Life’s Matters: Social Tolerance is Unacceptable
Social tolerance is an elusive apparition. Meant to foster amicable human relations, it can backfire and serve as a veneer over a burbling cesspool of loathing, distrust, and disregard of the “other.” The intentions behind tolerance often are undermined through ignorance or deliberate veiled hatred born of fear and greed. The solution to moving past tolerance into acceptance is simple but far from easy.
Dictionary.com lists the first definition of tolerance as “a fair, objective, and permissive attitude toward those whose opinions, beliefs, practices, racial or ethnic origins, etc., differ from one’s own; freedom from bigotry.” This definition resides closer to social acceptance which I will discuss in a future post. In theory, tolerance is a good idea, but my lived experience of the effects of tolerance is very different from this definition.
A white friend of my mother’s gave her rides to church, sent her money for her birthday, and spent hours with her in prayer and Bible study. He was fond of telling a fabricated story about her childhood in which, as a five-year-old, she allegedly was strapped to her mother’s back while my grandmother picked cotton. Even if the story was true, my reticent mother would never have told anyone and certainly not a white person. He created the story in his mind as a way of elevating his relationship with an elderly black woman. He wanted the world to know he tolerated black people. He covertly boasted, “See, I’m nice to black people. I don’t have a problem with prejudice,” drawing attention to his uneasiness. He laughed each time he told the story, truly relishing the moment and complimenting himself for his clever ruse. He even told the story at my mother’s funeral a year and a half ago.
Laws and rulings are handed down by people who intend that everyone receives equal opportunities to participate in the fullness of life. Mandates carry the message that certain practices are not okay, and they outline the consequences for violation. Without mandates, unbridled attacks in all forms would be commonplace with no mechanism for recourse, and we would live in anarchy. Laws are necessary, but their reach is limited.
Laws do not influence the deep-rooted foundations of bigotry and hatred, which are ignorance, fear, and greed. Laws send the message that we are unwilling or unable to regulate ourselves, so someone must do it for us. Mandates do not change people’s minds and may reinforce negative thoughts and feelings, as mandates fail to alter ingrained beliefs. Laws provide fertile ground for what I call “festering tolerance” and can worsen already strained situations as individuals are forced to allow into their world people they detest. Bigotry and hatred continue to percolate beneath the veneer of tolerance.
An example of mandated tolerance is when employers are required to hire a certain number or percentage of racial minorities, women, or people with disabilities. Companies may face financial sanctions if minimum requirements are unsatisfied, so they scramble to ensure compliance. However, the company’s workforce culture may be one of oppression and marginalization that impedes the promotions of targeted populations into positions of responsibility and power. The employees who were tolerated in the hiring process were not accepted into the workforce. Hiring managers saw them as nothing more than check-offs on a list rather than seizing the opportunity to enrich the company’s culture for the betterment of everyone.
I worked in the headquarters of a large insurance and financial services corporation. My boss was a senior employee with an associate’s degree. When her job description changed, I inherited her former duties plus new ones. I performed duties that exceeded my boss’s, and I had more years of seniority. Additionally, I had earned a bachelor’s degree which the company funded. Upper management refused to promote me beyond the non-management level, despite several attempts by me to persuade their judgment. I approached upper management several times, and each time they denied my request. I began to receive performance evaluations that indicated my work was mediocre, rather than the glowing comments that graced previous reports. During this period a white male who was on track to receive his degree about eight months after I received mine was promoted in anticipation of his forthcoming achievement. The college degree got white employees promotions but not me. The company also routinely placed new employees with college degrees into junior management positions. My experience is that the “ebony ceiling” is much lower than the “glass ceiling.”
Because rules and laws mandate tolerance, they set up opportunities for covert discrimination. For instance, proprietors can no longer ban black people from restaurants, movie theaters, and restrooms, but bigotry and hatred continue to rage in their minds. Several years ago, I was in a restaurant with nine white friends. The hostess seated us in a booth at a round table. The waitress taking our orders failed to see me. She took orders beginning with the person on my left and proceeded around the table finishing with the person on my right. She cheerfully announced, “We’ll have these ready for you in a few moments.” I raised my hand to get her attention and said I also would like to order. She responded with a terse, “And, what do you want?” She took my order and turned away from the table, leaving us stunned. After a prolonged silence, one of my friends muttered, “I can’t believe I just saw that.” My friends accepted me and believed others accepted me as well. None of us complained to the manager either because we were speechless or out of fear of retaliation. Protesting discrimination is never easy and is often unsafe and can even be unsanitary. We have read about wait staff mishandling or spitting in the food of complainers.
