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Equity Before Equality


By Lucía Baigorrí Haüen

“Equality” and “equity” are two words that are often used interchangeably. Fair enough, they look and sound pretty similar. However, being alert to language nuances can be very empowering. Part of me believes that the common treatment of certain concepts as synonyms serves a purpose: whenever one is not aware of the possibilities available, it is difficult to picture an alternative, aspire to live differently and act in consequence.

All men are created equal. Todos somos iguales antes la ley. Liberté, égalité, fraternité. We have revisited this idea over and over, in religious texts, legal documents, literature, and inspirational bumper stickers. We have come to incorporate the theory by force of repetition, so when faced with an unjust situation, we fall into the trap of wondering (even if for a nanosecond) what the people in that given situation did not to live up to the equality ideal.

It is hard to deny that we are a pretty awesome group of mammals. Larger and complex brains, an aptitude for language, and fine motor skills are just some of the ingredients in the recipe for evolutionary success. However, this very same group of modern humans has always managed to find a way to draw both physical and symbolic boundaries that exclude some of its members from access to rights, opportunities, and resources. A lot has been done to dismantle some of those oppressing structures in recent decades, but most will agree (I know some that won’t) that equality still remains a fragile ideal that requires constant watch and struggle.

So yes, we are all created equal; that is a beautiful principle to live by. However, something goes wrong along the way that makes equity necessary before equality. George Orwell put it better: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” A quick look at our world is enough to notice that the “more equal” status in this day and age tends to be held by white, upper-middle class, cisgender, able bodied heterosexual males. Anyone who deviates from this norm in one or multiple ways immediately sees their right to be equal under threat. Under this premise, how can granting equal opportunities to everyone, when everyone’s starting point in life is different and vulnerable to these constructions around race, ethnicity, gender, and class (to name a few), ever work? The way things are, striving for equity is what will ensure people’s access to the same opportunities, relative to their (arbitrarily acquired) status in life. As stated earlier, we must first have equity in order to enjoy equality.

I come from a country that is far, very far from being perfect. However, half of my life I witnessed the work of an administration that attempted to build a strong state apparatus (not without its abuses and drawbacks). This expansion included a revision of media monopolies and taxation systems, the introduction of social protection programs and progressive legislation on matters such as same sex marriage, gender identity, healthcare, and retirement plans. The implementation of these laws met lots of controversy and I will not deny that many measures ended up being empty promises with little impact on society. Having said that, the strides taken towards equity cannot be denied. The other thing that is hard to miss is that the criticism produced by most detractors came from the fear of losing long-standing privileges by granting a “more equal” status to a wider section of society.

We are bound to be diverse. We come in different shapes and colors, make efforts to survive in different geographies, see, learn, and think about the world in various ways. Conflict arises when it is determined that certain differences are better than others. While solely advocating for equality denies a painful legacy of exclusion, working towards equity and social justice is likely to prevent the present system from replicating itself for centuries on end.

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