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  • Writer's pictureIlsa Govan

Why Tolerance Won’t Work


A friend of mine sent me a photo of a poster she saw outside of an elementary classroom yesterday. In front of a colorful collection of crayons it read, “We could learn a lot from crayons. Some are sharp, some are pretty, some are dull. Others are bright, some have weird names, but they all have learned to live together in the same box.” Interestingly enough, all of the crayons in the photo looked brand new, i.e. all of them were “sharp”.

How is this supposed to inspire children coming into the classroom? The implied message, “Just because you have a weird name doesn’t mean we won’t put up with you,” isn’t exactly welcoming. And who gets to define weird versus normal?

One of the most important things a teacher, friend or co-worker can do is learn how to correctly pronounce someone’s name, especially when the name is one you haven’t heard before. Names tell a story about who we are culturally and individually. That is one difference between a society that values diversity, rather than one that tolerates “others”.

Doing a little research, I found the quote attributed to Robert Fulghum, the author of All I need to Know I Learning in Kindergarten, which is obviously not true in this case. I also found a T-shirt with this message available on a website called AutismLink. The message on the shirt included the phrase “Practice Tolerance”. Which makes me think they are promoting tolerating people who are, you know, a little “dull”. Not because I personally think the autistic children I’ve taught and adults I know are dull, but because the fact is, we don’t have to advocate for tolerance of people who are pretty, sharp, or bright.

The poster also reminded me of how desperately I wanted the 64 pack of crayons, the one with the sharpener, when I was in 1st grade, but my mom couldn’t afford it. I went so far as to steal Colin’s crayons, only to be caught when the teacher noticed that “my” box had his name written on it in sharpie. In a tolerant classroom, I would accept Colin and the other kids for having more, and they would accept me for having less. Apparently the difference in our access to resources shouldn’t effect our effort or create resentment, even though some of us would have much more colorful pictures. That’s easy for a 1st grader to understand.

In an equitable classroom, we would have access to the same coloring resources and accommodations that didn’t label some as dull. In a classroom or workplace that emphasized social justice we wouldn’t just be standing next to each other quietly accepting our allotted position in the box. We would be working together to change the systems that created the inequity in the first place.

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