We’re Creating Equity. But What does Equity Look Like?
“You always never know.” This is a phrased deposited regularly into conversation in my household because, well, you always never know. I learned this charming piece of wisdom from a yoga guru who in turn, learned it from her son. Children can be so preciously smart. When I speak with my own child about racism, I try to help her understand the future so many are trying to build for her and her generation. She’s still very young but even still she asks sharp questions and has astute observations. She tells me, there are some bad police out there who have hate in their hearts. They should have love in their heart. Let’s write the bad police a letter telling them not to hate. Dear bad police. Have love in your heart. Don’t kill black people.
She is right. At this moment in time, in all moments in time, we need love in our hearts. And we also need direction. Standing here at history’s great crossroads we need some clarity on where we are trying to go. The national and global cry for equity is ringing out from sea to shining sea. And while there are many who want to keep our nation as it has always been, the call to change, I believe, I hope, will drown out the song of maintaining the status quo.
This national awakening is founded on moving away from what was. Removing statues which represent a broken past. Changing names of sports teams to do away with the supremacy of what was. Dismantling police cultures which disproportionately target, brutalize, incarcerate, and kill people with black and brown skin. More and more we, people with privilege, people who are white, are seeing all the wrongdoing of the past that those without privilege know as intimately as the brown and black skin on the back of their hands.
We are coming to a national consensus of what the rear-view mirror looks like. But what about the future?
We want equity for all people. In the founding document of our great nation as they drew a picture of America, the new Promised Land, our visionary founders stated that all men were created equal. And yet, for centuries we have mangled, manipulated, and sickened the concept of equity over and over. In claiming a different future, we must reclaim what equity is and can be. Equity can take on many forms and if we craft the wrong one, we will have lost. Here, let’s look at three modes of equity: Joining the Dominant Group, Separate But Equal and Human Soup.
Joining the Dominant Group: Currently we live in a world which I will oversimply divide into two categories: Those who are in the dominant culture and those who are not. The first form of equity is admitting those outside of the dominant culture in. Efforts for equality prior to now have largely taken this form. Spoiler alert: It does not work. Dominant culture dictates what proper, right and good looks like for all aspects of society. It determines the norms for everyone, and it looks like its creators. How we talk, dress, dance, date are all dictated by these rules. Equity in this mode looks like those in the non-dominant culture adopting the mores of the dominants and forsaking their own. A black friend of mine, who went to an ivy league college and has a master’s degree, who is financially successful, tells this story exemplifying how this approach fails. His white colleagues say to him, “wow, you’re so articulate.” What they are saying is, you’re so articulate for a black person. They are complimenting him not on his elocution, but on his ability to conform to the norms of the dominants. This is where microaggressions come into play. A series of comments meant as compliments or neutral statements which are deeply hurtful because they say to the non-dominant person “we don’t expect you to be one of us and yet here you are fitting in just fine! What a surprise!” My friend says that many people with black skin will try to fit but also many will lose a sense of their own identity on the way. So many of my friends, he tells me, have played that game for so long, they no longer know who they are.
If equity includes the annihilation of identity, is it really equity or is it just domination? This would be the most comfortable for those in the dominant culture and most painful for everyone else. Quite frankly, at this point, I think those who do not fit the white mold have already suffered enough.
Separate but Equal: I hope your alarm bells are already blaring. Equity could look like a black America and a White America. Except we know we are called to be one nation where we hold these truths to be self-evident-life liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Separate but equal means we stay separate. We are never truly one. In pandemic world, I hope we are coming to realize that our oneness is a given.
Additionally, separate but equal has historically meant separate but separate. Black communities and white communities segregated one from the other. With a disproportionate amount of resources being poured into white communities. A different black friend of mine once told me she wished they had never ended segregation. We would be doing ok if the white folks had just left us alone. She talked about black-owned business, clubs, community centers and the like. Maybe she is right. But here is the problem, historically white people have sought to tear down and destroy the successes and gains of the black community. I am thinking of the Tulsa riots and the destruction of Black Wall Street. As long as we are separate, we will always be separate. And that separation will continue to breed fear. We can only love what we know and if we do not know one another, how can we have actual equality?
Human Soup: This brings us to the third option. What if…what if we lived in a world where everyone respected each other’s different cultures? What if, instead of a melting pot where everyone has to come out white, we were a human soup with all cultures and flavors of humanity mixed in to create a glorious dish? What if when we, white people, saw a black person with their pants down low we trained ourselves to think, “Oh isn’t that interesting! I wonder if that has some cultural meaning?” instead of “I am so disgusted to see that person’s bottom hanging out.” The former creates a new world with new possibilities. The latter is expecting the non-dominant culture to abide by the rules of the dominants. Historically, in families with little money, often black families because of a long-standing history of marginalization, degradation, isolation and oppression, children had to wear clothes way too small for them. To make it work, young men would pull their pants down below their bottoms. At some point, it just became part of the culture. Now that you know, next time you see this norm, hopefully you can experience it and many others in a new light.
Human Soup requires all people being respectful of all peoples, all groups, all identities for what they are without fear of dominion of one over the other. Believing this means living as if there is enough to go around without hoarding power, resources or access to either.
As I consider these ideas, I have found myself wondering how we get from where we are to where fulfillment can be. I recently spoke about this with a friend who is the local president of the NAACP. Very smartly he said, we need to start in the first model, build the second so we can come to the third. I believe in hierarchies, he said. The black community has always tried to succeed within the white hierarchy but people there have worked hard to keep us from ascending. Now is a time for us to build our own hierarchies and power structures so we can be in positions of power to negotiate with our white counterpart. Once we have equity with one another, then and only then can we come together as equals.
You always never know. From here to there seems so very, very far. And yet. By seeing where we are and knowing where we need to go, then we have a chance of getting there. With love in our hearts, with our eyes on the future, that Promised land may at last be in our reach.