Can we stop using the box graphic when we talk about racial equity?

XYears ago, I first encountered this graphic showing a visual distinction between equality and equity. It quickly started making the rounds on social media, in presentations, and even in my own presentation slide deck. But something about it never quite resonated with me. I had a hard time articulating why I didn’t think this was the best way to depict the important differences between equity and equality. Erin and I had numerous conversations about the graphic, I even drew some alternatives (with kids in deep holes). But, what Erin correctly pointed out is that this graphic is simple and easy to understand without words. I like text, so this poses a challenge to thinking about an easy-to-understand alternative.

In the last few years, I finally figured out what I don’t like about this graphic and all the adaptations it has inspired. I continue to show it in my workshop, but with a big red X over the picture. I tell participants I don’t like this picture as a way to talk about the difference between equality and equity, specifically racial equity. I ask people to guess why this might be a problematic way to visualize equity. Pause for a moment and ask yourself why this might be misleading graphic and then come back to the post.

What did you come up with? Usually, taking this time to slow down and reflect on why it might be problematic helps us see things that we might not have otherwise noticed. Usually, people mention things such as “the kids are all white” or “they are at a baseball game” or “there is a fence there.” Other smart people noticed these things as well, and have recreated the image to have all black kids, kids at a soccer game, and kids without any fence in front of them.

I realized that what I don’t like about this picture is the “equity” slide is accommodating for height differences. It is perpetuating the differences we are trying to address with equity are inherently biological. It continues this dangerous narrative that racial equity is “helping” people of color and communities of color because we are inherently and biologically deficient. I want to be clear accommodations for physical differences such as height or learning styles is important work. In the education world, this is called differentiation – but this is not racial equity. In fact, the subtle and probably unconscious narrative reinforces the racists ideas that “people of color are not as smart, not as motivated, and not as qualified, and need help to succeed.” It is why I often hear people say things like:

  • If we let all students of color into advanced placement classes, we’ll be lowering the bar.
  • It’s their parents fault. They don’t care enough.
  • This focus on diversity means qualified white people won’t get in or get hired.

Yes, seriously people still say things like this. And, then there are the Fakequity statements from white allies and some people of color:

  • There are not enough qualified people of color.
  • You’re so articulate. You’re good with data and charts.
  • I know they can do higher level math, but we don’t want to add more stress to their already stressful lives. 
  • Asian kids are so obedient they do well in school because they follow the rules.

If you’re having a hard time figuring out why the last set of examples are Fakequity, engage others, preferably people of color, in a dialogue about what they hear or what assumptions are being made in the statements.

Racial equity is about eliminating racism

Equity is the outcome when race will no longer be a predictor of health, education, income, etc. Right now, we can predict graduation rates, discipline data, advanced placement participation, criminal justice involvement, and health outcomes based on race. We can predict community meeting attendance, contractors, grant awards based on race. Achieving racial equity means these predication based on race are gone.

The subtle and insidious systemic racism wants us all to believe the reason race predicts these outcomes is because people of color don’t work as hard, don’t have as good of parents, don’t have enough grit, don’t spend enough time and money on the “right” things. This is why even in the name of “racial equity” schools, organizations, funder, government spend a lot of time trying to “fix” people of color and students of color. Teaching people of color to how write a resume or act in an interview. Or teaching students of color to have grit, better self-esteem, or social-emotional intelligence. Or philanthropic organizations to spend time teaching grassroots community of color organizations to write a grant or logic model. These are all important individual skills, but don’t address very real systemic barriers or biases based on race. This Thich Nhat Hanh quotes helps me re-frame my thinking:

“When you plant lettuce, if it does not grow well, you don’t blame the lettuce. You look for reasons it is not doing well. It may need fertilizer, or more water, or less sun. You never blame the lettuce.”

Systemic racism is about just that – systemic barriers and biases based on race. Racial equity is the elimination of those systemic barriers, so future generations of students of color are not being taught to have more grit or better self-esteem. Here is the thing about systemic racism, the very people (white people) who have the most control over changing organizational policies and practices have never experienced systemic racism.

People always ask, if you don’t like the graphic what would you offer as an alternative. I must admit that I still don’t have a great answer. And, even though I don’t have a great alternative to offer doesn’t mean we should continuing using the one above. I believe it is causing more harm than good. Here is my wordy explanation I give to people as my “right now” answer. Of course, it comes in the form of a good bike analogy (I bike a lot).



The first frame needs to depict the “reality” of systemic racism. We’ve been giving road bikes and gear, training, etc. to white families for centuries, and if we give families of color a bike at all we give them a crappy bike that might not work at all. And, then we wonder why kids of color aren’t succeeding in a road bike race. Think about how this functions with schools, neighborhoods, clean air, etc.

What would equality be in this scenario? Guesses?




