The Need for Equity

Part 1: The very short summary that you should read if you only have 60 seconds:

Equality = equal + ity. As in, everyone is equal, so let’s allow everyone to access the same opportunities, apply for the same jobs, go to the same schools.

Problem: Unfortunately, the reality is that everyone is not equal. That’s because centuries of power struggle have created the current world, in which certain groups dominate the decision-making and power-holding. These few groups, in other words, are privileged: the laws, values, and institutions benefit them because they are made with these groups in mind. The other groups are oppressed, because in order to succeed in the world created by the privileged, they must attempt to make use of systems that were not created for them. That’s where equality comes in – it allows both privileged and oppressed groups to attempt to master the system, but denies that the oppressed groups face huge barriers. Therefore, we need something better than equality, something that acknowledges privilege and tries to even its spread. Something that dismantles the oppression that certain groups have to deal with, just because they aren’t the privileged group. Equity is an attempt at that something, a way of activism and thought that says, “I see you, uneven spread of privilege and oppression. And I am going to learn about you, undermine you, and bring you down”. Equity means creating a world where the only thing stopping any person from achieving THEIR most fulfilling life is their own will power.

Part 2: The longer, but intriguing, more theoretical explanation…

To explain why equity needs to be embraced, I will draw on political and feminist theorist Iris Marion Young’s work Five Faces of Oppression, from her Justice and the Politics of Difference. She defines the social group, which is crucial to the topics of equality and equity, as that which differentiates people in our ordinary discourse: women, men, young, old, racial and ethnic groups, and so on. People don’t just join these groups; their identities are entwined with all that it means to be part of a group. According to Young, “A social group is a collective of persons differentiated from at least one other group by cultural forms, practices, or way of life. Members of a group have a specific affinity with one another because of their similar experience or way of life, which prompts them to associate with one another more than with those not identified with the group, or in a different way”.  The group defines the person, because of the history, social forces, and dynamics with other groups that are related to being a member of that group. This continues at least until the individuals begin to question the thoughts with which they’ve grown up. At that point, a person can choose to reject that social group identity, or have characteristics that are independent of that identity.

For example, a woman is assumed to have all the ‘feminine’ characteristics simply because other people look at her and see a woman. Because she is defined by others, and maybe herself, as a woman, her selfhood is entwined with the stigmas, stereotypes, restrictions, and expected behaviours for a woman. She is constrained by the social forces that affect many, if not all women – forces which have developed and evolved from a history of patriarchy, capitalism, psychological theory (just to name a few, and depending on who you talk to). Of course, it’s not just women who fall into a ‘social group’. It’s blacks, and Muslims, and Aboriginal peoples, and gay men, and transgendered people, and so on and so forth. All these groups are defined by their difference, their Otherness from the so-called neutral, dominant group. Because they look the part of a group, they are assumed to be a certain way.

So how does this tie into equality versus equity? For one, these words signify different views on social group differentiation:

According to Young, the big problem in attempting to eradicate oppression is that people look at groups and see them as an obstacle to justice. It is true that people often think that membership in a social group equals the possession of certain traits, and that this can lead to stereotypes, prejudice, discrimination, and exclusion. The usual view (the equality view) is that to eliminate oppression, we must eliminate groups – instead treating people as individuals who can form their lives freely.

The problem with this is that if we agree with Young’s idea of the social group, then we see that because of the way people’s identities are informed by their social group, individuals cannot form their lives freely. The oppression that people experience due to their group identity, the expectations conferred on them by others, the stigma that comes with their ‘membership’ – all these things combine to ensure that an individual is constrained by their group identity. Young points out that “it is foolish to deny the reality of groups”, and by extension, to pretend that the shared history and experiences that form these groups does not exist. She notes that “group identity is both an inevitable and a desirable aspect of modern social processes. [Thus], social justice… requires not the melting away of differences, but institutions that promote reproduction of and respect for group differences without oppression”. In other words, equity: that which embraces and legitimizes differences, while working to eradicate the oppression of groups. This oppression stems from complex, fluid histories that have led to violence, cultural imperialism, exploitation, marginalization and powerlessness towards these groups.

Equality sees the groups as the problem, and purports that if we can remove the differentiation, things will be better. Equality believes that differentiation leads to stereotypes, judgments, and prejudices, and if we could only eliminate the drive to identify with a group, everyone would be happy. However, it ignores difference by prioritizing the placement of all people into a system where they face the same framework of pre-established values, laws and institutions.

Equity goes to the roots of oppression. Iris Marion Young says that it isn’t the group differentiation that is the problem, but the systems of oppression (characterized by violence, cultural imperialism, exploitation, marginalization, and powerlessness) which lead to the unequal spread of privilege across groups. The goal, therefore, is to discover, analyze, and dismantle these frameworks.

I’ll give another example here, to further elucidate the difference between equality and equity. Since I was about 15, I’ve wanted to be a surgeon. Several years later, hoping to be in med school in a couple years, I still want to be a surgeon. Because of equality, because of the bravery of women over the past century and beyond, I am allowed to be a surgeon. I can apply to med school without my femaleness being a reason to deny me (at least, that’s how it’s supposed to work).  In fact, many medical schools accept more women than men each year. In other words, I have the same opportunity to try for surgery.

Sadly, the reality is that since surgery is extremely competitive and demanding, if I become a surgeon it means probably putting off having a family. As much as I tell myself that I can have it all, choosing a less demanding specialty would give me more time to focus on my family. And as much as women have come a long way, as much as I wouldn’t choose to be with someone who wasn’t fully supportive of my desire to have both a career and a family, the expectation of women to be the nuturing caretakers of home and family remains. The other day, I was at a party having a feminist debate with a close friend of mine (me, the hopeful idealist, versus her, the realist). We were talking about this exact subject, how I’m going to try to have it all, and she said that was impossible because that’s just how things are in the world right now. There was a guy sitting at the table with us, and I asked him if he would want his wife to work full time. “Yeah, of course. She can do whatever she wants.” “So would you ever stay at home to look after the kids while your wife worked, even if she was making way more money than you?” “Nope”. My point is this: until we are in a world where instead of just letting people participate, systems are in place for every single person to succeed at a rate correlating to the effort they put in, we don’t have equal rights. I think of those balancing out systems – systems which spread out privilege so that each group has the same amount – as equity.

For another example, here’s a post that highlights the equity/equality difference. The fact that the US currently has a black president does not erase the fact that black Americans must aim for success in the context of institutions created by the whites that hold power.

Therefore, equality is not enough, because it has come to mean the same conditions for everyone while ignoring the fact that each person is dealing with widely varying experiences. Equality is not enough because it tries to make everyone equals within the existing system – a system that also leads to the oppression of many groups. Equality  means that people of all different races can attend schools of the same quality, but all must learn a curriculum that has been created for the privileged (white) group. These lessons are not representative of every student, and thus students of colour may be subject to a view that denies the contribution, history, and relevances of their race. In this case, equality allows everyone to access and make use of the same conditions, but these conditions have been created for a privileged, power-holding group. The non-privileged groups are oppressed because they are forced to work with a system that was created by the privileged, without taking into account their own realities, needs, experiences and histories. For each person to have the same opportunity to succeed, the realities of their identity – and the oppression they are facing due to the current system – must be recognized.

Equality is not enough because it is a superficial solution. We need an all-encompassing, systemic solution: equity describes the fight for this solution.


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