How to Spark Change: the Distinction Between Equity and Equality

Written By: Shayla Joshi

A distinction that is often overlooked is that of equity versus equality. Sure, in general terms, most people understand the definitions of these words, but what do they mean when executed? What do they signify as ideals? The distinction between equality and equity is paramount in addressing the systemic barriers rooted in our society’s foundation.

Equality, as we know, is when all individuals are considered equal (1). However, this can never be true in practice, given humanity’s unjust past. The institutions that our society has been founded on are not inherently equal; prejudice runs deep. Take, for instance, the police force, which in some states began as a system to return runaway slaves (2). Since those times, the root of the policing system has yet to change its intentions drastically. This is seen through the incarceration system wherein people of colour are overrepresented due to law enforcement’s racist foundation (3). Our founding institutions’ failure to treat individuals as equals ensures that we, as a society, cannot do so. For our society to be truly equal, there cannot be any biases or prejudices. These biases come about due to differentiating factors that can be used to single out individuals and divide them into groups. Differentiating factors are inevitable. Every individual has a different set of DNA; phenotypically, it is impossible for us all to be equal. Given physical differences, throughout history, we have distinguished individuals based upon these factors. Today, our mindsets may be different, but we are still a result of the environment in which we are brought up. The foundations of modern society are unjust, and thus those ideals are unconscious within us, whether we comply with them or not. This will continue unless we teach future generations to adopt a new approach that addresses foundational issues. 

Before we can address the aforementioned issues directly, we must evaluate an equitable approach. Equity is a distribution based on need; an execution of justice and fairness (4). Instead of preaching equality, we should be employing equitable solutions to problems. Let me paint a picture (that you may or may not have seen on Instagram, 5). Three people are trying to look over a 5 foot 5-inch tall wooden fence. Anna is 5’1, Jaime is 5’4, and Steve is 6’2. Right off the bat, Steve can see clearly over the fence. Jaime can just see over the fence if they crane their neck, and Anna cannot see over the fence. An equal solution would be to give everyone a 6-inch stool so they can each see. The issue with this ‘solution’ is that it allows all three individuals to see over the fence, but it does not address the inherent problem. An equitable solution would be to give each individual the unique support they need to see over the fence: Anna would get a 6-inch stool, and Jaime would get a 3-inch stool. This solution addresses the individuals equitably to ensure that they are all obtaining what they need to see over the fence. That is the benefit and distinction of equity compared to equality. Equity addresses individuals, whereas equality focuses on an overarching ‘solution’, hoping it will cover all of its bases. 

Now that this distinction has been made, let us go back to the concept of generational change. Ideal solutions to many instances of injustice lie within the restructuring of founding institutions, as mentioned prior. Given our example above, a true solution would be to change the wooden fence to a chain-link fence. By addressing the systemic barrier, no support needs to be provided for each individual. However,  this is not always attainable instantaneously; which is where generational change comes in. We may not be able to address issues that have been created over generations, and they may take generations to destroy, but we can create change by reevaluating our mindsets and applying equitable solutions. 

In situations of injustice, it is crucial to consider the root of the problem and address it directly, as opposed to creating simpler seeming solutions. The direct solutions cannot be obtained without an understanding and implementation of equity. By adopting an equitable mindset in lieu of an equal one, we appreciate differences instead of suppressing them. We are not all born with the same privileges, but what we do with those privileges to fight against systemic injustices is what matters.



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