Please Don't Tolerate Me

I'm dating now and it's a great relationship. He tolerates me. Well, tolerates me about as much as I tolerate my children. I sure hope they are grateful.


What feelings might be invoked while reading the above statement? Pity? Disgust? “What-kind-of-parent-tolerates-their-kid” feelings? Are you wondering what kind of parent simply tolerates their children, or what kind of person would remain in a relationship in which they are tolerated and not valued? Are you thinking, "Wow. You and your children deserve better." I think about how it sounds to change the scenario every time I hear people advancing an argument for tolerance for members of our society who experience marginalization.

When I speak, in general, my audience tends to be people who describe themselves as progressive. However, sometimes in these conversations with self-described Progressives, the conversation turns to hopes of tolerance. I’ll be honest. It sometimes catches me off guard. Language always matters, and I, within my world of privilege sometimes and a lack of privilege at other times, never want to be “tolerated.”

There has historically been an emphasis of tolerance with the word often being used as a tag line, something to be taught. But when we consider what it means and personalize it to ourselves and personal relationships, it is clear that “tolerance” simply does not go far enough with creating a just world.

Another way of thinking about this is to consider tolerating pain. Indeed, the experiences of marginalization and disadvantage are painful, as debilitating as physical pain. One statement that I frequently make in trainings is, "we tolerate a toothache. Maybe. But, I tell you, if I have a toothache, I am committed to getting rid of it." In the same vein, I don't expect my partner to tolerate me but to be committed to me. If I only tolerated my children, they would have far fewer tools at their disposal. I am committed to ensuring that they have access to all the social, economic, and emotional capital that I have at my disposal. That’s not tolerance. That is commitment.

Consider this: how do we feel when we know that we are being tolerated? Indeed, we can FEEL when we are tolerated and not valued - when there is no commitment. It has an impact on our esteem, an impact on our ability to use our voice, even an impact on our posture. When we are valued and held in high regard, it literally effects the way we hold our bodies. Take for example research on implicit bias and stereotype threat. Stereotype threat is the “immediate and situational predicament” in which people are, or feel themselves to be, at risk of conforming to stereotypes about their social group (Steele and Aronson, 1995). The impact of the stereotype threat on learning and performance is visceral and powerful, as stereotype threats and stereotype vulnerability have been shown to drive down performance on standardized tests and other tasks when students perceive negative stereotypes to be present. The original explanation was this: when experiencing the stress of present negative stereotypes, students become anxious. That anxiety then has an impact on and decreases the performance of the working memory (Steele and Aronson, 1995). The working memory, or the part of the memory that is concerned with immediate conscious perceptual and linguistic processing, is a necessary part of the learning process. Stress can diminish the capacity of the working memory, as attention is focused on the stressor. In this context, the stressor is the awareness of an existing prejudgment. It is necessary for information to be held temporarily in the working, or short-term memory. If the short term and working memories are impaired, it never moves over to the long-term memory, where learned material is retained. Therefore, regardless of the ability of the student, performance is tied to the social context. Additionally, if students perceive discrimination of a marginalized group of which they are a member, their ability to perform declines. Reminding students of their marginalized status within the social context compounds the issue and drives down the performances even more. 

Even as this is the case, it is not likely that teachers are intentionally responding to students in a way to demonstrate (purposely) their biases. A good number of the teachers are practicing tolerance and see themselves as good, kind hearted, saviors of some sort. Nevertheless, they are not committed to ensuring the success of these students, who are well aware of the institutional biases that exist within the classroom. And even as they are aware, an emphasis on tolerance denies those same students a voice in that systemically marginalizing space. Implicit biases are unaffected by tolerance and students are well aware. This is a clear demonstration of how “tolerance” can impact performance.

When we advocate for tolerance we absolve those with privilege of doing the work to ensure equity. When we advocate for tolerance we say that we tolerate difference rather than see value in it. This maintains a structure of inequity as those with the privilege and power to make systemic changes are absolved of any responsibility to DO anything. At the same time, we know from extensive research that celebrating and acknowledging difference in the classroom and in the workplace leads to more productivity, creativity, and increased performance, as all voices are heard. In our communities, recognizing and acknowledging difference decreases fear of “the other” rather than increasing it.  

To be fair, I myself am not exempt. I recognize that I have privilege - I am able bodied, I am cisgendered, I identify as heterosexual. With these privileges, I have a responsibility to advocate WITH and work alongside those who are marginalized by these demographic categories. I don't simply tolerate. I work to learn. I listen. I acknowledge that I do not know and that I have not arrived at the end of my journey in Allyship, or the Good Ship Ally, as I like to call it. And with every opportunity, I work.

We don’t tolerate our loved ones. We are committed to their success and their survival. Tolerance of our loved one denotes annoyance, a feeling of "if I must..." Similarly, we don't tolerate toothaches... we could, but that's painful. The pain of disadvantage and marginalization is not a malady of those who are marginalized, but it is a malady affecting the entire society. We have several toothaches in need of repair. Why tolerate a toothache when we can be committed to getting rid of it? And not with bandaid solution. But instead. Let's get to the root of it. 

Please don’t tolerate me. Be committed to building a more equitable world for us all.