These days, it seems like everywhere you look, people are talking about equality (or, more accurately, this country’s lack of equality). And, as far as their intentions go, this is a good thing.
However, all these conversations are hiding the fact that there’s a big problem lurking just below the surface. By focusing all our attention on equality, we are overlooking the real issue: the lack of equity. Indeed, we are so concerned with equality that we are completely ignoring equity—but without equity, we’ll never achieve equality.
At some level, focusing solely on equality and ignoring equity is an easy trap to fall into. Equality (the idea that everyone should get exactly the same thing and be treated the same way) is one of those lofty ideals we’ve been hearing about since elementary school. Equity (the idea that everyone should get what they need, even if that’s different from what someone else gets) isn’t as cut and dry. That makes it harder, because it requires more attention and adaptability.
On top of that, people often find equity difficult because they fear an equitable system will take something away from them. When they see someone else getting something they aren’t, they don’t stop to consider that their circumstances or existing privileges might mean they don’t need that thing. Instead, all they see is that there is a privilege they’re being denied.
Please understand me: I believe that equality is a noble and worthwhile goal. But if we’re ever going to achieve it, we need to start with equity.
We Are Not All the Same
To really wrap your head around why we have to get to a place of equity before we can achieve equality, it’s important to realize that equality is based on the premise that we are all the same. It says we all have the same ability to achieve, the same ability to thrive.
Unfortunately, that just isn’t true. If you don’t believe me, just look at the news. Asian people are under attack. Jewish people are under attack. Black people are under attack. And yet, on the news, you don’t see stories that indicate White people are under attack: it’s only marginalized groups.
Once you realize we aren’t all treated or even perceived as equal, it’s easier to understand that what one person needs to thrive may be something completely different than what someone else needs. That’s where equity comes in. To give you a simple example: we give free and reduced-cost lunches to kids who don’t have money and food at home. We don’t need to do that for kids whose families can afford to feed them, even though that’s what equality would call for.
Equality is the ultimate goal, yes, but until every single person has equal access to the same privileges as everyone else, we need to focus on equity. That’s the only way to lift everyone up so they have the same opportunity to achieve success and to thrive.
We Are All Connected
As I touched on earlier, far too often, people resist the idea of equity because they think it means they won’t get what they want. And sometimes, they are right. But—and this is key—that’s not the point. The point is that equity is there to give everyone what they need to thrive.
In an equitable system, I may get something you don’t, because you don’t need it. Conversely, there may be something you get that I don’t, because I don’t need it. But, because each of us got what we needed, we are both set up to succeed.
If you feel like an equitable system will create lack for you, remember that we are all connected. If you understand that my success is your success, and vice versa, you are much more likely to give me what I need. If you don’t, though, you are much more likely to try and hold me down to boost yourself up.
Look, if you live in my community and you’re starving, there’s a good chance that one day you’re going to end up stealing from me (or someone else in the community) just to survive. On the other hand, if I have food and everything else I need, and I make sure you have everything you need, too, then I never have to worry about you coming in and harming me or stealing from me. Ultimately, the better off you are, and the better off I am, the better off we all are.
We Can All Help Equity Flourish
Once you realize how important equity is, it’s natural to ask yourself how—or even if—you can help it to flourish in this world. After all, it can feel like an overwhelming challenge. You may not know where to start, or you may be afraid to take action for fear of getting it wrong.
If you’re ready to take action in your own life to support equity for all people, though (and I sincerely hope you are), I would suggest you start by recognizing there are only two emotions in the world: love and fear. All the other emotions come from those two.
If you feel hate, anger, jealousy, or insecurity, it’s an indication that you are coming from a place of fear. On the other hand, if you feel empathy, compassion, or a willingness to support others, you are coming from a place of love. Why is this important? Because ultimately, all of the decisions you make either come from a place of fear or a place of love.
As challenging as it may be, it’s imperative that you reflect on which of these two emotions is driving you. When you identify an area where fear is your driver (and trust me, we all have those places), ask yourself what it is you’re truly afraid of. What lack are you afraid of being subjected to in your own life if another person or group of people achieve equity?
We Can Make the World a More Equitable Place
As you do this work, it can be tempting to feel shame around the biases and prejudices you discover in yourself. However, I would urge you to remember that what you uncover is not a cause for shame. We are all human, and we all harbor biases and fears. This is a journey; holding ourselves to a standard of perfection is unrealistic.
Rather than blaming and shaming yourself, put your energy into identifying your prejudices and the places you feel fear. Then, do the intrapersonal work of dismantling them.
If you do—if you keep working on identifying your fears and releasing your biases—not only will you keep growing, you’ll also help the world become a more equitable and better place.
For more advice on how to overcome your internal fears and prejudices, you can find Let’s Talk About Race (and Other Hard Things) on Amazon.
Renowned speaker, author, and equity consultant Dr. Nancy Dome co-founded Epoch Education in 2014 to provide leaders in education and business with accessible professional development in diversity, inclusion and belonging, and equity. As an educator for nearly three decades, Dr. Dome taught in the juvenile court and community schools teaching our most vulnerable students and has served as a Distinguished Teacher in Residence and faculty member at California State University San Marcos. Her transformative approach helps school districts and educational agencies throughout the country navigate complex topics, build bridges, and work together for inclusive, impactful change. For more information, visit www.epocheducation.com.