What’s tone got to do with it? (when you’re talking about race and other issues of justice)

toneby Sachi Feris

The other day my dad was visiting and I overheard an exchange between him and my daughter around the brushing of her teeth. My dad kept turning the water off, impressing upon my daughter the importance of not wasting water. My daughter, an only recent user of toothpaste (who wanted the water on so she could cup some water into her hand to successfully spit out the toothpaste), heard none of his speech and ended up in tears.

Later that evening, my dad emailed me a link related to sustainability with a note that perhaps this would help my daughter understand why she should not waste clean water.

I emailed my Dad (who edits every post for Raising Race Conscious Children before it goes live!) back:

“Dad, we talk about not wasting energy and water—but you misunderstood her (my daughter/his granddaughter) when she was trying to communicate with you…”

I went on to tell him that I had been thinking (prior to this exchange) about the impact of tone in conversations about race and how the same words can have such a different impact based on tone.

“Because,” my email continued, “I might have said something really similar about not wasting water—but she didn’t take it that well from you, no offence.”

Fortunately, my dad took none and, in fact, agreed with me.

I come from memories of my dad trying to convince me to keep kosher for Passover or fast for Yom Kippur by saying things like, “There are millions of people in this world who would be glad to have you drop dead this very second just because you are Jewish.” (In this case, the above is not an example of something I would say to my children.)

I thought of my dad most particularly when I was talking to my daughter about homelessness as well as while we were in Chiapas ; indeed, the actual words I used were words I know he might have used with me—and yet my experience of those words was to feel admonished—not to empower me to do something about injustice (which is what I hope my children get from me!).

For many adults, experiences of waste (whether wasting, water, energy, or food) can press hot buttons based on their own life experiences.

The words I heard: “You have to eat everything on your plate because there are some children in this world who don’t have enough food to eat.”

…were not so different from the words my husband and I have actually used with my daughter. Minus the “have to,” my husband and I have explained the same thing to my daughter:

“You know, it really makes me sad when we waste food—because remember when we saw children in Chiapas asking for food on the street? They were asking for food because they didn’t have enough to eat—and that isn’t fair. So I don’t like it when we waste our food.”

When I hear my husband saying them and remember how my dad said them to me in my head, they sound completely different. As my dad added in his acquiescing email response:

“Agreed. Tone and Words and Attitude!”

I felt my dad’s words had come from a place of anger. Whereas my husband’s feel like they come from a place of calm and compassion—a place where learning is possible.

As we talk about in Raising Race Conscious Children’s interactive webinars, talking about race (and poverty and other issues related to social justice) is a matter of practice—please consider taking an hour and a half of your time to commit to this practice on June 5th for our interactive webinar.


Sachi Feris is a blogger at Raising Race Conscious Children, an online a resource to support adults who are trying to talk about race with young children. Sachi also co-facilitates interactive workshops/webinars and small group workshop series on how to talk about race with young children. Sachi currently teaches Spanish to Kindergarten and 1st grade at an independent school in Brooklyn. Sachi identifies as White and is a mother to a four-year-old daughter and eight-month-old son.