Tolerance is a nice word

(Photo: Alek Surenian)

There is a presupposed idea that tolerance, or at the very least, a laissez-faire “live and let live” mantra lives in tandem with American culture. Although culture can be used as a multifaceted term, I’m generally speaking about a dominant culture in juxtaposition with a “minority culture.” Some may accuse me of being contentious, but this is merely an observation from an Armenian American who has lived most of his life in a huge urban hub where many different people coexist. 

As an immigrant growing up in the US, you become hyper aware of the differences between American culture and the one from your small community and home, be it racial, ethnic or otherwise. As a child trying to blend in, you work on taming the little idiosyncrasies of your “other” culture for fear of not fitting in or offending anyone. You think that overt displays of ethnic pride are cheap acts of panhandling a need to be seen. The consequence of this realization is that you either assimilate completely and all but denounce ethnic pride or quietly celebrate it so as to not be seen “too much.” There are also some who choose the complete opposite and refuse to adopt anything from the dominant culture as a “Hail Mary” approach at not losing something deemed sacred to so many.

American culture, and by extension, most American people, tend to look down on ethnic pride (I’m aware this is a generalization and may be a controversial statement to some). We know from this country’s history that a culmination of a collective “melting pot” of immigrants, including their customs and beliefs, has morphed into an assimilated and repackaged version of what is modern American culture today. However, the United States is a very large and diverse place. While it may bring some universal things to mind when we talk of “American culture,” it may mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. 

To be clear, I am not making some moral distinction between cultures. It is and has been a natural process that a dominant culture eventually soaks in or alters the less dominant one into its whole. But the word “tolerance,” as I see it being used today, implies an almost libertarian-like “hands off” approach. It suggests a hashing out of differences that isn’t confrontational (in a good way, I suppose). The problem, as I see it, is that it purports to value equality of differences without having to do the work to weed out, or appreciate at best, what those differences really are. It is an antithesis of friendship and brotherhood in the truest sense. I don’t mean blind allegiance. Rather, an equal give and take and more importantly, an honest mutual interest of each other’s cultures. I am fully aware that this goes both ways, and in that regard, I’m speaking to both cultures (dominant and let’s call it recessive, ethnic or immigrant, if you will). Personally, I’d rather see a modicum of interest rather than the overly-politicized and emphasized word which lacks depth and is actually a cover for any serious discussion.

Ethnic pride is something I’ve only recently appreciated in its fullest sense; specifically when it is the only thing keeping a people united, sane, and literally alive while an existential threat looms over their brethren back home. 

A reinforcement of the need to be seen and our friends to hear our story versus the indifference of the dominant force which negates this need is experienced by many Armenian-Americans today. It is something you learn to live with and repress; sort of like being in a relationship when one partner loves the other much more and cohabitation has already settled in. Tolerance is a nice word until solidarity is called for. When war broke out in Artsakh, many of us were expecting or at the very least hoping for solidarity from our friends. We were simultaneously shocked and disillusioned at the complete lack of a simple, “Hey what’s going on?” That being said, those few and far between who were watching and listening did not go unnoticed because their eyes and ears felt more than all the tolerance in the world.

It’s ironic that ethnic pride may seem tribal or backwards to the very same people who preach tolerance. They would say that ethnic pride suffers from bad optics and could potentially be exclusive of others. And that’s fine. I know culture has never been a static thing, and I actually agree with them in many ways. I’m just saying I much prefer an honest friendship over the faux tolerance that resembles (in spirit at least) the modern-day corporate advertisement that is at the forefront of every social progress movement.  

I rest my frustrations surrounding this topic here, but I suspect there are many quietly experiencing what I’ve described. I know this may seem a bit harsh but I don’t think I’m asking for too much if I’m calling for an honest approach in solidarity. If we are really honest, we may have to confront the fact that if those within the dominant culture who deem themselves tolerant were to come upon this writing in happenstance; it would surprise us if we were to learn they read past the words “ethnic pride.”

Harut Akopyan

Harut Akopyan

Harut Akopyan was born in Yerevan and now lives in Los Angeles, California. In college, he studied filmmaking and screenwriting. Having played the game from a young age, Akopyan is also an accomplished chess player.
Harut Akopyan
@ArtyomTonoyan Was just saying this the other day :) - 7 months ago
Harut Akopyan

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1 Comment

  1. George Carlin found the idea of ethnic pride silly, even with his own Irish ancestry.

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