A good friend of mine is a Traditional. That means he is a few years older than I and falls into the generation that preceded my own Baby Boomer group. Naturally I talk with him about my work in the area of diversity, inclusion and unconscious bias. In a conversation, he said something to the effect that he sees great progress in Americans’ “tolerance.”
I reacted with surprise to this word. What does “tolerance” mean? One dictionary defines it 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.” A 2013 study measured the progress of tolerance across the globe. The researchers measured “tolerance” by “the frequency with which people in a certain country said they would not want neighbors of a different race.”
The general approach to diversity and inclusion has evolved over my lifetime. When our schools were first integrated, the term “tolerance” was probably fitting. We were emerging from Jim Crow days. A decade ago, we wanted teachers to teach our children tolerance. Today, in 2016, we talk about the business value of diversity. We talk about the need to have inclusive cultures so we can have diversity – and its benefits. We talk about uprooting the unconscious bias that gets in the way of inclusiveness – and causes issues still dividing out nation.
We still claim greater “tolerance.” Research shows that “not only have Americans become more tolerant on the whole, but individual generations, especially Baby Boomers (born 1946–1964), have each shown increasing tolerance regarding multiple social issues, most predominately homosexuality.” We remain intolerant mostly of racism!
To me, “tolerance” means “putting up with.” It brings to mind thoughts like: I don’t like carrots but I can pick them out of a salad; I don’t like you but I will endure your presence; you can live in the neighborhood adjacent to mine, but not in my neighborhood; I have prejudices about your group, but I will not speak or act on them.
We have moved beyond this. We don’t aspire to be more tolerant of those that are different in color, race, gender, or sexual orientation or identity. Tolerance beats intolerance, but it sets a very low bar — the absence of dislike, discrimination or bias. The benefits of diversity require that we move much further – to inclusion, which means appreciating and leveraging our differences.