Teaching Beyond “Tolerance”

Radical Teacher #80

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Introduction: Teaching Beyond “Tolerance”
By Shana Agid and Erica Rand

Love Is All Around?
At the close of its 2007 summer session—just before we went to final copy on this issue—the U.S. Senate stopped short of pushing through a Federal hate crimes bill whose long climb through Washington was propelled in part by the 1998 killings of James Byrd, Jr. and, in particular, Matthew Shepard. In order to make the Matthew Shepard Act less likely to face a Presidential veto, Senators Edward Kennedy and Gordon Smith decided to attach it to the National Defense Authorization Act, a move praised by both the Human Rights Coalition and the National Center for Transgender Equality. It is telling, and a fitting introduction to this issue, which calls for a radical educational approach to ending bias-motivated harm, that these are the limits of the rhetoric of “hate,” that the legislative symbol of U.S. opposition to anti-LGBT violence would sneak through on a bill to fund an unending war in the Middle East.

By now, ideas of hate and hate violence can be called part of popular common sense. In a recent Gallup Poll, even a majority of “republicans, conservatives, and frequent church attenders” said they were in favor of the expansion of the Federal hate crime law to include sexual orientation.1 The parameters of this common sense are epitomized, perhaps, in a scene that now plays out at many small-town funerals for military personnel killed in Iraq. At one funeral after another, the vocally non-partisan Patriot Riders line up on their motorcycles to protect the mourners from the reach of one of the most notorious hate mongers, Fred Phelps, whose followers gather to disrupt the funerals, saying the deaths are allegedly God’s vengeance for U.S. tolerance of homosexuality. The patent cruelty, disrespect, and illogic—so egregious as to make troublesome questions unnecessary (like why homophobia against apparent heterosexuals is what marshals the outrage)—make the cause of hate seem obviously to be bad or intolerant people. The remedies then appear just as obvious: punishment, isolation, and education toward tolerance.

We envisioned this cluster as an opportunity to rethink how social, cultural, and political ideas of hate and its frequently presumed “opposite,” tolerance, matter for education and activism. Diverse projects and commentators in media, policy, and popular culture propose that significant change happens when we take the “lesson” offered by “hate”—whether historical or contemporary—and work for “transformation” or “hope.” “The more you know…,” as NBC’s public service announcements remind us, working from the common idea that meaningful social change can be achieved through education and bearing witness, as these can produce better citizens, and, finally, a better nation.

We wanted to imagine another set of possibilities for educators and students alike, grounded in a different set of assumptions: that so-called “hate” violence is not simply aberrant, individualized, or isolated; that it is grounded in structural inequalities of race, class, sexuality, gender, and nationalist imperialism that also contribute to the structure of educational settings; and that the very lack of specificity in many understandings of “hate” and “tolerance,” besides the dubiousness of mere tolerance as a goal, works against meaningful educational and activist interventions.

Some Background
Common sense assumptions about contemporary and historic “hate” now come largely from the idea of “hate crimes,” which originated after the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., and is now regulated by both state and federal law. Massachusetts was the first state to pass a hate crimes law in 1979. It provided both civil and criminal penalties for bias-motivated violence based on race, ethnicity and religion and created, for the first time, funds for police training and for data collection related to hate crimes. In 1981, the Anti-Defamation League created a model hate crimes legislation package. The first to include criminal penalty enhancements for activities that are already classified as criminal acts, it became a template for most state hate crimes legislation in the 1980s. In 1990, the U.S. Congress passed the Hate Crimes Statistics Act, funneling funding to the Federal government to begin collecting data on hate crimes nationally, and, in 1994, the Federal hate crimes law was expanded with the passage of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which incorporated the Violence Against Women Act and the Hate Crimes Sentencing Enhancement Act, bringing the method of sentence increases for cases tried as hate crimes to the Federal courts.2

But the political and social function of “hate crime” legislation as it developed in the 1980s and 1990s was as important as its legal effect. It functioned for state and federal governments as a show of legal and moral force against “hate,” and as an important step in separating from the legacy of, in particular, U.S. anti-Black racism. In the early Reagan years both state and national discourses on race, in particular, shifted to accommodate and even promote ideas of so-called racial equality, albeit in the midst of a great deal of struggle and disagreement seen largely in the neoconservative efforts to limit a number of the legal and policy reforms of the Civil Rights era, and in the counter efforts to maintain them.3 From the codification of Martin Luther King, Jr. as a national symbol in 1982—the year his birthday became a national holiday—to the coining of the term “reverse racism,” invoked to destabilize affirmative action, the 1980s and 1990s saw remarkable shifts in the role of “race talk” in U.S. daily political and social life. Regardless of one’s position on affirmative action or representative democracy (the idea for which Lani Guinier gained and then lost her place in the Clinton administration), there was little question about what language was appropriate or inappropriate regarding race. It was not acceptable to be a racist, even though what that actually means in these contexts remains elusive even now.

