Focusing Language: Inclusion Versus Tolerance
As I do equity and inclusion work and meet other people in the field, I admit, I’ve struggled to hear the term “inclusion” used so frequently without the necessary reflection required.
The term itself reflects a power imbalance and disparity. Just the term “inclusion” reinforces the idea that some person or group has the right to invite folks in to the mainstream way of being or the “norm.” It communicates that there is one norm.
Shafik Asante wrote beautifully about the real meaning of inclusion in a special education piece, “What is Inclusion?” As Asante says, “Inclusion is recognizing our universal "oneness" and interdependence. Inclusion means recognizing that we are one even though we are not the same. A real act of inclusion means fighting against exclusion and all of the social diseases exclusion gives birth to (i.e. racism, sexism, handicapism, etc.) In any space, in the workplace or larger community or in government where inclusion is an effort attached to equity or diversity work, a power and privilege analysis must be employed.
This brings me to another term thrown around for decades in anti-bullying work that is often described as the goal of diversity: “tolerance”.
Krista Tippett captures the nuance of this term well in her book, Becoming Wise. In summary, she says tolerance is a means to an end but it does not demonstrate how we care for one another and see one another. I agree, and the word is still useful, if we are clear about what we are really saying.
One of my favorite conceptual frameworks of tolerance explains tolerance as a necessary practice of assessing how an individual or an organization demonstrates its valuing of diversity. It’s a measurement practice that can be employed at certification and evaluation times and in assessment processes for individuals, supervisors, departments, and workplaces across all sectors. When a cultural responsive team of people at an organization practice tolerance, this reflects their ability to make space for individuals and communities with their cultural context of attitudes, beliefs, experiences, and practices.
Tolerance in its verb form (to tolerate) speaks to how much pain a person or group can take, or “the heat at which the metal bends.” So this is where the word gets really tricky, and we have to be mindful of how we use it. Again, the word tolerance intrinsically carries within it the power dynamic that something/someone enjoys the privilege of being reflective of the norm, and there is something/someone now disrupting that norm. Individuals and groups don’t want to be put up with. But in many of my training sessions, participants speak passionately about how to them, tolerance means truly embracing and valuing diversity and difference. I am in a position to hear that and appreciate it. Often there is no context established for this end goal of tolerance. And at times, we do come up against an edge where we have to tolerate ideas, perceptions, and beliefs. But that is a means to an important end of human connection. There is fundamental difference between being tolerated or tolerating others and human beings practicing tolerance.
Words have enormous power, and we all attach meaning to words outside of their definitions. Meanings also change over time and across cultures. For example, for my generation and older generations, the term “queer” was an insult for members of the gay and lesbian community much like nigger for the Black community. Now it is a sociopolitical term that speaks to identity and it has positive connotations. “Queer” in its best form, I believe, is an action verb that encourages us to not adhere to the oppressive assumptions and expectations around gender and sexuality (and perceived cultural norms). In other words, “we would do well to ‘queer’ our whole notion of what it means, for example, to be lady like.” I spent my college days rejecting the 19th century ideal of being a “lady” and now here is a queer movement to support that deconstruction.
Notice how just unpacking the terms “inclusion” and “tolerance” by one layer requires the practice of cultural humility, which I write about often and try to share as much as I can wherever I go. If we truly care about inclusion and are all Working towards liberation from oppressive structures, we must examine power dynamics at play and, very exactly, our roles in those dynamics.
What are you able to acknowledge and unpack about your role in the power structure in any given relationship, in your organization, in your community, or in our larger global society? What might you be ready to give up ( no matter how scary or unknown), or even better, how can you leverage your resources of access and power when you have the ability to invite someone in to new behaviors and to practice tolerance?
How do you demonstrate that you value another person’s presence, including their cultural context?