Rethinking the Teaching of Tolerance In the Era of #BlackLivesMatter

Tolerance is the virtue of the man without convictions.

G.K. Chesterton

Truth be told, I have always held the opinion that it is never too early to initiate formulations for the upcoming school year. Given the Black Lives Matter international movement, growing self-reflections and focus on anti-racism, and deafening call for global equity for all people of colour, I started digging into what equity, respect, compassion, and kindness might look like in a classroom through inquiry and project-based learning opportunities. How can we tackle something so massive, so ingrained that has permeated every corner of western society?

Some initial thoughts led me to focusing on a theme wrapped in and around specific words: compassion, gratitude, integrity, empathy, and respect. You know the big ones. Interestingly, one word that is often used with these others is ‘tolerance’. Yet, I somehow cannot bring myself to add it to the list. I wondered. Perhaps tolerance is an antiquated and ineffectual human schema whose utility has come to an end. At least that’s what my intuition continues to whisper in my ear.

I suppose a big red flag that arises with the term ‘tolerance’ itself is that there exists no clear decisive, agreed upon explication. See for yourself. Google ‘tolerance definition’ and you will see nearly a dozen definitions with no distinctive line. Everything from “accepting other’s ideas and beliefs”, “sympathy or indulgence for beliefs or practices differing from or conflicting with one’s own” to the Oxford online dictionary: “The ability or willingness to tolerate the existence of opinions or behaviour that one dislikes or disagrees with.” Awkward. Still other social justice organizations have advocated for the definition of tolerance to be broadened.

Synonyms for tolerance also appear just as mystifying. A quick search for equivalents include sufferance, resilience, toughness, resistance, and strength (to name just a few). Sure, we know those individuals who have a high pain or cold tolerance; those tough, hearty folk. We know that tolerance is also a term used in structural engineering to the limits of a physical property of a specific material. But for reasons that I still have to work through, applying the term of tolerance to racism and anti-racism movement seems like a far stretch though. And the idea of teaching the ‘concept of tolerance’ as it applies to social justice is simply…laughable.

It has become accepted that humans are not born with a sense of empathy; it is a much needed human trait that must be learned. But what about tolerance? Does anyone actually teach tolerance? Can I learn to be tolerant of others differences? If so, what would that look like? Is tolerance really patience? Is someone whose is tolerant also in possession of resilience? Low and behold. There exists a mountain resources on teaching tolerance (again I suggest a brief internet search to confirm). My intuition, however, has convinced me that teaching tolerance in our classrooms does very little to address systemic racism. In fact, I feel that teaching the concept of tolerance in the modern era of social justice might serve to maintain white superiority and the distinctive lines of inequity between shades of skin colours.

I recall (not fondly) growing up in the 1970s and 1980s that ‘showing tolerance’ to each other was frequently utilized as the catch-all phrase in anti-bullying campaigns across Ontario. If you were a tolerant person, so goes the Catholic dogma, you were a good person. Live and let live. Good people suffered the indulgences and wrongs of others. Mercifully, there is hope that teaching tolerance through religious studies is being revisited and re-imagined by sectarian educators. Of course, I’m not a social scientist, but I can’t help but think that a huge part of early formative education was rooted in tolerance (Think: Love thy neighbour as thyself.) and its practicality is being called into question.

Tolerance implies no lack of commitment to one’s own beliefs. Rather it condemns the oppression or persecution of others.

John F. Kennedy

As a part of our collective class journey this coming fall we will delve into the once uncharted (but often messy) public discourse around white supremacy, colonialism, and how we view ourselves as part of the larger collective of systemic racism. I would like to suggest that compassion, understanding, kindness, and empathy have much larger and influential roles to play than we think. Teaching (and modelling for) our students the tools of empathy, kindness, and the thinking of the other will have a far greater impact than simply asking them to ‘show tolerance’ towards those who are different from our self.

Teaching children to ‘be tolerant’ of people of colour, people that are different, is in no way similar to American author, Ibram X. Kendi’s, anti-racism approach to addressing social inequity (i.e. saying that I am not a racist does not make me an anti-racist). Kendi argues that in order to be anti-racist one must acknowledge their privilege in society. They must acknowledge that their skin colour offered them certain benefits. Declaring that “I’m not a racist” doesn’t make it so. It changes nothing. To ask and to expect children to ‘be tolerant of others’ in spite of their differences will not change the prejudiced, the judged, or the inequity structure. Expecting and receiving tolerance in this era simply nothing perpetuates the cycles of system racism.

Dr. Ibram X. Kendi explains the difference between racism and anti-racism.

I will be spending the next several weeks, reading more about anti-racism and continue to dig deeper into possible weighty project opportunities aiming to connect individual and the global movement to address and destroy systemic racism. I can’t help but recognize the importance of addressing the notion of social tolerance, helping my students to understand how it not only weakens genuine relationships with the self and others but also subverts all authentic efforts to bring forward an anti-racism dialogues during the year in our classroom through a healthy, honest, and sustainable practice.

A lot to chew on over the next several weeks (and months) ahead…

Dearest Reader: What anti-racism resources are you reading? Which ones do you recommend? Please feel free to share.


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