The salience of “hate” as a category can be seen in the decision by government figures, in particular, to use anti-hate posturing as a means for demonstrating support for so-called “minority” groups and a willingness to punish, or at least count, violence they consider to interrupt the image of a post-hate, anti-hate nation being developed in the era of “colorblindness.” This idea cropped up everywhere in the proliferation of calls by the government for increased “hate crime” protection and reporting. In 1990, the U.S. Senate stated in a report that “the very effort by the legislative branch to require the Justice Department to collect this information would send an additional important signal to victimized groups everywhere that the U.S. Government is concerned about this kind of violence.”4 In 1991, New York State Governor Mario Cuomo declared that “as government, our single most effective weapon is the law,” and implored that state’s legislature to pass his Bias Related Violence and Intimidation Act, “…and make it clear to people of this state that behavior based on bias will not be ignored or tolerated.”5 Finally, in the debates over the Hate Crimes Statistics Act itself, one Representative argued that “…the systematic gathering of information about such crimes would symbolize society’s commitment to eradicate bigotry, racism, and its violent byproducts.”6 So, the creation of, and support for, hate crimes legislation came to have a meaning of its own, regardless of its impact or projected impact on actual violence. The meaning and content of “hate crime” was also shaped—in part due to ubiquitous calls by organizations representing people of color, lesbians and gay men, transgendered people, people with disabilities, and people of faith, for inclusion in hate-crime sentencing enhancement laws—by the shifting concepts of who might rightly be considered the victim of a hate-crime.

Yet if the value of legislating around the idea of hate was to show, at least, symbolic support for people who might be targeted by racist, nationalist, anti-Semitic, or other bigoted violence (sexuality and gender did eventually end up in the mix as “protected” categories), the mobilization of “hate” as the catch-all term for that violence helped erase its homegrown pervasiveness (“we won’t stand for this”) and placed the onus happily on the individual bad apple (“where did they learn to hate so much?”). So, for instance, an attribution of “hate”—something located in individuals with sick, ignorant, troubled, or simply mysterious minds—came to replace an analysis rooted in an understanding of racism as something historically formulated, imbued with power, and brought to bear on people of color through physical violence, state control, and the restriction of access to resources. While the ideas held and acted upon by the haters are understood as rooted in historical relationships, they are no longer bound to the structural power of contemporary white supremacy. This generalization, from specific institutional relationships of power to generalized notions of an individual’s strong dislike, or hate, not only ultimately reduces “racism” to “hate” or “heterosexism” to “hate,” but effectively erases complexities and differences between different kinds of power relationships—those structured by race and sexuality, for instance—for the purpose of creating the image of a post-hate, happily pluralist nation. That the role of education against hate is most often articulated in terms of a goal to create merely “tolerance” is perhaps one obvious insight into the limitations of this plan for people actually targeted by dominating violence.

In his essay, “The Spectacle of Mourning,” concerning the use of the Names Project quilt as a public display of the immense loss produced by HIV/AIDS, Douglas Crimp suggests that his ambivalence about this particular role of the quilt “hinges on this…spectacular aspect…: Does a visit to the quilt, or the media’s approving attention to it, assuage the guilt of those who have otherwise been so callous, whether that callousness takes the form of denial or outright disgust? Does it provide a form of catharsis, an easing of conscience for those who have cared and done so little about this great tragedy?”7 In an educational model built upon the idea of teaching tolerance, where tolerance is an acceptable, even ideal, endpoint, the trope of witnessing for the purpose of understanding violence or “hate” in a universal humanizing sense, not as a manifestation of structures of power and deprivations, hesitates to meaningfully engage students/viewers/experiencers in their own relationship to those structures. In other words, you may feel bad about it, and may therefore feel bad for those people, but you are not challenged to find out your actual relationship to that thing or those people you feel badly about. As Crimp suggests, the very act of “witnessing” or recognizing is, in turn, activated to ameliorate everything from moral and political confusion and pain (“how could someone do this violent, racist or homophobic act?”) to cognitive dissonance in relationship to time and place (“how could this happen here or now?”). The relationship built between “hate” and the learner is mutually reassuring. So long as we bear witness through these themes, so long as we represent and recognize the violence and its perpetrators and victims, we have done what we must do to address the incident, condemn the violence, and commit to building (nation, citizenship, morality) anew.

