neurological structures and functions.

2 A cookie for every Whitey who guessed: the only white person on the panel!