Why Equality is actively harmful to Equity



A few weeks ago, I gave a keynote speech to a large group of youth involved in philanthropy, along with a few of their parents and mentors. My topic was “The Role of Equity in Philanthropy.” It was awesome that we had kids ages 8 to 24 engaged in grantmaking and other aspects of philanthropy. They were smart and hungry and full of hope and possibilities, bright minds not yet beaten down to a haggard shell haunted by endless grant rejections and complex community dynamics and the sudden dawning realization of the ephemerality of existence, cowering in the supply closet on a fold-out cot, cradling a stuffed unicorn while Green Day’s “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” plays softly from a phone.

(What, like your Friday nights are soooo much more exciting.)

“As budding philanthropists,” I said to the youth, “you have probably seen the illustration of the difference between Equality and Equity. You know, the drawing of those kids standing on those boxes looking over a fence at people playing baseball.”

As if on cue, two kids came up to the stage with a drawing they had done earlier of the iconic image on easel paper. I stuck it to the lectern. “Get used to this image,” I said, “Have it burned into your mind. Because you will not be able to avoid it. It will haunt your dreams.”

Equality and Equity are frequently brought up in our field, oftentimes with colorful metaphors like “Equality is making sure everyone gets a pair of shoes, but Equity is ensuring that everyone’s shoes actually fits them.” A female colleague of mine once said, “Think about bathrooms. Equality is about men and women both having bathrooms. But Equity is ensuring that…uh…there’s more toilet paper in the women’s bathroom, because we need it more…” 

Whatever the metaphor, there seems to be this general belief that Equity is an advanced version of Equality, or that they both are great but in different ways. But in the past few years, I’ve seen more and more evidence that Equality actually prevents Equity from succeeding. Equality is a strong force, and we are drawn to its sexy and hypnotic, but ultimately destructive power. Here are a few areas, some discussed in previous posts, where Equality’s gravity pulls us into its deadly orbit:

Our hiring system, where Equality brainwashed us to solicit resumes and covers, toss out any applications with typos, and reject applicants who are not charismatic interviewees. Everyone gets an equal chance. Screw the fact that many people, like me, do not have English as their first language, so they may make a few mistakes. Or that some applicants are hard workers but they just suck at interviews. (See “Our hiring system is inequitable and need to change.”)

Our grant application process is entirely framed around Equality: The same equal process, equally accessible to all, where the best written applications score the most points and win. This disregards, for example, the fact that grassroots organizations, especially those led by communities of color, may not have the staff support or resources to write the best applications, even for funding designed to support these communities. (See “Funders, your application process may be perpetuating inequity.”)

The challenges facing single-ethnicity organizations. Nonprofits that are focused on a particular ethnic community face having to constantly defend themselves. When I was ED of my previous organization, the Vietnamese Friendship Association, I remember one person I met being incredibly offended after finding out where I worked. “Why can’t you serve everyone?” she asked, visibly indignant. Being multicultural is more in line with our ideas of Equality, which explains why it is often easier to find funding when you “serve everyone” versus doing a really good job serving one particular community.

In society, we see examples of how compelling and harmful Equality is:

Colorblindness. People who insist they don’t see color have bought into the concept of Equality. But we in this sector know that when we don’t see color, we also don’t see institutionalized racism and oppression and the role we may be playing in perpetuating it. The insistence on the Equality of not seeing color actively prevents all of us from addressing these entrenched challenges.   

All lives matter. Same goes with those who insist that “all lives matter” in response to the Black Lives Matter movement. They are indignant, as if the focus on Black lives somehow negates the importance of other lives. All lives matter is about Equality, while Black Lives Matter is about Equity. And just like with colorblindness, when we fall into this trap of Equality, it becomes much harder to effectively see and tackle systemic injustice.

The bias toward Equality has led to all sorts of harmful philosophies and practices, from bootstrapping to trickle-down economics to taking away food stamps from families where kids don’t make good grades.

The last few years, Equity has been everywhere. You can’t avoid it. Funders are putting it on their websites and RFPs. We have summits on it. We put up images of those three kids and the boxes and the baseball game, and everyone goes, “Yeah, that totally makes sense! Equity is awesome! All those kids can now see the game!”

But what I have observed, after talking to organizations led by communities that are of color, LGBTQ, disabled, rural, or some combination of the above, is that we are all still frustratingly governed by Equality. The concept of Equality is compelling because it is easier to understand, less messy, and less risky than Equity. Equality requires less effort to grasp. True Equity takes time, energy, and thoughtfulness. It requires us to reexamine everything we know and change systems and practices that we have been using for hundreds of years. This is often painful and uncomfortable. So we openly flirt with Equity while still staying firmly in the arms of Equality. The boxes are rarely moved. The little kid still struggles to see over the fence. 

So, what do we do about it?

The youth I talked to were thoughtful as we dissected the image of the kids on the boxes. What is so wrong about being “short”? Why are the kids only looking at a game and not playing in it? Why is there a fence there in the first place? Who are the owners and coaches for the game?  

Encouraging our youth leaders to think differently is critical. But all of us have a lot to do to render the abstract into actual practices. I have brought up some potential solutions in previous posts (change hiring practices, change grantmaking processes, invest in ethnic organizations, support leaders of tulippdcolor, take more risks, etc.). But the important thing is that we in the nonprofit sector, a sector whose primary reason for existing is to help correct the injustices in the world, need to recognize the true nature of Equality and move away from it. It is not just a harmless, less sophisticated cousin of Equity. It is a comforting but destructive illusion.

In an ideal world, Equality would be a great outcome to aspire to. But in this current reality, Equality is often an insidious force, a weed disguised as a flower that prevents the seeds of Equity from germinating. And if we are truly serious about Equity, we have to walk a different path. Because, like Green Day says in their song, before they changed it: “I walk a lonely road/the only one that I have ever known/don’t know where it goes/but it is a safe and comforting illusion of progress that will prevent any actual systemic change required to achieve true Equity and social justice.”

On a different topic, my colleague, the legendary Pamela Grow, is hosting November’s Nonprofit Blog Carnival. The theme this month is “how are you adopting an abundance mindset?” We in the nonprofit sector are too often governed by fear and a scarcity mindset. I’m interested in your thoughts on how we can break out of that. Submit a blog post and possibly get featured on the Carnival. Details here

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7 thoughts on “Why Equality is actively harmful to Equity

  1. Mona T. Han

    Vu: you are simply awesome. I would like to think that the nonprofit sector will work towards a more equity minded process, but without changing the systems that expect equality and meritocracy, its rather impossible. Its great that folks are realizing the importance of everyone having a “place at the table”, or opening up opportunities to go after funding sources. However, the system is set up to expect the “usual” checks and balances from everyone. For example, funders expecting the trending catchy nonprofit jargon in beautifully written grants, financial audits, evidence-based methodology, financial controls, quantitative outcomes, etc., while not valuing the qualitative, targeted, prompt support community based organizations are providing to their own communities. I think its lazy to expect only numeric, measurable outcomes. Funders should invest in designing tools that measure quality of work as well, IMHO.
    Thanks again, for bringing attention to this important topic.

  2. Debbie Duncan

    Excellent post! Confusion is rife. It is so hard to separate the biases with which we have been indoctrinated, examine their nature & applicability and questions whether they reflect our current values. We can all be so eager to demonstrate our commitment to equality, blindly ignoring whatever positions of privilege /blindness /advantage apply. People disparage being “politically correct” by rote as being unfair (which can be true), but often then turn around and apply “equality” as the appropriate standard, not seeing the underlying bias in favor of the “norm” (privileged or dominant standard). The need for education, humanizing (not “othering”), sharing experience and critical thinking looms large. And it will not disappear for generations to come, it is so deeply ingrained, I fear.

  3. verucaamish

    I’ve given those presentations but without your truth telling. If I were ever able to be directive with young philanthropists, I would tell them to have actual conversations and not rely on presentations and reports. Actually talk to people who are doing the work and who are the constituents and ask the following questions – how are the voices of actual constituents included in your work? What does accessibility look like for your organization – big ways (mission, budget) and little ways (does childcare get reimbursed? What sources of information do you use?)? Making a shiny presentation shows awesome presentation skills, it is NOT an indicator of community connection, social capital, and trust. On the abundance question here’s the most direct way – extend deadlines and set deadlines that are well before something is actually due. Contrary to college papers, people do their best work when your have the time to consider and reflect.

  4. Patricia Garza

    This was so helpful and now I can easily share this blog post to my diversity taskforce so we can have a quality conversation around the difference of these two terms!

  5. Daniel Howard

    Equity was tried in the USSR and Maoist China and other oppressive and tyrannical communist regimes and it didn’t exactly work out well. In order to have equity or rather ‘equality of outcome’ it must be done through force and stripping those deemed ‘privileged’ of their livelihoods which is the antithesis of a liberal and free society.

    There will always be inequalities due to biological and social differences in humans. What would you do if somebody were more intelligent and strived in their career whilst another were less intelligent and didn’t push himself or herself to work as hard? Punish the more intelligent one and reward the less intelligent one?

    I’m all for equality of opportunity and believe everyone deserves the same rights and basic needs but I’m against this communist idea of forcing everyone to be the same because it is tyrannical and will never work.

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