Equality, Diversity, and Equity Are Not the Same Thing.
If we’re serious about meeting the challenge of equity in our schools, we need to stop using them interchangeably.
When it comes to issues around equity and systemic injustice, I’m still very much in the learner’s camp. As a white, cisgender, heterosexual, middle-class man, I strive to walk a path of sincere conviction and genuine humility. I recognize the system works differently for me than it does for my friends and family of color, but I clearly don’t have a lived experience that I draw upon to view the world through that lens. As a result, I’m constantly re-evaluating what it means for me to step up, step back, and truly be a co-conspirator in this work.
That said, there are things that I can offer the people in my circle at my school district — along with countless others across the country — who are currently revisiting and wrestling with some of the fundamental questions around access, fairness, and justice within our school system. Something we can ill afford not to address is the intentionality with which we use our words.
From district visions to school missions to everyday conversations with colleagues, we misuse words a lot in schools — perhaps none so haphazardly as words like diversity, equity, and equality. We pepper our guiding documents and professional dialogues with them, tiptoeing our way toward what we perceive as “correctness”, but at the expense of saying — and therefore doing — what we really mean.
So let’s get a few things straight.
One of the most ubiquitous words in education, we use diversity to describe everyone from students with special needs, to kids whose first language isn’t English, to those from impoverished communities. Even gifted students are often classified under the diversity label. Diversity can mean people that are more left-brained or right-brained, those that come from rural communities as opposed to urban or suburban, and of course, an individual whose racial identity is non-white. As a man, even I have been used to meet diversity quotas during the course of my career because education is a field dominated by women.
When a white man in America is used in a diversity initiative, there’s something fundamentally wrong with our collective priorities. The system works better for me and those that look like me than for any other subgroup we measure. Access to k-12 or k-5 teaching positions by white men in this country — while we may be in the minority numerically—is not a manifestation of a lack of opportunity or structural inequity. It’s largely a choice that’s indicative of a more paternalistic cultural norm. That’s very different than historical exclusion based on power.
When we take a word and use it to mean almost anything, it eventually comes to mean practically nothing at all. Many well-meaning people who use the word diversity do so in order to be strategically inclusive, particularly of historically marginalized communities. But when vague notions of mere difference become the metric by which we measure diversity, nothing changes in respect to our institutional outcomes.
Diversity by itself is important, but it’s a low bar, and an inadequate response to systemic injustice.
Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade illustrated the concept of equality most profoundly for me in his talk Fools, Foes, and Freedom: Which One Will We Feed:
Amaru [my son] is constantly thirsty. Taiyari [my other son] is constantly hungry. In the current system that we have, we give them each a bottle of water. Is that equal? There’s nothing in the definition of equality that includes fairness. That is actually the working definition of equality. Everybody gets the same. Your reaction is the fact that they’re not the same, so that is fundamentally unfair…the truth is that we’ve built an education system — we’ve built a cultural paradigm — that says everybody gets to act like they’re white, Anglo-Saxon, protestant, heterosexual, males; and the closer you act to that, the more you get rewarded. And the less you act to that, the more you find yourself on the margins.
Ideally equality is about providing the same access to quality resources and services across the board. But not even 62 years after 1954's Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, KS, have we even come close to a paradigm of educational equality — and everybody knows it. Schools that serve poor and working-class communities, particularly communities of color, are provided vastly different opportunities than schools serving children, particularly white ones, living in wealthier suburban communities.
But equality’s the wrong goal. Students in poor and working-class communities have fundamentally different needs than kids in affluent suburbs. Our aim therefore shouldn’t be about providing the same materials for them all, but about meeting them each where they’re at and then in genuine partnership, charting a course to get them to where they need to be. That’s where equity comes in.
Equity goes beyond diversity. True equity by necessity is community-responsive; not one-size-fits-all. Equity isn’t about sameness. It’s about recognizing uniqueness whether that uniqueness comes from an individual, a family, or a community. It’s about addressing needs that are differentiated. It’s about naming the injustices inherent in our current systems, charting pathways that focus on rectifying them, and wrestling with what it means for historically marginalized communities to truly have justice, autonomy, and freedom in the ways in which they define those terms.
If we’re serious about living up to the lofty rhetoric in our country’s founding documents, if we mean what we say about the idealism we seek with living in a pluralistic, multi-racial democracy, then we can’t afford to be vague about what our responsibilities are in the work that we do with children. We need to be clear with the words we use and the actions we take about where we stand today so that we can chart a path for a better — and more equitable — tomorrow.