I have a problem with the statement “all men are created equal”. Not just because it only refers to a little under half of the species, nor because it implies a creator, though both of those things grate on me, but because I simply believe that it just isn’t true. Before you start arguing about sexism or racism or any of the other –isms that we’re not supposed to have these days, hear me out. I think those are all nasty ways of looking at the world too. Saying we’re all “equal” just isn’t enough. We need to do better.
Equal implies sameness: “two plus two equals four” and all that. It implies that both parties in the equation are interchangeable, commutable for us math nerds, and at best, dismisses the uniqueness of the individuals or groups involved in the equation. Okay, so we’re not all the same. That’s obvious, you tell me: we look different, like different things on our burgers (anyone else for mayo and mushrooms?) and have picked up different habits and patterns of speech based on where we live. But we can still be equal, right? Well, let’s think about what really means.
To start, let’s compare equality and equity. The word equity isn’t used quite as much, and until I started thinking about it in a more deliberate fashion, I thought they were synonyms. They’re not. Let’s use an example: three kids are trying to watch a baseball game, all stair-stepped in height. The oldest can almost see over the fence, the next comes up to his older siblings’ elbow, and the youngest one isn’t even half as tall as the fence. Now, let’s treat them equally: each child gets to stand on a milk crate. This is great for the oldest: they can now see over the fence. The other two still can’t. Now let’s go for equity: the oldest gets to keep their single crate, but let’s give another one to the middle child and two more to the youngest. Now they can all see over the fence and enjoy the game.
Which scenario is the most fair? The one in which they all got one crate each, or the one in which they could all watch the game? In the equity scenario, we did give one of the kids three times what we gave another, but that’s what it took for all of them to have the same experience at the game. It matters whether we’re looking at the beginning or the end of the story: the action or the effect of that action. And that, to me, is the difference between equality and equity.
Cute, you may be thinking, the kids can now watch the game. So what? Well, back to those –ism words we don’t like. Currently both racism and sexism are prominent in our national discussion. First, racism: to frame that discussion, we’ll have to look (briefly, it is just a blog post) at institutional oppression and privilege, much of which goes back generations. Lingering economic effects of slavery and the policies that followed, decades of institutionalized discrimination in housing, employment, and access to all manner of services, the persistent negative cycle of underfunded public education, the challenge of English as a second language, and sensationalized media coverage are among the factors that can make one group effectively “shorter” than another in our baseball-watching analogy. (It’s not a perfect analogy, just work with me here.) Conversely, privilege, whether by virtue of being white, pretty, rich, thin, born in a good neighborhood with good schools, or any number of other things, makes other groups effectively taller.
While that sinks in, let’s look at sexism. Childbirth is a great example: quite simply, no matter how much we might like to think it, women and men simply aren’t interchangeable. I can have a child and breastfeed it, my husband can’t. Gender differences extend beyond simple biology: some of what we see as either masculine or feminine is the result of societal expectations, media portrayals, (and toy company marketing – gag me with a pink spoon), but regardless of their origins or how immutable or not these differences are, they exist in the world we live in today. Traditional divides over what is “women’s work”, combined with the impact of birth and childcare, have contributed to a significant gap in lifetime earning potential between the sexes and unequal access to power (both corporate and governmental). Other issues like domestic and sexual violence (or just the fear of it), reproductive rights, and the media’s portrayal of women further contribute to the “height difference” between our girl child and our boy child trying to watch that game.
Many – if not all – of these societal factors are bigger and encompass more of history than any individual can single-handedly influence (it’s not about personal blame), but that doesn’t mean their impacts aren’t real. The question is: what are we going to do about it? Are we going to keep insisting on equality and then telling the shorter kids it’s their fault when they can’t see over the fence? Or are we going to work for equity and make sure everyone has a good view? And if you have a problem with the idea of giving the kids crates in the first place – maybe you think they should have to build their own? – then I would challenge you to think about what if they were actually your children, or what if you were the short one, or just, simply, what kind of world do you really want to live in?
I want a world where we all have a good view. To get there, I believe we have to rethink our idea of “fairness” and be honest with ourselves about how close to the top of the fence those of us with privilege already are. (And keep in mind that helping someone else see doesn’t ruin our own view.) Telling someone born into poverty and faced with institutionalized oppression (even if today it may be largely unintentional at the individual level and non-obvious) that they should just “get over it” or “work harder” isn’t enough. Insisting on gender-blind employment and compensation policies without acknowledging the reality of our differences doesn’t value each of us as whole people or the work of caregiving appropriately. Thinking that all of the tall kids can see only because of something they individually did is also a dangerous oversimplification: though we should all be encouraged and empowered to build our own milk crates when we can, think about the skill, strength, materials, and tools that are necessary to do that.
Insisting that “all men are created equal” is sufficient as a basis for justice and fairness in our society is a cop-out. What we should be insisting on instead is that we all celebrate our differences while working for real, tangible equity.
Image from http://theequityline.org/