More recently, I visited the same restaurant with my son and his white girlfriend. There was a large bug in Angie’s salad, which we pointed out to the waitress. The manager offered us a free slice of pie and said Angie would receive a new salad. This time, I protested and let him know the offer was unacceptable. He finally gave us coupons for free meals and desserts which we used at a different restaurant in the chain. In both restaurant instances, we were tolerated as patrons of the restaurant, but not given the respect of acceptance.
Blatant intolerance, though shocking and difficult to understand, paints an honest, accurate picture of hatred that is unsurmountable. During an interview, a white supremacist stated he is not interested in fairness. He clearly and unashamedly does not care about other people particularly those different from him. For him and others like him, tolerance is not a consideration, and acceptance is an unrecognizable concept. They fail to comprehend the word equal, nor do they want to. Enraged by the audacity of oppressed people to speak out and take steps to eliminate their suffering, the intolerant people retaliate with increased oppression and propaganda. They base their hatred on such traits as skin color, eye shape, gray hair, disability, or gender rather than the merits of the individual. They attack the beliefs and practices of anyone who disagrees with them. They do not consider the humanity of others. Indeed, they may see others as aberrations of humanity. They are immovable in their bigotry, and there’s little hope of convincing them otherwise.
Another group of white people who obviously don’t want to face reality and accept equality are the deniers who vehemently resist elucidations and want to lumber along as if all is well. They want to pretend the problems are minimal, or even non-existent. They make such remarks as “Racism is dead,” “Racism doesn’t exist in the North, or in Iowa,” or “Women are working in non-traditional jobs. Isn’t that enough?” They want to stop talking about inequality and injustice. In a recent conversation, a white woman asked me in a defiant tone, “Well, your life is better than it was in the sixties, isn’t it?” When I tried to share with her the hazards I continue to face, she became silent and refused to continue the conversation. It’s easier to deny racism when you aren’t the one getting bugs in your salad.
Minorities, themselves, can sometimes be intolerant. Internalized oppression is an intra-cultural implosion in which one turns against one’s own group. This phenomenon sometimes develops in black communities. During the racial upheaval of the 1960s, blacks were seen destroying their own neighborhoods. The stress of unacceptance by mainstream society must express somewhere, and when people feel helpless against their oppressors, they vent against those closest and most vulnerable—other blacks, poor people, women, children, the elderly, LGBTQ, people with disabilities, and neighborhood businesses.
I understand all of this, which does not make living it easier. The emotional devastation of oppression spawned by tolerance is difficult to experience and can contribute to depression, anxiety, and feelings of low self-worth. People who can least afford counseling for emotional support are left to their own inadequate devices to navigate a system that routinely excludes them. The problems escalate to violence in all its forms—physical, mental and emotional, sexual—horrific acts perpetrated not just against things, but humans against other humans.
Social tolerance carries an undercurrent of selfishness and exclusion. It can cover a lot of ills, but it’s a beginning. Mandated tolerance changes society’s overt behavior, but not entrenched beliefs. The next step, acceptance, is possible but only when citizens see the worth of the mandates as they interact with other people. With rules of courtesy and behavior mandates, we’re all challenged to look beyond the race, the gender, the age, the person with a disability, the people who don’t fit our definition of the “gold standard” of humanity. We can use uncomfortable situations to learn acceptance of people different from us. We can reach out and start conversations with an open, curious mind and build relationships once those conversations take root. Transformation occurs with repeated exposure and a willingness to learn. We can’t force other people to change, but without learning civil behavior, there is zero chance of conversion. Tolerance can lead to acceptance but only for those willing to explore the possibilities.
Billie Wade is a gregarious introvert whose primary interests are writing, lifelong learning, personal development, and how we all are affected by life’s vagaries. Issues facing black people, women, the LGBTQ community, and aging adults are of particular concern to her. She enjoys open-hearted dialogue with diverse people. She is experienced in human resources employee services administration, chemical dependency counseling, and magazine publishing editorial assistant. The opinions expressed here are her own.
Is Teaching Tolerance the Solution or the Problem? Psychology Today