Tolerating Being Tolerated

The so-called Canadian identity is based on quite a few feel-good ideas that, when held up to scrutiny, reveal themselves to be myths. Peacekeeping. Our “mosaic” vs. the U.S.’s “melting pot”. Tolerance.

As a Canadian person of colour, I’ve heard about tolerance my entire life. Despite being called racist names and harassed regularly for being different while growing up, I was expected to be grateful that Canada was a country that TOLERATED people like me. Scratching the surface reveals how fraudulent the notion of tolerance is, and how firmly it’s rooted in white supremacy.

Tolerance sounds great in theory (especially if you don’t think too closely about what it actually means) and it sure seems to makes white people feel proud of themselves. Supposedly, tolerance means people who are different can feel comfortable knowing that they’ll be accepted. And let’s be clear, when talking about tolerance, “different” means different than white people, who are still considered the default humans, making the rest of us “others” who are constantly measured against a white benchmark.

Tolerance ACTUALLY means “the ability or willingness to tolerate something, in particular the existence of opinions or behaviour that one does not necessarily agree with.” People tolerate their neighbour’s loud music, food they hate but are required to eat, and mosquito bites – irritating things that, because they’re inevitable, must be accepted, however grudgingly.

So even though being tolerated reveals, by definition, that the people tolerating us perceive there’s something deficient or irritating about us, we have to be grateful because the people tolerating us work to TOLERATE us, which means they’re absolutely not racist. Because you know, Canadians definitely aren’t racist (what’s up colonialism, residential schools, internment camps and native reserves)!

People of colour know a lot about tolerance because we tolerate a lot of irritating, infuriating, racist and oppressive shit every day. So, let’s talk about what real tolerance looks like.

People of colour tolerate white people making racist comments and jokes, so blinded by their privilege they can’t see their own racism – and so entitled and convinced by white supremacy that they’re right that they get defensive and angry at the suggestion their behavior is problematic. We tolerate white people calling us “articulate” and “exotic” and being so convinced they’re complimenting us that they’re visibly disappointed if we don’t respond positively. We tolerate being openly judged by white people if we don’t mourn so-called terrorist attacks against predominantly-white countries performatively enough, or if we dare to question if they also grieve the West’s attacks on countries whose citizens look more like us. We tolerate being expected to celebrate Thanksgiving, a holiday that commemorates pilgrims who enslaved and committed genocide against indigenous people.

We tolerate living in a society where white supremacy is so normalized its invisible to most people, a society where white people’s feelings matter so much more than the impacts of their behaviour that we have to pretend to be grateful that we’re tolerated. So really, white people, don’t talk to us about tolerance unless you understand what it’s like to tolerate the intolerable every day.


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