Tolerance is often touted as a progressive value, a way of ensuring that society offers equal opportunities to all. But it can also imply “putting up with” something or someone you fundamentally disagree with or dislike — being tolerated isn’t the same as being genuinely valued or respected, for example. As one writer puts it, tolerance has echoes “of at best grudging acceptance, and at worst ill-disguised hostility”.
Now a new study in the British Journal of Psychology has found that the experience of being tolerated takes its toll on the wellbeing of ethnic minorities in the United States. Sara Cvetkovska from Utrecht University and colleagues find that the experience of being tolerated is closer to discrimination than it is to acceptance — impacting overall wellbeing and increasing negative mood.
In the first study, the team looked at how wellbeing related to the experience of being tolerated, compared to being accepted or discriminated against outright. Participants were non-white, belonged to a racial or ethnic minority group, and ranged from 17 to 73 years old.
First, participants answered questions about how frequently they felt they were being tolerated, accepted or discriminated against in several social contexts — at work, school, during leisure activities, at clubs or organisations, in their neighbourhood, on social media and overall. Tolerance was described as people objecting to particular cultural beliefs or practices but “putting up” with them nonetheless; discrimination referred to unjust treatment; while acceptance was described as a genuine appreciation for certain practices or ways of life.
Participants then rated themselves on five facets of wellbeing: positive and negative affect, self-esteem, life satisfaction and a sense of control. And while perceived acceptance, unsurprisingly, was associated with greater positive wellbeing, tolerance was associated with lower levels, with discrimination associated with the lowest levels of all.
In the second study, participants were asked the same questions about how often they felt they were being tolerated, discriminated against or accepted. This time, they also took part in a writing exercise, describing a particularly vivid instance of tolerance, discrimination or acceptance which they or someone they know had experienced. Participants then completed wellbeing measures as in the first study.
Once again, tolerance appeared to be an intermediate state for participants: wellbeing was higher in the tolerance condition than it was in the discrimination condition, but not as high as in the acceptance condition. But only positive and negative mood were affected by the writing task — more stable facets of wellbeing like self-esteem and perceived control were not.
In the final study, participants read that they worked at a company with a “casual Fridays” dress code. On one Friday they had come to work wearing a shirt with symbols reflecting their ethnic group: in the acceptance condition, their boss complimented them on the t-shirt and expressed interest in understanding its significance; in the tolerance condition the boss disapproved of the t-shirt but allowed it to be worn due to “freedom of expression”; and in the discrimination condition the boss actively banned the t-shirt from the workplace.
The participants then reported their positive and negative affect and how much the experience would threaten their identity — for example how negatively they felt about themselves or how powerless they thought they were. Again, tolerance was linked to greater wellbeing than discrimination but lower than acceptance. This time, people’s sense of identity was less threatened in the acceptance condition than in the tolerance condition. There was no significant difference between the discrimination and tolerance conditions in terms of social identity threat, however, suggesting the two, once again, are intimately linked.
Overall, the results suggest that “tolerance” may not be the best way of thinking about diversity. Though tolerance had less of a negative impact than discrimination, and while the two are distinct experiences, it was still linked to lower wellbeing than acceptance. This may be, as the team suggests, because tolerance shares the same negative appraisal of minority identity as discrimination — it’s just a bit more polite about it.
Future research could separate out responses somewhat: how an indigenous person experiences discrimination or tolerance is unlikely to be identical to the way a Black person would, for example. It would also be interesting to explore different kinds of relationships — in the final study, for example, the individual tolerating, accepting or discriminating was a boss. How would such behaviour impact wellbeing coming from a professional peer, another kind of authority figure, or even from a friend?