by Tawnya Pettiford-Wates, Ph.D.
Founder and Artistic Director
The Conciliation Project
TOLERANCE is the practice or principle of permitting or enduring, for a time, a thing of which one disapproves or disagrees, such as social, ethnic, sexual, or religious beliefs and practices. (Oxford Dictionary)
By this definition of tolerance, the pursuit of diversity and equity becomes a daunting task. The good intentions behind the word “tolerance” seem lofty, however the platform for diversity becomes very shaky when balanced on the foundational belief that all we have to do is infuse “tolerance” into the conversation. Why? Tolerance is not permanent but rather a temporary behavior. As demonstrated practice tolerance says that when confronted by the thing, person or belief system with which you disagree you must be tolerant of said person, thing or belief while it’s within your sphere of influence or proximity. Once that “thing” is no longer in your presence you can revert to your former state of intolerance. Is an unwillingness or refusal to tolerate or respect contrary opinions, beliefs, persons or things unlike or in opposition to your own intolerance? Whether it is or not makes no difference. The practice and principle of tolerance itself is problematic.
When I have a toothache, I tolerate it until I can either see a dentist or get some medication. What I want is to either eliminate the aching tooth or the pain it causes. As women we tolerate menstrual cramps. We hold on until they pass or we take medication to mitigate the pain. We do not appreciate these painful and uncomfortable encounters. On the contrary we mostly dread them. We hold our breath in anticipation of the discomfort they are going to inflict upon us. We grit our teeth and tolerate it until the time has passed for our monthly visitation. We can then once again exhale. Some people tolerate their in-laws, counting down the time before they can once again be free from the charade of “acting” like they are happy for the encounter. In each of the above examples, tolerance is the strategy employed in order to manage or to make it through the discomfort and awkwardness of having to do something or be in the presence of people with which we disagree or are not comfortable.
Ahhhh there is the rub! The pretense of agreement or compatibility in order to pass the time of discomfort until that discomfort goes away. As an African American woman, I am not satisfied at all by being tolerated. I am disgusted by it in a way that the hair on the back of my neck comes to attention when I hear the word. I do not appreciate, value, respect or even, at times, acknowledge it.
Although the practice of tolerance has certainly contributed to moving the cause of freedom and social justice forward, it is now time (past time) to actually engage in some critical discourse about its effectiveness. A movement towards the recognition and appreciation of diverse cultures, pluralistic perspectives and social agendas calls us to a re-examination of the use of tolerance in place of a more progressive and inclusive discussion.
Tolerance is not the answer to our pursuit of diversity and equity. It cannot be used as the foundation or “touchstone” to foster an atmosphere of inclusivity or pluralism. The state of our union is multicultural and increasingly less the place that our forebearers would recognize and more the place that they could only have dreamed of as possible. Just as my foremothers and fathers could not tolerate slavery in any of its forms and through massive resistance turned the hearts and consciousness of a people towards the bend of justice and freedom. They moved the cause of freedom and justice forward. That movement towards transformation could never have occurred if tolerance was the catalyst for the undertaking to abolish the buying, selling and enslavement of black, brown and red bodies. Black people never wanted to be slaves. I recognize that as an enslaved people they had to wake up every day with the hope that the nightmare of their enslavement would someday end. No one wanted freedom and equity more than the slaves themselves. Throughout the course of history, some may have time to wait. To tolerate something intolerable until something better comes along. In the face of the heinous institution of slavery, segregation, Jim Crow and the like, tolerance was not an option. To “wait” was to die enslaved and without full citizenship in the human race.
The state of our union is multicultural and increasingly less the place that our forebearers would recognize and more the place that they could only have dreamed of as possible.
I want to remove the word tolerance from the discourse around diversity, equity and inclusion. I don’t want to refer to people of diverse race, class, religious affiliation, gender identity, or orientation as something to be tolerated. I do not want to be tolerated. I have been tolerated and the outcome most often creates an atmosphere of exclusion, dissention, disdain, disrespect or being marginalized and/or completely ignored.
What we need is a climate that recognizes and truly appreciates diversity and difference and cultivates an atmosphere of inclusion. Just like preparing the soil to plant a garden so too must our public institutions, civic departments, and organizations prepare the environmental soil to receive diversity and embrace it with strategic action. We must employ action that critically analyzes the need for diversity; action that acknowledges the presence of privilege and traditional power dynamics as possible threats to diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives; action that has an appreciation and recognition of our own inadequacies when confronted with “differences” in racial, intellectual perspectives or cultural values that are not our own. We need the commitment to stay the course through the awkward “un-knowing” and in that awkwardness, we need to possess a sense of humility that allows us to ask questions and learn what we never could by only reading a book on the subject. We need a sense of humility that can be difficult to claim but essential to have if we are going to truly embrace the diversity that so enriches us whether we want to admit it or not.