Did you guess give everyone a road bike? Yep, this would be “equality” give everyone the same thing. This even means giving white families another bike, even though they might have generations of bikes already. Why is this not the goal? Why is this not racial equity? I mean, I like riding bikes, but maybe not everyone does?

Now this is where my analogy gets tricky and requires words. What would racial equity be in this scenario? Any guesses? I often hear things like, the transportation option of their choice or an electric bike.

The simplest answer is people of color designed and led solutions and strategies.

jobsRestricting our thinking to just bikes is how racism limits us to tweaking ideas and solutions already embedded in our systems. Ideas and solutions that were designed intentionally to uphold white supremacy and keep control and benefits in the hands of white people. In the environmental space, historically white-led organizations want to get people of color to buy into strategies such as planting trees, using bikes, or electric cars. These are all great things (and many people of color do use these strategies), but it ignores what communities of colors often cite as solutions, such as jobs closer to home and anti-displacement efforts as solutions to environmental racism. Whose ideas do you think have historically been funded and continued to be funded?

Equity isn’t just giving boxes to short kids as the original picture at the top shows, equity is the harder work of listening and co-designing solutions with communities of color. Equity is giving up or sharing power and privilege. Equity is getting off of your road bike and slowing down to build relationships and enjoy what people of color bring and offer to the road race. Will you practice equity or fakequity?

Posted by Heidi Schillinger

No You Can’t Pick My Brain

It’s been a while since I have written for the blog, but after a week of seeing how institutions tell me every day to sit down, I need to get my thoughts on paper. Thank you Erin for almost never picking up the phone when I call at my scheduled time in the afternoon. I am finding my rants on your voicemail to be quite therapeutic.

I want to be clear, I am offering no solutions in this post. If it was that simple, the problems we face around community engagement would be fixed. Besides I have offered plenty of suggestions in the past, there are tons of tools and tips for your reference. The time is now to ask “do my values match my practices?” If you are doing your work to unpack privilege, notice how systemic racial bias shows up and leading for equity then perhaps my reflections on my experiences will compel you to work harder. I am also hopeful it will encourage others to call out other white folks when you see systemic and institutional racism being maintained in the workplace.

What set me off this weekmic

I never realized before what I considered best practices when working with community was a special skill. To me this ‘skill’ isn’t a skill, it is part of who I am and how I get my work done. Yet this skill has allowed me the privilege of sitting at a variety of tables, both in the community and sitting at political tables where resources are allocated or decisions are made. I am praised for my ideas and knowledge of community. The truth is as many times as I have been included in the discussion I am being tokenized. I am set up to represent and be the spokesperson for every POC community. In case you were unaware POC communities are made up of a dynamic collective of peoples with distinct and unique experiences. When you put me at the table you think it counts for true and authentic engagement.

Your participation in my exploitation ends today. I am no longer interested in being your thought partner. If you want to lead for equity and change then it is time to stop relying
on POC colleagues to do the heavy lifting for you. My brain is no longer available for picking. My time and knowledge are my most valuable and precious resources. As of today, I am saying goodbye to the following:

  1. Never being acknowledged for all the times I’ve sat at the table and reviewed your proposals and made recommendations. I’ve put in so much effort that it might as well be my project.
  2. Dropping a ton of knowledge and damn near telling you how to do it and you still do it your way in the end anyway. What’s the point of asking me, so you can check the box and say you ‘engaged’ pocs?
  3. Internal stakeholder engagement which is basically code for the “illusion of inclusion.” I get it you really do not want me there, but it is part of the deal. You need to show proof that you talked to some people of color. Gotta get the buy in right?
  4. Reading your final report and watching the institution praise you for your leadership. I read the report and marvel at all the fancy appendices. I look for my name and don’t see it. I read the report again just to make sure I didn’t miss it. Nope it is not there. Why do you only include ‘leadership’ or who paid for the report? Was my knowledge not as valuable? This isn’t about ego, it is about respect. If I left you off a list, oh trust me I would hear about how I overlooked an important detail and it is now a strike against me.

“We really do want to know what you’re thinking”

If you’re thinking “I really want to know what you’re thinking,” that is great, so show me you value what I know. Show me you value the years of relationship building I’ve done. I’ve invested many hours building relationships and trust with people in the community, when you ask me to give you shortcuts by telling you what I think, you should recognize you’re getting my biased version. If you value what I think then show me and the communities I work with respect by listening to what we say, by stop talking to me all the time and building new relationships, and finally act on what we tell you.

Just as you worked hard learning technical skills like building a database, putting together a pretty Excel budget, or a smart-sounding piece of legislation, I’ve been busy learning how to navigate different communities. I’ve been busy learning cultural norms and customs, such as elders eat first, how to bow my head respectfully while someone blesses the food, how to introduce myself in Spanish. I’ve also learned how to order lunch for a mixed group of people – it’s harder than you may think—is it Ramadan (no food or drink), no pepperoni pizza (is that pork in the pepperoni, is it halal, pepperoni pizza isn’t kosher), no dairy– can’t do regular pizza, how to order from POC owned businesses, how to order food and stay within a small budget, tip or no-tip, these are just as important skills as those technical ones you write on your resume.

