Question of the Month
Mission of the Jim Crow Museum
Q: Generally speaking, I like what you are trying to do with the museum but I don't like your mission even a little bit. Your strategy is to use objects of intolerance to teach tolerance. See, that is the problem; I don't want to be tolerated. I want to be accepted like other people.
--Emanuel Wall - Detroit, Michigan
A: Let me begin by saying that I have empathy for your argument, and, truth be told, you are not the first person to voice this opinion. Although most people support our mission as written, there have always been people troubled by our emphasis on tolerance. For example, at the most recent National Conference on Race & Ethnicity in American Higher Education (NCORE ©), several participants described tolerance as a weak, wimpy word. They demanded, in voices loud and clear, to be accepted. Like you, they found the word tolerance to represent a low bar. For them, tolerance meant putting up with something or someone that you find – actually or potentially – unpleasant, disagreeable, or too different. This argument was captured by the blogger John Ray:
"Tolerance is like saying: 'I tolerate my headache.' 'I hate broccoli but I tolerate it' or 'I despise you but I tolerate your existence.' While tolerance is certainly better than intolerance, we can do better. Tolerance assumes a residual antipathy or pity toward the object of tolerance – whether a person or an idea. Tolerance confers a second-class status on the object of tolerance. People practicing tolerance often condescendingly say: 'I'm right, you're wrong but I will generously tolerate you.' Tolerance is defined as enduring with patience and sufferance, allowing what we don't approve and putting up with what we do not condone – hardly, positive connotations."
The word tolerance has multiple meanings. It can, as implied above, mean "the capacity or willingness to endure something, especially pain, hardship, or difference." But it also has another meaning: "the willingness to recognize and respect the beliefs or practices of others." This latter definition is consistent with the mission of the Jim Crow Museum. Our conception of tolerance is similar to the one developed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which stated, "Tolerance is respect, acceptance and appreciation of the rich diversity of our world's cultures, our forms of expression and ways of being human. Tolerance is harmony in difference." From my perspective, tolerance and acceptance are not competing words or ideas. Rather, I have viewed (or conceptualized) tolerance as an umbrella term that included acceptance.
Words fall out of favor. When was the last time you heard someone (not reading a history book) use the words racial integration? I remember when people who do the work we do used the terms pluralism and multiculturalism. Today, those words seem out of date, quaint. They were replaced with the word diversity, which itself, is giving way to the term inclusion. And, there are only seven people in the entire nation who regularly use the word desegregation – I am one of them. It is possible that tolerance is falling or has already fallen out of favor with my progressive colleagues.
There are no perfect thoughts; there are no perfect words to reflect thoughts. We have and must have the more-or-less constant wrestling with the words that express difficult ideas and moving targets. I find the shape-shifting of words and their meanings fascinating; this is the sociologist in me. However, I hope we can agree to (forgive the cliche) "keep the big things big." The Jim Crow Museum was founded on the idea that objects of racial intolerance could be used to teach about race, race relations, and racism – and that those lessons, shared through painfully honest dialogues, would result in less racism. We can call this a pursuit of tolerance, appreciation, respect, acceptance, inclusion, or justice. Those are all good pursuits.
July 2011 response by David Pilgrim, Curator, Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia.