Prioritize Equity? I Don’t Know What that Means.

Before we start, let’s talk about voting. If you aren’t registered to vote stop reading and get registered to vote. Monday, 10 October is the last day in Washington to register to vote by mail or online, in-person voter registration accepted until 31 October.

I’ve been reading Congressman John Lewis’ book March Part 3. In the graphic novel he shares how African Americans in the 1960s stood in line in the scorching sun with no water to register to vote. They were threatened, harassed, and belittled for wanting to vote. 1960s was in the lifetime of many in our friends, neighbors, and elders. Voting is how we have a voice in systems and government, we need to use our vote. is offering these cool reminder postcards. Sign up for a pack of postcards and mail them to someone who might need a reminder to vote.

No to Equity-Pretty


Um no, don’t study equity. Learn about the experiences of people of color.

In graduate school my speech professor said “People don’t have issues, they have problems. Stop using the word issues.” I feel the same way about equity. We don’t have equity; we work toward equitable solutions. Let’s get more precise with our language and stop verbally dancing around and trying to make our language equity-pretty.

“It’s the Equity Factor” NOT
Every few meetings I’ll hear someone say “we need to pay attention to equity,” “it’s the equity factor,” or I read this on a political rally sign “prioritize equity.” When I hear these statements I screw my face and feign a sneeze to cover my inadequate poker face. The sentiment of these statements are correct we should prioritize equitable strategies and we should pay attention to the outcomes of inequitable practices. And there is no such thing as an ‘equity factor’ (we’ve already blogged about that).

We need to be more precise in our language around race and racial equity. When we speak in generalities we don’t confront the real problems and the solutions are harder to find. First can we agree to stop saying equity, and be more precise and define the equity we’re talking about – say racial equity, or whatever form of equity you’re talking about – gender equity, socio-economical equity, etc. I once gave a presentation to a room full of wanna-be-philanthropist. I kept saying equity and they gave me blank looks, I finally asked “What does equity mean to you?” One bold person said “financial equity, as in we make money.” I regretted asking the question.

Let’s break down how to be more precise with the three statements above:

  • “We need to pay attention to equity” – translated into more precise language: We need to pay attention to institutional and systemic practices holding back people of color, or We need to pay attention to racist practices allowing institutional and systemic racism to prevail.
  • “It’s the equity factor” – becomes: There isn’t an ‘equity factor,’ there are barriers for people of color.
  • “Prioritize equity” – Prioritize people of color.

Many times we speak in coded language around race because it is safer and easier to use words such as diversity, equity, and to talk about everything but people of color. When I rewrote the statements they also became more pointed and used people of color, racism, and barriers – all words that make some people uncomfortable. Sometimes we have to be uncomfortable in order to fix problems.

What to Say and Do Instead
A few months ago I attended a session around cross-racial coalition building. During the day we met in our self-identified racial groups to caucus. During the report out each of the racial caucuses presented what they wanted other groups to know about their race group. Two of the underlying threads that ran through all of the caucuses was people of color want to be seen, and we want people to stop making assumptions about our experiences. My personal take away was each racial caucus wanted to feel a sense of belonging to each other and accountable to each other including in our language.

Instead of talking about equity, talk about people of color. People of color want to be seen, not grouped into an ‘equity’ bucket. Systems and dominant white culture are uncomfortable talking about race in explicit and clear terms. My buddy Kirk and I were joking that people still want to whisper when we talk about race, hushed tones “he’s the Black man,” or “she’s the short one with dark hair, maybe Asian.” Kirk said “We’re adults we can say Black, we can say Asian, and White.”

When we use precise language we see people and we can use our words to create solutions that hold us accountable to each other. In the examples above when we have clarity with our racial language the solutions to inequitable problems become clearer. Such as we identify who is part of the problem. Institution or system that should be named and are able to hold them more accountable to working toward equitable solutions. We can also use language to call out racism. Calling out racism is a good thing, despite the cringe factor. When we call out racist practices we can help to undo-the practices that allow racism to prevail. And precise language around race makes visible people of color.

Take down all of your signs that say “Prioritize Equity” and change them to “Prioritize People of Color.” Rewrite the workplan and eliminate the column that says “equity” and start writing in strategies that put people of color at the center of your work.

Posted by Erin Okuno