Don’t dis what I know just because it sounds easy, it isn’t.

Posted by CiKeithia Pugh

White People: Stop and Think Before Giving Feedback


Left to Right: Erin, Heidi, Mindy, CiKeithia, and Michael. Now you know what we look like.

The Equity Matters team had a quick get together to have our headshots taken by the fabulous photographer Michael B. Maine. He made us feel comfortable and because we’re a tight team we were laughing and enjoying each other. Between picture sessions Heidi downloaded notes to me about this week’s blog topic – feedback and how to give it.

Over the years, Heidi and I have facilitated a lot of conversations, trainings, and meetings. Through this work, we’ve received tons of feedback and like most things in life the feel-good feedback is nice, but the harshest criticism sticks more. We are both professionals that have worked in poc centered spaces and with a lot of white people. If we’re being honest (truth telling, which this blog tries to do) the criticism from some white people misses the mark.

This is how the feedback sounds:

“The training was helpful, but the exercise where we had to talk about race should have also included socio-economic status.” Um no, this isn’t a training on economics, we’re talking about race.

“I was really uncomfortable talking about my personal identity. I don’t understand the purpose of having to identify as white. I’m an immigrant and feel like an outsider because of my accent and I had to flee my country because of religious persecution. I was uncomfortable saying I am white, when I don’t believe I have the same privileges as other white people.” No, we’re not playing the oppression Olympics, you have white privilege.

“I didn’t like it, I wasn’t the center of attention.” This isn’t real, but if we boil down bad feedback this is what it sounds like.

Heidi and I welcome feedback, we want to improve our work. I crave and sometimes seek out genuine critique because I want to make my work as useful as possible to partners and not waste time on things that don’t work. That said we are also asking white people and poc’s with privilege to stop and reflect before giving feedback. On our feedback forms, we ask people to circle if they are bi/multiracial, poc, or white – we do this on purpose to disaggregate the feedback data and to make sure we’re being balanced and centering people of color in our work.

It’s Not About You

Racial equity work isn’t about white people or even individual people of color, it is about the greater community and centering communities of color. Racial equity trainings and well-facilitated meetings should challenge all of us in some way. The point of bringing people together to meet and dialogue is to learn from each other. This means as facilitators and trainers our job is to make everyone uncomfortable at some point during the conversation. We don’t aim to make people so uncomfortable they completely check out, but we are there to help push conversations and help create space for people to think and accept new information. For our white partners, it is ok to shift in your seat a little and realize the training and meeting is forcing you to think and accept new information. What isn’t ok is to use the feedback form to rip apart the training because you were uncomfortable or to use the feedback form to say how you would have ran the training ‘better.’

Before You Give Feedback Some Things to Consider

Before you give feedback stop and think, is this feedback about the work or is it about processing your own thoughts about race? If it is the later, the feedback process might not be the place to put your thoughts. If you need to have a thought partner in processing, then ask for one, but don’t criticize as you ask for help thinking about race.

As an example, I once had a white person give me feedback on a meeting I facilitated. Her feedback was “I felt like you constantly cut me off when I’m trying to share information,” and “I feel very white as when I come to these meetings.” Her feedback was about her needs, comfort, and expertise. As we talked she acknowledged the meeting was centered on pocs and I asked her what did she want me to change to make her more comfortable while keeping it poc focused, she didn’t have an answer. Her criticisms weren’t helpful for the group dynamics, they were personally focused. Had she asked for help understanding race  we could have had a good conversation, but as soon as she made judgments and critiques it became about her ego, not growth of herself or the work and the conversation stopped.

Personal Process or Group Learning

When I fill out feedback forms I ask myself is the feedback about me and my feelings or is it about the group and process. Both are valid forms of feedback but as a facilitator it is helpful when people can differentiate between process and their personal learning. It sometimes sounds like this “I didn’t like the part of the training where we had to hold hands and give gratitude’s, because I don’t like having public Oprah moments, but I can see how it was useful for others to get closure.” By nuancing what the person didn’t like and why it is helpful feedback, it was more helpful to read that the person understood the purpose of the exercise was to keep the group moving forward together. Feedback along these lines let’s us know the overall tone and message was right but the activity might need to change — maybe no holding hands or group gratitudes not individual Oprah moments.

