“You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.
I suppose what I really mean is “Beyond Mere Tolerance.” On Dictionary.com you will find the following as the top two definitions for the word “tolerance”:
- 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.
- The act or capacity of enduring; endurance:
My tolerance of noise is limited.
I want to believe that most people are thinking of the first definition when they speak of tolerance—“freedom from bigotry.” Sadly, too many of us live more closely to the second definition. When faced with difference, we merely endure the presence of, and the discomfort that goes along with, those who are not just like us. Yet, we live in a world, and on a campus, that is prolific with people of various races, cultures, nationalities, sexual orientations, gender identities and religious traditions. Additionally, in the academic setting of a highly ranked research institution—class differences often go unnoticed. While there are many ways to move beyond “mere tolerance” here are three tenets I believe point the way, and questions we need to ask ourselves as we face difference.
Respect: Do I claim to accept people as they identify themselves, while fundamentally believing people like me are better/smarter/more virtuous/normal? We can’t respect others when we believe they are in some way inferior to us. The best way to develop respect is to learn more about the differences. The best way to garner respect is to be willing to share so others may learn. Growing up in a conservative Baptist family, learning about LGBTQ people was not even on my radar. Then, in the early 1990s I bought an in-town Atlanta home that included a one-bedroom apartment that was rented to a gay couple. While my religious convictions resisted keeping them as tenants, my economic reality decided that it was better to have tenants with a good track record. It was living in the same building with Pete and James that opened my eyes both to our shared humanity, and their rejection from people like me.
On the other side of the coin, every time a white person wants to touch my dreadlocked hair without my permission, my reflex is to tell them, “touch me and you’ll draw back a nub!” My actual response, however, is to help them understand why they should not invade my personal space and answer any questions they have about texture of my hair. Sure, we get tired of teaching others about what makes us different, but how else will they learn? I may be the only person they know from whom they can get truth.
Authenticity: Do I expect you to be less who you are in order for us to get along? We have become such a polarized society that it’s untenable for us to understand that more than one thing can be true and co-exist. I can be pro-black, female, heterosexual, or Christian without being anti-white, male, gay, or (insert religious tradition here). I can recognize pride in your own heritage without feeling threatened by your expression of it. Of course, the difficulty comes when one’s pride, or expression of it, is felt as oppressive. Your confederate flag is my painful legacy of slavery. My bringing up the name of Jesus is your painful reminder of Quran burners and Holocaust deniers. What would it look like if we practiced some old-fashioned empathy in our encounters? Many of the world’s religious traditions include some form of the belief in treating others as you would like to be treated. This is not an idyllic dream. It requires discipline and the desire to move beyond ideology to community. It means recognizing that sometimes the needs of the many do outweigh the needs of the few, or the one. Yeah, I went a little “Star Trek” on you.
Intentional community—Am I willing to recognize that we will always be able to serve the world better together in our diversity; and not by just one of us being “right”? We know the Martin Luther King quote that says, “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.” However, when we invoke Dr. King, we often think of lofty goals that only great leaders can achieve. Yet, community is made one relationship at a time. It is one encounter at a time where we are intentional about learning from one another, respectfully and authentically. For many of us, that is in sharing a meal and/or a drink to hear one another’s stories. In that spirit I will end with a quote from a man whom most of us have made very rich. It’s simple and it’s meaningful. Both things can be true at the same time.
“I was taken by the power that savoring a simple cup of coffee can have to connect people and create community.”
~~Howard Schultz, Founder of Starbucks
By Dean Bridgette Young Ross