What Now?
In the call for this issue, we noted that in the wake of recent high profile killings, both James Byrd’s and Mathew Shepard’s, and later the death of Gwen Araujo, a young Latina transgender woman killed in Newark, California, the call for punishment is quickly followed by the call for “education.” In these instances, people often look for a way to respond, to try to “make something good of a bad situation.” They dramatize these and other examples of “hate violence” in the hope that this revisiting will give them answers or encourage individual change. Lately this has meant numerous productions, in schools and small theaters and on HBO, of The Laramie Project, a play about Matthew Shepard and Laramie, Wyoming; the Lifetime Television drama, A Girl Like Me, about Araujo’s life and death, and the Oscar feats and lasting popularity of Boys Don’t Cry. All laudable features, but none alone are enough, partly because of the problems we have discussed in terms of locating both hate and solutions in falsely unentangled oppressions and individual solutions: Boys Don’t Cry removes the race-based murder that occurred alongside Brandon Teena’s; the Araujo movie centers on the consciousness of his mother and her struggle to accept her transgender child.

How can we teach differently around these ideas, these histories, and this present? As it stands, the majority of “anti-hate” education, especially in schools, is conducted by police and security guards, making the connection between the state and protection explicit and visual. How might we instead reconfigure the ideas inherent in the popularization of “hate” and get underneath, into the places that retain meaning and depth and possibility? How might we use the classroom as a site to challenge the increasingly simplistic and dangerous smoothing over of both historical and contemporary conglomerations of power and the violences they produce? A radical anti-violence organization, INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence succinctly suggests one imperative: “all intervention programs should have anti-oppression analysis.”8 This relatively simple sounding plan actually does a lot of work to center the context of violence, a context explicitly understood in terms of the complexities of oppressions—the roles of race, gender, sexuality, and other markers of difference to distribute power.

The essays collected here take on a multiplicity of possibilities, and arguments, for discarding “tolerance” as a viable or desirable endpoint, and for engaging students and teachers in real, challenging, and transformative work against violence—physical, textual, and otherwise. Priya Kandaswamy constructs the possibilities of pulling apart assumptions of race and class privilege in a classroom where both are heavily in play, of “teaching against privilege rather than to it.” Annemarie Hamlin and Constance Joyner write from teacher and student perspectives to revisit the effects of racism and white privilege on the writing, reading, teaching, and discussion of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, as well as the consequences of the status “a classic.” Lise Kildegaard discusses the unexpected outcome of teaching an August Wilson play about Black American migration to students in a declining farming town in Iowa and the possibilities for teaching across experiences. Nan Stein argues against the limits of “bullying” as a language for addressing gender- and sexuality-based violence in K-12. And Rebecca Barrett-Fox gives a riveting account of the “Tunnel of Oppression,” where participants are pressed through a barrage of epithets and reenactments of historical “hate” violence, and asks what the popularity of this phenomenon at schools across the country means for assumptions about who makes up the college campus, how they are expected to engage issues of race, class, gender, religion, and sexuality, and what the limitations are of a call to “change” motivated by guilt but without challenge. Together they offer ways to look “beyond tolerance” to take into diverse contexts that, as these authors propose, both articulate difference through attention to power and resist dividing people into the tolerant subjects and tolerated objects of educational beneficence.

From Radical Teacher, number 80, Fall 2007, co-edited with Erica Rand



  1. Frank Newport, “Public Favors Expansion of Hate Crime Law to Include Sexual Orientation.” Gallup News Service (Princeton, NJ) 17 May 2007. Accessed 13 August 2007 .
  2. Katherine Whitlock, In a Time of Broken Bones. Philadelphia: American Friends Service Committee, 2001. 6–7.
  3. See, for example, Omi and Winant, and George Lipsitz, The Possessive Investment in Whiteness for brief histories of shifts in discourse on race, ethnicity, and identity in the 1970s through 1990s.
  4. Quoted in James B. Jacobs, “The Emergence and Implications of American Hate Crime Jurisprudence,” in Hate and Bias Crime: A Reader. Ed. Barbara Perry. New York: Routledge, 2003. 423.
  5. Ibid., 422–423.
  6. Quoted in AnnJanette Rosga, “Policing the State: Violence, Identity, and the Law in Constructions of Hate Crime.” Diss. University of California, Santa Cruz, 1998, 116.
  7. Douglas Crimp, “The Spectacle of Mourning,” Melancholia and Moralism. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002. 198.
  8. INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence. “INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, Community Accountability Principles/ Concerns/Strategies/Models.” 5 March 2003.