A few years ago I began to see bumper stickers with the slogan “Teach Tolerance”. My gut reaction to this bumper sticker was extremely negative. I wasn’t clear at first about why this bothered me. After all, isn’t tolerance good? Shouldn’t we teach our children to tolerate differences? It took a while for me to figure out what was so disturbing about that slogan. Finally, though, it came to me. These are things that we tolerate: bad tasting medicine, noxious smells, pain. To teach our children to merely tolerate diversity is to teach them that diversity is wrong and undesirable – that it is something to be borne. As a member of one of the groups that children are being taught to tolerate I have a problem with that. Instead, I would suggest to you that we teach our children a different lesson. Rather than teach them to tolerate diversity, let’s teach them to embrace it. Some of the most satisfying relationships of my life have been with people who had the desire and capacity to embrace diversity. These were people who truly reveled in all the variety of the world.
My best friend is a White southern woman who was my teacher in high school. She taught me about acceptance without condescension. For the entirety of my high school career I watched Joy Durham embrace the differences in her students – not just across race, but also across abilities and preferences. Joy has a capacity for finding the best in all of us, and I will be eternally grateful to her for finding the best in me. However she wasn’t the only person in that town who helped shaped me. During my school career I was surrounded by teachers whose focus was on doing what was best for students, and helping us to become the best that we could be. This was in a town which integrated its schools in 1964, ten years after Brown v the Board of Education. They did so in a thoughtful and calm manner which focused on the welfare of children and allowed all of us to get the most from our school and ourselves.
So how do you teach acceptance? By modeling acceptance. If children see that the adults in their lives truly accept them for who they are, if they see that we are happy with their successes even if they don’t fit with our expectations for them then they will come to embrace differences in others. Ultimately, acceptance, unlike tolerance, is about love. I believe that the way to a just society lies along the path of acceptance because the key to justice is love.