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There is No Place for Tolerance in an Inclusive Workplace

Nov 9, 2021 | Diversity, HR Policies, Inclusion, tolerance, Workplace

I often hear organizational leaders boast that tolerance is at the core of their organization’s culture. And as they sit with pleasing smiles awaiting a pat on the back for being “ahead of the curve” re-inclusion, it dawned on me that they are oblivious to the insult the word “tolerant” conveys, specifically when speaking to and about racialized individuals and other marginalized groups. No one, and I mean absolutely no one, wants to be tolerated.

To “tolerate” conveys a message of something painful and or unpleasant that must be endured. It is not a commitment to total acceptance and understanding of racialized groups. Instead, it is a building up of immunity or resistance to those who are different. It is a partial investment that gives non-racialized groups the option to choose when and what will be considered acceptable and what will not.

It’s no wonder the most easily tolerated racialized employees in a non-racialized space is, often, the one who is “in his/her/their place.” That is, working in lower-paying jobs, a token hire, or those able to conform to the desired culture – White culture.

Conforming, for racialized individuals, is the feeling that they must hide or manage their identity not to offend or cause discomfort. For example, you often find Black women making an active effort to smile and speak in soft tones, not to be portrayed as the angry Black woman. Or black women choosing to wear a wig or straighten their afro to the White’s standard of what professional hair is for the workplace. This, among other, performative behaviour is a survival mechanism amongst Black employees because, even if it is not stated outright, there is an understanding that by “staying in your place,” you are less likely to disturb the implicit, yet dominant, racial order that provides just enough to deflect their perfunctory efforts of inclusion.

Tolerance leaves room for systemic and implicit biases to form deeper roots, thus creating greater barriers for racialized employees. Tolerance does not convey the intention to change attitudes, behaviours and mindsets. It simply gives the appearance that you are doing a lot when your actions reinforce racist systems, standards and expectations. These partial commitments can result in tensions and conflicts, which negatively impact morale for racialized groups. To create a safe and welcoming space, there needs to be a clear and definitive statement that a positive shift in attitudes, behaviour and mindset is expected. 

To facilitate this process, organizational leaders should have inclusion training that brings awareness to diverse identities, the challenges they face when systemic and unconscious bias plague the work culture and offer tools and best practices to eliminate and mitigate biases in the workplace. 

— Tenesia Benjamin