May 1, 2011

Tolerance and Respect

For years I've been a subscriber to the Teaching Tolerance newsletter and have used their website as a resource for lesson plans that I use in my classroom. I've tried to impress upon my students the notion that difference isn't bad--it's what makes the world interesting.  I encourage tolerance for differences of opinion and teach my children and my students to listen to and reflect on a variety of viewpoints. Tolerance is a core value in my belief system. But lately I've wondered: is it enough?

Earth Day: stomping newly lain sod.
Earth Day weekend my youngest daughter and I worked with a local volunteer organization to beautify the grounds at her elementary school. All three of my children attend our neighborhood elementary school and it is extremely diverse (58% non-white.) Their school is labeled as "failing" according to NCLB guidelines, but I think it is an amazing place and wouldn't want my children to be anywhere else. We live in Iowa, and there are few schools in the state that better represent the diversity of our world. My husband and I feel strongly that it is important for our children to attend school where there are families that are like ours, with parents from different cultures, ethnic backgrounds, races and ethnicities. We teach our children that all people have the right to fall in love with whomever they want--regardless of color, religion or gender. We teach them to do more than to tolerate differences--we teach them to respect differences.

I'd like to live in a world where we all practice more than where we show each other genuine respect...

...which is why I was flabbergasted by the comment of a fellow parent during the Earth Day event at our school.

After a solid hour of laying new sod, my daughter took a break and ran to play on the playground. A younger girl went to play with her while we parents continued to work. A few minutes later, the mother of the younger girl--a woman whom I know fairly well--asked if I could keep an eye on her daughter while she ran inside to use the restroom. She said that her daughter was over there on the playground with mine. She said they were playing together and that it was good for her daughter. "She's getting in some multicultural time."

My jaw dropped.

I still do not understand.

Two girls were having fun on the playground. They were playing together. I am certain that neither one even thought about the color of the other child's skin. Neither one thought about the races of their parents. They were just two girls playing on the playground.

She noticed my open-mouth. She said, "I'm sorry...was that inappropriate?" and then continued on her way to the restroom.

After the fact, there are always a million comebacks that come to mind. A million ways to say the things that you wish you could've said. But none of them were spoken that day. I started out thinking of angry and sarcastic comebacks. I continued with imaginary, short affirmative comebacks "YES! That was inappropriate! How dare you think of my beautiful daughter as nothing more than a tool!" I ended up with patient, teaching comebacks about how she could've phrased things better. But in the end I was left with a bunch of feelings that I couldn't exactly identify. I know this woman from many school-based situations. She has always seemed fairly tolerant of the differences in our community. But her comment reflected something that didn't feel good.

Then I read this op-ed in our local paper, "Replace tolerate with the word 'respect'" and realized that this writer has a point. The other parent who worked with us on Earth Day weekend sends her children to the same neighborhood school as mine. She may want her children to get some "multicultural time" with children who don't look like hers. She may even tolerate the majority of people in our neighborhood who are not like her and her family. But judging from her comment about my daughter, I can tell you what I did not feel from her--respect. Tolerating people implies that you are putting up with them. You allow them to exist even though they are not functioning on your level. Respecting people puts them on an equal plane.

I will no longer be teaching tolerance. I will be insisting that my children and my students show respect.

Check out other posts about a wide variety of multicultural issues at Bicultural Mom during the Multicultural Blog Carnival


  1. Wow! Really great post Jen! I can totally relate to you on this and I would have been very offended too, for good reason. You are exactly right that while some might "tolerate" (I hate that word!) diversity, they don't necessarily respect or appreciate those different from them. Thank you for sharing this conversation with us! I know it will benefit many. :)

  2. Thank you for your comment Chantilly! I knew you and many others would relate to this story. I hope some readers have ideas on how to deal better with these situations.

  3. Jen, my jaw dropped with the comment! I think of how easy it is to stick our foots in our mouths, sometimes unintentionally. Unfortunately, there's no other way of interpreting this statement. How hurtful. I'm sorry. I was at a friend's home recently and one of the guests made a remark about how she resented having to be made to wait in an emergency room with a bunch of Mexicans. She felt that she needed to be seen before everybody else. Imagine! I'm Mexican and she knows it. It's stayed with me and continues to bother me. How else would or could I interpret her statement? By virtue of her not being Mexican, she believed she deserved better, quicker treatment! Awesome article, Jen. Glad to meet you!

  4. Ezzy it is hard to believe that someone could make that comment about the emergency room wait in front of you! It is not only disrespectful and hurtful, but just plain rude! I wonder often about what life will be like when the tables are turned. If the U.S. census is correct, by the year 2042 white folks will be the minority. Will anything change then?

  5. Wow....just when you think you've heard it all. What is worse is that she felt no need to rectify the situation. Respect is key....great post!

  6. Hi! Great post! I couldn't agree more with respect puts everyone on an equal level and it is the key!
    I hate you had to go through that experience. We should all feel good to know that a thought like that would never enter our mind and we would never say something so hurtful!
    People really are bold these days and ignorant!

  7. LOL@Jen, I am waiting for 2042 with anticipation! ;)

  8. @Feliz4Life--thank you for your comment!

    @Tara, I agree--people are very bold these days in their ignorance. I have heard people say, "I'm not a racist or anything, but...." and then say the most racist thing ever! Makes me feel like we're from different planets sometimes. I am glad to have found the Bicultural Mom community--you all restore my faith in humanity :)

  9. Yes, tolerance and respect are different, and I agree with you... respect is what needed. Though I believe some struggle just to tolerate, and there is not much we can do about changing how people feel deep down inside. Some of these biases have been with them since childhood.

    I see a huge step in the right direction from 15 years ago. Though there will always be those who lack social skills and/or communication skills, as this lady you'd encountered.


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