Where have decades of American "tolerance" gotten us? | Opinion | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Where have decades of American "tolerance" gotten us?

You’ll forgive me for applying the over-used technique of using a dictionary definition for an introduction, but you just have to read this:

Tolerance, a noun, is described by Merriam-Webster dictionary online as “the capacity to endure what is difficult or disagreeable without complaining.”

“The capacity to endure ...” — the hardship of dealing with something or, more to our point, someone, you do not actually want to deal with or confront.

“... what is difficult ...” What is the what? What exactly is difficult, a person with a different color skin? Someone with a different gender identity than you, a different path of faith? 

“... or disagreeable without complaining.” Just a way of saying, “I don’t like it but I will put up with it without saying how much I dislike it.” Now is that something to strive for? Is tolerance in any way a true goal for a just society? 

Is the goal that I, as a Black woman in America, am to be tolerated? Tolerated?! The very idea of it makes my blood boil. A decade ago or so at an event, an older white man talked about tolerance in all of its flourished and flowery language. I told him rather bluntly that I "didn’t want to be tolerated. Imagine if I said to you, ‘I will tolerate you.’ How does that make you feel?” 

The pain and crimson undertone that instantly appeared on in his face answered me where his words failed. After a long pause, he finally said, “Wow, I never thought about it that way.”

Of course he hadn't. The belief that tolerance is a goal exists because of a sense of hierarchy and value based on color, gender, class, ability, age. This white man could never imagine being just "tolerated" in America. 

Now think of all of the times this word has been used to attempt to induce, elicit, or encourage cross-cultural understanding. 

“He taught us tolerance,” someone said of Mister Rogers when the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor was released last year.

Mister Rogers said of tolerance, “Mutual caring relationships require kindness and patience, tolerance, optimism, joy in other’s achievements, confidence in oneself ...” 

Tolerance only makes any sense as a concept with people in actual relation with one another. Not just societal or in theory. You tolerate a partner’s snoring or movie habits. But you do not tolerate the existence of entire peoples or a person. It is the dangerous employment of a hierarchical system of power without acknowledging privilege and power. 

It is not a step toward justice. Where have centuries of American "tolerance" gotten us? Part of our regressive or slow progress toward an equitable society is due to our focus on this concept. 

Tolerance is a low hanging fruit with no juice. 

Instead of tolerating someone — try listening, reflecting, honoring, learning, and celebrating our differences. We say that our differences are what make us special, that America's multiculturalism is a special strength of our nation. This rich cultural tapestry is also an essential part of Pittsburgh. It is a reflection of the beauty of what makes us human.