Ian McLaughlin & Ryan Williams-Virden
In terms of the dictionary, equity covers everything from, “The quality of being fair or impartial; fairness; impartiality” (Dictionary.com) to “Justice according to natural law or right” (Merriam-Webster). In the world of education, when we talk about equity, we are generally referring to racial equity, but what does that mean? It has taken me years to grasp this term. coming into education I thought I was woke because I clearly knew equity did not mean equality, but beyond that I had no idea how actually clueless I was about the term and what it meant for my actions. Below are some iterations of understanding that I went through and have heard others go through - that do NOT equal equity - understandings that may be important but can often derail us from the truth and ultimately derail us from truly equitable outcomes.
Equity is NOT simply “people get what they need”
I thought for years this was equity. As a special educator, I have had many students that get adaptations because of a disability which at times might look like privileges to other students who do not get the adaptation. When other students ask for such privileges I have my go to answer - “people get what they need, and you don't need blank support....” While Webster might include this in it’s framework of equity, and while it can be a powerful, true and important statement for students and adults, it is not equity. “Need” is a funny word - both simple and complex - what does a person really need? Does Harvard need to raise money or charge tuition or receive tax breaks with an endowment of 36.4 Billion dollars? People getting what they ‘need’ does not balance over 300 years of systematic oppression - over 300 years of denied access to resources. Equity means taking resources from the group that has more than they need, a group that has not been systematically oppressed for over 300 years - in order to give additional resources to people who have been systematically oppressed for over 300 years.
Equity is NOT “knowing the whole student”
I recently had a chat with the director of a very high performing, predominantly white, private school who noted their targeted equity work meant learning about and understanding the whole student including their identity (a definition which conveniently tip-toed around the word race). Knowing the whole student is a very important part of any teaching - and this is especially true when a teacher represents the dominant group (i.e. cisgender, heterosexual, white), and any one of their students does not (i.e. non-european/non-white, or/and lgbtq, etc.). However, “knowing the whole student,” while important, does not necessarily lead to reshifting access to resources for groups of people that have been systematically excluded from access to resources based on race for over 300 years. Taking bold steps like increasing scholarships to systematically oppressed people of color, or changing tuition structures based on ‘need’, or using huge endowments to support poorly funded schools that actually increase social mobility (versus entrenched, and wealthy institutions that uphold rigid racial and class lines) would be closer to equity.
Equity is NOT “liberation”
Equity is not the end game, it is a step along the path. If you haven't read between the lines, equity means redistribution - equitable actions are actions that lead to a redistribution of resources and opportunities. The wealth & resources hoarded by a select group of white people needs to be redistributed to people of color who have been systematically excluded from gaining wealth and resources for over 300 years through legal actions like slavery, segregation, redlining, the new deal, the war on drugs, mass incarceration and more. In New Orleans, Chef Tunde Way’s experiment of charging white people $28 more for meals at Saartj Food Truck then giving the extra money directly to customers of color found that roughly 80% of white folks are willing to pay the higher price. This demonstrated that on a very small scale many white people are up for redistribution - at least if it only costs 28 dollars for a one-time tasty meal. Some college teachers’ unions are taking up the cause of redistribution by imposing a “cultural tax” on colleges which in some cases provides stipends to faculty of color for the fact that their are so few faculty of color which usually means staff of color end up doing a lot more work (like being on more committees so the committees are more racially representative or mentoring more students).
While these are small forms of redistribution, even if all resources in the U.S. were redistributed it does not mean the pain passed down from slavery, indentured servitude, genocide, relocation, internment camps, exploitation, hate and generations of murdering (pain passed down from Black ancestors, white ancestors, Native ancestors, LatinX ancestors & Asian ancestors) will suddenly be healed and the millions of Black, and LatinX people literally incarcerated at disproportional rates will suddenly be free. Equity is not freedom, but it is a step... a hard step to take the more we realize what equity means; it means giving something up for many people (who may not feel they have what they need to begin with); it means redistribution to balance generational privilege that was never afforded equally, and while it may not solve all the problems created by centuries of oppression, it is an important step on the road to liberation.
Equity in Schools Part 2: Covers how misunderstandings can detour us from equity and cause harm.
Equity in Schools Part 3: Covers how to use an understanding of equity to obtain equitable outcomes.