When Equity Became Meaningless
Updated: Dec 8, 2021
I remember the first time I realized we had an equity problem. And by equity problem, I mean the actual word equity.
As "a person in this world" (as my favorite boss would say), it was when I tried to discuss a past job with my dad and he jokingly (with a VERY furrowed brow in solidarity with my organization) asked why on earth they would let me do anything with numbers or company shares (his concerns were entirely warranted — I take my Robinhood account as seriously as I do my turnips from Animal Crossing). For him, and almost anyone else outside of my/our sector (the U.S. settler-created industrial philanthropic complex), equity has to do with shares in a company. Equity is a financial term.
In philanthropy, the moment that I knew we were causing harm by choosing the word equity lives vividly in my mind. I was in a room with an expert communications strategist and we were tag-teaming on making the case for using more explicit language in our organizational writing to our leadership team. We were *brace yourselves* asking to use the words racial equity instead of equity on its own. We weren't even pushing for the bad boys of this work: white supremacy, decolonization, misogynoir, settler philanthropy or toxic male Christian patriarchal heteronormative white supremacy...
Just racial equity.
And we were eaten alive for even suggesting it. It was one of those days that I went home and cried because I had honestly overestimated the willingness to do "this work" in the room (a major applause for the performance so many organizations do when the BOD or strategic planning folks are in the room). While we knew the sector (or at least the parts of the sector trying to do "this work") were already well past racial equity and were playing in fields of justice + liberation, reparations, belonging and #philanthropysowhite — we were told it was disrespectful to suggest that the language of equity was dated because "folks had worked very hard to embed it in the sector."
And that moment has stayed with me for quite some time.
Because that is the opposite of "this work" — the work of justice + liberation. Refusing to name "the thing" because you fought so hard to make white people accept an easier thing is the work of white supremacy. I want to state that that is not a linear truth; it is situated in its time and place. I believe, in good faith, that when the folks we were talking to had fought so hard to use the term equity, it had been a struggle and it had significant value. And that even though it is coded language for so much more, it was a win to use it when they introduced it.
Until it wasn't.
I refuse to accept that this is a difficult concept to wrap our heads around. Does adapting require some intentionality and risk? Sure. But is it 100% doable and necessary? Yes. There is a season for everything, including language (look at all of us adapting to something as beautiful as asking for people's pronouns). A tool or word is useful until it isn't and when it becomes a tool of the oppressor, our job as people doing the work of justice + liberation is to evolve, listen and adapt. Our job is to push — probably forever because this struggle will not be won in our lifetime (or at least not mine, as an elder millennial in skinny jeans and a side part).
Time and time again when I am in facilitation spaces where funders tell me the myriad of reasons why they cannot use words like white supremacy, racial justice, misogyny or even the word race, I have to take a deep breath because real talk: most of the folks who say this are white. To which I say, "Explain to me why not? Explain it to me like I am 5 years old. What do you mean by that?"
And here is the thing — when it comes down to it — the only reason (once they go through the litany of "what ifs") is discomfort. It is never that they will be fired. It is never that they will be demoted. It is never that the BIPOC folks in the room asked them not to show up because how uncomfortable would that be. Nope. There are (usually) zero ramifications other than discomfort. And yet all of us know how dangerous it is for white people to be called racists (not actually being racist — the Atlanta shooter admitted to being a murderer before he would take on the word racist, case in point). Folks are really worried about making others in the room feel like you may think they are racist, so they choose to use equity. Not as an adjective (where it works — equitable HR, equitable communications, equitable evaluation), but as a noun. A meaningless noun that only serves the purpose of making sure everyone in the room knows you are not accusing anyone of being racist or upholding racists systems because their face will be a dead giveaway when you mention the patriarchy, while also letting every BIPOC person in the room know you prioritize white fragility over their existence.
Does that sound dramatic to you? Do you think I'm being dramatic? Because I am not. We all need to hear this.
This violence happens every single day in our sector. And it is violence because it inflicts trauma on the most vulnerable bodies in the room by those with the power to do so. It happens in staff meetings, in BOD gatherings, at conferences, and in the 7th round of strategic planning hell. The message of prioritizing whiteness is being shouted loud and clear every single day by our language choices (both in what is said and what is not said) in every physical and virtual corner of our sector.
BIPOC folks are going black and blue (literally) in the face asking for the simple act of naming the violence and systems they are up against. The days of making the case for the existence of racial+ violence and trauma are over — and with that the pass on the refusal to name the violence at hand. BIPOC folks face real ramifications for calling out the systems of oppression that they work within, around and in spite of (looking at you philanthropy — I've got stories for days of incredible folks being demoted or pushed out for being too "radical" about their own right to exist). But its white folks (or white-complicit folks — a post for another time that this white Latina cannot possibly fit into this already too long blog post) who have become the arbiters of what white people can handle hearing. Forget concepts, we aren't even there yet. They decide the words that BIPOC folks are magnanimously allowed to let slip off their tongues without putting themselves or their livelihoods in danger.
And so, we come back to the word equity.
It has become one of those vanilla tasting words that is absolutely meaningless; meant to assure a lot of folks in our sector that they are doing "good work" while making no one uncomfortable or challenging the systems philanthropy was, by design, meant to uphold. And all of this at the cost of BIPOC folks being in perpetual states of trauma, erasure and silence in a sector that trots them out as DEI trophies and then asks them to be quiet behind closed doors because they are living too loudly.
So, when people ask me about the word equity, I do say it is meaningless. I do challenge them to use just about anything else (and to ask themselves why they chose it). But I also make sure they know that what is not said when it is used is loud AF. Using equity is actually saying something to those of us trying to do this work and maybe it needs to be said louder and in bold for folks to really understand what they are saying when they choose to use and prioritize the word equity:
You refuse to name racism.
You refuse to name white supremacy.
You refuse to name xenophobia.
You refuse to name misogyny.
You refuse to name misogynoir.
You refuse to name rape culture.
You refuse to name the prison-industrial complex.
You refuse to name the annihilation of indigenous peoples.
You refuse to name transphobia.
You refuse to name homophobia.
You refuse to name income-inequality.
You refuse to name ableism.
You refuse to name police brutality.
You refuse to name colonialism.
Sure. That is a lot to name.
But if I was to write down the names of every person lost just in the last week to the horrors listed above, I can guarantee you this is a very short list and it deserves to be named (and I am positive I missed so many) in every single space where you are claiming to center equity.
About The Author
Martha Cecilia Ovadia (Marci) has worked for more than 15 years in service of the work of justice and liberation for all across multiple sectors, including local government, academia, academic publishing and the philanthropic sector. She has significant experience in racial equity education and facilitation, organizational decolonization and healing implementation, as well as an extensive portfolio in philanthropic equity-focused strategic communications and community storytelling.
Her communications and consulting firm, La Libertad Consulting, seeks to work collaboratively with others on the most imperative work in philanthropy: the decolonization of the sector through forging unwavering commitments and collaborations with other like-minded philanthropists to do explicitly anti-racist, anti-misogynistic, anti-xenophobic, anti-homophobic and anti-ableist work. Marci is a 2020 Frank Karel Communications Scholar, an Honorary Alumni of The Funders Network PLACES Fellowship and a Miami Pinnacle Award winner for community leadership.
A Colombian-American California native temporarily housed in Miami, Marci spends her free time working with local rescue animals, advocating for immigrant rights and the rights of the incarcerated in her community and she is an outspoken activist across multiple platforms for women’s rights and the destigmatization of mental health issues and for sexual assault survivors.