Recently a piece of news from an otherwise internationally unknown college attracted the attention of social media, news, and created a huge twitter and blog response. The object of such (probably unwanted) attention is the South Puget Sound Community College where staff members decided to hold a ‘happy hour’ to ‘build support and community’ for ‘people of color’ (interesting how this terminology is back by the way) as long as the color was not White. The exclusion of White people provoked the expected reaction of the ‘happy hour’ being canceled and the activity labelled racist in itself. Yet the organisers — after apologies — insisted that their request to exclude Whites originated from a rational and not racist fact: members of an in-group communicate and understand each other better.I have no space or time here to highlight the complexity beyond the popularised term of ‘color’. Many anthropological and sociological works have shown the layers of complexity in conceptualising racial differences or making sense of how people conceptualise, imagine, and live those (a good point to start for a generic view is the recent The Sage Handbook of Race and Ethnic Studies).
Here I wish to notice something different and as an anthropologist, in my opinion, rather concerning. I want to highlight how our western and globalized societies are proposing a ‘pensée unique’ about how contemporary globalized societies should be organised and live. Here I will focus on race, but the discussion may be expanded to include gender, religion, and other human differences.
The ‘pensée unique’ sounds like this: ‘mixing is not only the right thing but the only thing acceptable’. In other words what we face is, to use a label, an ideology of mixing. Any attempt to challenge, even temporarily or for a specific social event, the ideology of mixing, results in what I call labelism: a series of epithets (such as ‘racist’, ‘sexist’, ‘androcentric’, ‘ ethnocentric’ and so on) often aimed to silence any intellectual debate. As I argue in my research, a request for — and today I would say enforcement of– ‘acceptance’ of the ‘other’ has substituted tolerance in the western discourse of group inter-relations.
Tolerance is not acceptance and the two do not need to be strongly correlated. One can be ‘tolerant’ of practice X or even person Z, but not accepting of practice X or person Z. You can have acceptance without tolerance and often this, as I will discuss in another post, creates conflict. Acceptance without tolerance happens when acceptance is imposed through any form of authoritarian or hegemonic force.
Anthropologists are very well aware about the human dynamics of in-groups and out-groups in the many non-western societies we study. Rituals of initiation can be read as ‘exclusion’ rather than inclusion systems. There are an incredible number of ethnographies which show in-group versus out-group dynamics both at micro and macro social levels. Tolerance may be encountered more often than acceptance, and surely the latter receives more resistance among human groups. Acceptance requires change, and change is not an easy or painless phenomenon. Of course, as anthropologists, we will not judge in-group/out-group dynamics with any derogatory label (for instance the consideration of male initiation or female initiation rituals as ‘sexist’ or the exclusion of a ‘minority’ based on physical characteristics in certain events as ‘racist’).
Yet, at home and in general, if we observe an ‘exclusionary’ practice, even of a minor nature as the case in discussion, immediately we react with labels and outrage. A very basic explanation is that today in our Western societies we are educated to see any form of exclusion as wrong, as evil, as unjust and politically incorrect. We see ‘civilisation’ as based on ‘acceptance of the other’, and of course the opposite is perceived as ‘uncivilised’ behaviour, some might even say as primitive or even tribal. That the concept of ‘civilisation’ has a role in this can be demonstrated with one single example: the reactions to gender segregated events (normally organised by some Muslims) taking place in western countries.
Is mixing (i.e. acceptance) always useful? It is always desirable as a form of ‘ideology’ instead of a natural dynamic? Is it not that we are confusing acceptance (e.g mixing) with tolerance? Going back to the case I am discussing, it is clear that the staff who organised the Happy Hour saw White people (in any fashion they may have been conceptualised) as a distracting color to add to the picture. They were definitely not ‘accepting’ the ‘White people’ in this specific event; they did not want to ‘mix’ with such category. They wanted a space, a liminal space for an in-group discussion. This does not mean that they are intolerant people, that they are ‘racists’. Tolerance may even require, for its own development, liminal spaces and communitas: spaces of beneficial exclusion.
It is not nice psychologically to be excluded from an event or anything else because of a category (male, female, heterosexual, white, black, non-heterosexual, or membership of a religion or nationality, for example) yet this sense of ‘rejection’ is a rather recent feeling that derives from a particular western history of institutional, state based, discrimination. What we are discussing in the case of the College’s Happy Hour is not an institutional reduction of opportunities based on the essence of being a particular individual human but rather an exclusion within a particular event aimed at a specific issue, which perhaps, and justifiably so, may be better discussed within the safety of ‘communitas’ instead of among general ‘humanity’.
We should be careful that through a rhetoric of ontological acceptance we do not push an authoritarian ideology of mixing that increasingly restricts space for different identity assertions and exclusive spaces, since tolerance will decrease in our societies as a reaction to it.