The right to demand change

Two women sit in an office, one asks: "What's the difference between being assertive and being aggressive?" The other replies: "Your gender." (Cartoon by Judy Horacek, 1999.)

When a person of a marginalized group (read: a person with less privilege, a person with lower rank) is being framed and blamed as being aggressive, she is being told that her behavior is unacceptable. Marginalized people have learnt that they need to comply to fit, and are likely to suppress their feelings. By being framed as aggressive, the marginalized person is also being told that what they are saying cannot be listened to because the way they are saying it does not comply with expectations. There is a word for this: tone policing. This great comic by Robot Hugs has all the important details. Tone policing is a silencing tactic in which privileged participants of a discussion one-sidedly define the terms of the conversation. This tactic has the interesting side effect of shifting the responsibility to prove that one is not {aggressive, hostile, explosive, a minefield, etc.} to the person being framed and blamed - proving that one is worthy to be listened to. (Some of those words are actual quotes taken from real life.)

Years ago, I worked in a company in which my female developer colleague would put herself in a state of overly expressed sorriness, all the while pretending to be stupid and helpless whenever she needed to ask anything from the sysadmins. When I confronted her with that, she replied: "I do it because it works." In the same company, another woman who generally asked assertively for what she needed ended up being insulted by one of the project managers using the word "dominatrix". While the example comes from my own experience, this kind of thing happens across any oppression/privilege boundaries.

In some conversations, be they verbal or written, frustration and anger of one person are sometimes being mistaken by the communication partner for aggressiveness. Why is this happening? Asking a person with privilege to see, question, or change their behavior, questions their privilege. I'm thinking that it might be that most people think of themselves as "being good"—and when they are being asked to question themselves or their behavior, their self-image is being challenged. "Me? But I did not do anything wrong! It's certainly not my fault if you are being oppressed! I sacrificed myself to reach my current position in life!" This comic by Toby Morris, "On a Plate", explains it quite nicely.

So are we stuck with seeing conversations derail? I'd argue instead that while anger and frustration are unpleasant feelings, they're important: they show us that our boundaries have been crossed, that we want something to change, to stop, or that we need something different right now. We have the right to be angry and to demand change.