On tolerance

‘I see that we’re living in two different consciousnesses. It’s necessary for me to understand yours, in order that I survive.’

When it comes to multiculturalism, the word tolerance has always irritated me. Britain is a tolerant society, we’re often told. That’s how multiculturalism thrives. But the word tolerance essentially means reluctantly putting up with any given situation. It doesn’t have the same meaning as the words embrace or welcome.  In the UK, the discourse of multiculturalism has always implied a white country graciously but somewhat reluctantly giving way to the presence of people of colour. The history of colonialism and immigration in this country doesn’t tally with this lie.

We live in a society not particularly passively tolerant, but is instead host to many different cultures, tightly packed together, with plenty of tensions. Some are expressed, some buried. Until I looked at tolerance within racial power constructs, I didn’t really understand its meaning. The tipping point, I think, was coming to my own conclusions about power and race, as well as watching this documentary on vimeo, called ‘The Colour of Fear.’ I don’t know much bout it apart from the fact that it was released over 20 years ago. IMdb informs me that ‘Eight North American men, two African American, two Latinos, two Asian American and two Caucasian were gathered by director Lee Mun Wah, for a dialogue about the state of race relations in America as seen through their eyes. The exchanges are sometimes dramatic, and put in plain light the pain caused by racism in North America.’ 

It’s an hour and a half of a rollercoaster of emotions for those of us interested in race dynamics, white privilege and racism. Do watch it when you have some time fee.

I started thinking. In the conversation about race and racism, a great deal of us, black or white, recognise the injustice that has been done in the past. Fewer might recognise the less overt, structural injustice that still prevails today.  Even less will actually agitate to change it. But to move towards progress, one camp – black, or white – will have to concede. For too long now, those on the receiving end of racism have been the ones to change. We’ve quietly assimilated to demands of colour-blindness, doing away with any evidence of our cultural and heritage in an effort to fit in. We’ve kept our gripes to ourselves, changed our appearance, names, accents, and dress to fit a status quo that was never made for us. Considering the meaning of the word, this phenomenon might just be the best living descriptor of tolerance in 2013. We have bitten our tongues, exercised (not good, but safe) judgement, and tiptoed around white feelings in an effort to not rock the boat. We’ve bent over backwards in an effort to be awarded some crumbs from the table of power. Indeed, we’ve been tolerant up to the point of not even mentioning race lest we’re accused of playing the race card, or actually perpetuating racism by vocalising our opposition to it. So, some of us stopped doing that. Yet, racism is still rife- dangerously, violently rife. Someone has got to give, and I don’t think it can be people of colour any more.

When I think of tolerance, I think of the bravery and honesty of the people of colour who – perhaps recklessly- put their life experiences on trial in an effort to persuade society that white supremacy was suffocating us. I watched the Colour of Fear and was genuinely impressed by the men of colour’s persistence in the face of white denial, and white adversity. In the face of a man who was dedicated to dismissing their experiences. Tolerance is the calm, yet passionate manner in which the majority of the men in the room rebutted his continually racist remarks, even after they had explained their experiences of marginalisation to him. Tolerance is a state of expecting this, yet never accepting it.

There is untold strength in conceding to the denigration of your humanity daily, yet still finding the guts to voice your objections to it. And I can’t quite express my admiration for the men this documentary who were  welcoming and embracing to the bare faced, defiant man, who once confronted with evidence, pain, frustration and personal testimony, took the step to concede his privilege and treat them like human beings. It’s never ending, it’s heart-breaking, it is sad, but it is inspiring, too.

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  1. Joash Lewis says:

    One of the things that jumped out to me from that documentary was the point that one of them made about allowing ourselves (white people) to be changed by other cultures. We have taken some aspects of other cultures and incorporated them but possibly not anything that’s made a fundamental difference to our perceptions. I think he was right about that point, though I haven’t yet figured out how this problem could be addressed. I have some thoughts, but not really certain if they would work, or if there’s anything better.

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