The Equality Myth


Originally published August 16, 2023, in Twin Cities Business magazine.

In the wake of the Supreme Court's affirmative action ruling, Seena Hodges examines the difference between equality and equity.

“It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.” – Audre Lorde

With the Supreme Court’s recent ruling on Affirmative Action, I am preparing for the reality of a march toward a future that could very well be less racially inclusive at institutions of higher education and beyond. Say what you will about the decision and any subsequent ramifications, but know that at its core is a conversation about race and racial identity.

Striking down affirmative action or teaching students that enslaved people benefited from enslavement are decisions that fail to consider the long-term impact of systemic racism and our continual need to address its long-standing effects.

The truth for all of us is that race exists. And because race exists—racism exists. I always say that when we talk about equity, we cannot have an honest or productive conversation if we don’t purposefully include the topic of race.

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In a speech given at Howard University in June 1965, then President Lyndon B. Johnson offered to the audience, ”You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, ‘You are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair. Thus it is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates.”

In my work, I notice that many people talk about racial equity—why it’s necessary, what the data says, even what they plan to do about it—but in reality, they are espousing and uplifting something completely different. This month, I want to talk about what I call The Equality Myth.

An equality mindset is based on the belief that giving everyone the same thing or treating people equally will yield better outcomes for everyone. An equity mindset acknowledges our collective truth: depending on their circumstances, each person may need something different. Equality fails to recognize differences (racial or otherwise), while equity makes space for all differences.

I define equity as ensuring that every person has exactly what they need in order to participate fully in a given circumstance. But I notice that while our minds talk about equity, our hearts and actions are firmly rooted in equality—the belief that the same thing for everyone is the goal (and in some cases, people believe that to be a bridge too far).

Equity vs. Equality

Standing in our way and most often the albatross around our necks is that we don’t have a fundamental understanding of the difference between the concepts equity and equality. We think we do. Our hearts and minds tell us so, yet in his speech, Johnson points to something I talk about regularly in my work: Some leaders and managers use the language of equity with an equality mindset. Or they engage in actions that are supposed to be rooted in equity with an equality mindset, like bringing everyone to the same starting line. Their challenge is that they fail to recognize that employees may need different things. If 30 people were going to train for a marathon, but each got the same size shoes, the same sized t-shirt, and the same meal plan in the name of “equality,” how many would be successful?

Let me be clear: sometimes being treated equally may be all a person of color needs, but sometimes they need something different. Equity makes room for that. The prevalence of The Equality Myth means when people hear the word different, they sometimes think “more.” And that’s not necessarily true. An on-site prayer room for daily worship is not “more” than having every Sunday off work to worship at a church. It’s just different.

As a leader, you must understand the difference between equality and equity. Here’s why: when you don’t know the difference between equality and equity and you create processes, systems, and procedures rooted in equality, not equity, you’re going to have some challenges on your hands. In the long run, it will take more time, money, and effort from you and your organization if you apply an equality mindset rather than an equity one. For example, a company may create a company-wide holiday calendar that identifies 12 specific days each year that staff are given holiday time off. That sounds fair and simple, right? After that holiday calendar is rolled out to staff, many managers throughout the company will need to meet with individuals who need different holiday time off because their religious celebrations don’t fall on the specified 12 days. Those employees then need to explain their situation to their teams, too. That’s hours of wasted time and quite an uncomfortable experience for the employees who have to define and defend their religious holidays.

What could have happened? From the outset, the company policy could have been, “Each employee gets 12 days each year that they can take for holiday celebration. Individuals can choose which 12 days and add ‘Holiday’ to their calendar to communicate to their team that they are not working.” No meetings, no explanations, no default holidays that inevitably exclude some people, ultimately, a more equitable approach.

I always say that the issues we are contending with today are by no means new. For instance, affirmative action, the issue at stake in the recent Supreme Court decision, has been a conversation topic for half a century. If you were diagnosed with an illness and were taking medicine to help cure said illness, what would you do if the medicine stopped working? You would find another treatment. What we’ve been doing to “cure” racism hasn’t worked. We’ve been aiming for equality or defining our work using equality as the goalpost, which hasn’t worked. The racial wealth gap, the racial education gap, and numerous other data points clearly tell us this. So we need a new treatment. And while enacting and updating laws yielded some progress, but hasn’t improved our overall outcomes.

Because of the ongoing persistence of racial inequity, people of color in a work context might need different things than white people. As a leader in business, and by extension, the community, you must recognize that Black people in your universe may need different things than white people. They may not, but they may. It is imperative that we have a fundamental understanding of equity and equality and how race and racial identity play into those concepts.

Moving from an equality mindset to an equity mindset:

  • •One size fits all and benefits all → Everyone may need something different
  • •“Fair” is the goal → “Fair” is subjective and not always an accurate measure of effectiveness
  • •Everyone should be able to achieve the same outcomes with the same inputs and expectations → The same inputs and expectations will impact people based on their lived experience—especially their racialized lived experience—thus affecting the outcomes

If you are wondering how to implement an equity mindset, the starting point is asking, “What does each person need to achieve the desired outcomes?” Ask people what they need, and take action with their answers in mind. You don’t have to have all the answers, in fact, it serves you well to believe you don’t have all the answers. As a leader, be open to listening and willing to do something about it based on what you learn.

Whether or not we know it, aspiring toward racial equality is actually holding us back. You might be saying, “Seena, what do you mean?” What I mean is that all of our efforts need to be rooted in creating true racial equity because equality has never been and will likely never be enough.

If we are going to aim for racial equity, we are going to have to push beyond our benevolence. That “I am doing a great thing because I’m fighting for equality” posture won’t work because fighting for equality means you’re not even in the right arena. You have to work to meet people’s needs, not simply to give everyone the same thing.

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