Tips for giving feedback

  • Give details and use words you hear in the training, especially words related to race or the topic
  • Say what stuck and what parts you’re still not sure about, it helps us know more about how to alter the training for the next group
  • Differentiate between personal process and group learning
  • If you need help understanding something ask, don’t hide behind making your question sound like feedback.
  • Feel free to be blunt, bold, and honest

Please continue to give feedback, but also think hard about the feedback you’re giving. Helpful feedback strengthens helps us grow, crappy self-centered feedback is more about you than the work.

By Erin with input from Heidi. Photo by Heidi and her selfie stick.

Oppression Olympics and White Speak

facebookLast week I blogged about LEGO and their bias towards featuring only white children in their pictures. Another person posted a similar thought on LEGO’s Facebook page. Wow, were some of the comments rude and racist. My favorite racist comment was “If I wanted to see little brown people, I’d buy Nat. Geo. [National Geographic].” The comment was reported to Facebook and subsequently deleted, but not before this screenshot was taken. Racism runs free on Facebook, but we already knew that. [Update: Looks like the LEGO post was deleted.]

We also need to acknowledge the US missile attack on Syria in response to the chemical attack the Syrian government launched on the Syrian people. While all of this is unfolding, we have to be ready to open our borders and services to immigrants and refugees from the country, and work to continue protecting our current immigrants. The Trump administration has made it clear they do not value immigrants, so we must continue to push and resist bad policies and work hard to create a welcoming environment.


Earlier today Hana, a reader, emailed asking us to share insights on how to handle conversations that sound like this: “I am a [white] woman and I have suffered discrimination, so for you to assume I do not understand [fill in the blank] is unfair.” Independent of the email request, Heidi sent a text saying we need to write about “white speak,” meaning how we have to re-frame conversations so white people hear what people of color are saying without shutting down. Both topics deserve their own blog posts, but tonight I want to write about them together.

Let’s define ‘white speak.’ White speak is the verbal dance people of color do to make others, mostly white people, but sometimes pocs who aren’t woke (self-aware around race), understand what we are saying around race without losing their marbles. In this verbal tango pocs have to make things sound less threatening and gently explain why something is racist, privileged, or annoying to people of color. In white speak, we cater to white people’s fragility afraid to offend them or afraid of pushing too far and then having to deal with their tears, anger, or obsessions around being seen as perfect and non-offensive. When we white speak we also use coded language; we are catering to white people’s fragility and making them feel comfortable around hard messages associated with race. It is taxing to police words and to have to ‘code switch’ or mentally rewrite messages and judge if someone can understand what we want them to understand. Many times white speak hides or masks the poc truths and we give a tamer version at the risk of not losing people entirely.

As an example of Oppression Olympics, it sounds like this: “I’m a white women who’s experienced discrimination and hardship. My kid is in a class of 26 and his needs are not being met.” What I hear is “What about me? You’re not saying anything about my needs.” The white speak that has to take place to keep her from falling apart then sounds like this example: “Yes, I understand you have faced hardship and your son is in a classroom with 26 other children and that is a large class size. AND we must recognize there are other schools more under resourced then your school. It isn’t fair and the system isn’t resourced well enough to provide everyone everything they need.” What happened in the talk-back was we had to cater to the white person and say, “we see you, and you’ll be ok.”

It is human nature to want to feel included, but when white people want their problems seen first, we need to ask is it at the expense of focusing on people of color’s needs. If the answer is yes, then white people need to step back and check their privileges. Being able to articulate and voice a problem is a privilege, not all people of color have the ability or agency (ability to make the decision) to voice problems and be heard fairly or at all. As an example, while the white parent in the above example can say their kid (and therefore they) are experiencing hardship because their kid’s class is at 26-students, there may be additional outside resources to make sure their needs are met including parent education, community assets, etc. If we were to find a comparable 26-student classroom filled with students of color there is a greater likelihood the student’s needs are not being as well-met and the overall needs of the students are more because of historical legacies of under resourcing schools in communities of color. The parents of color in the predominately poc school probably are upset too but they don’t have the same agency to be heard, and/or the burden of speaking up is greater (i.e. organizing to testify at a school board meeting, having time to call policy makers, access to policy makers, etc.).

The white parent talking about how they are facing oppression or discrimination may even get praised for speaking up. We need white advocates, especially parent advocates, to share their stories and talk about how systems are failing children. But we also need white partners to understand how to share the advocacy burden and not fall into the role of playing Oppression Olympics by saying my need is greater than yours so you should follow my lead and my voice. Please don’t do this, it hurts the overall cause and it takes away from the need to be seen as a united front. Centering communities of color and people of color does not diminish people from seeing white people. White people and pocs of privilege our job is to create access and use our resources to highlight voices (in a non-tokenizing way) to people of color.

Wrapping Up

White people our asks are simple, stop with the oppression Olympics of saying “I’m discriminated/oppressed/hurt/etc. because I’m white.” We’re all oppressed in some ways and we’re all privileged in some ways; own your white privilege and do something good with it for people of color.

One of the ways you can do good is by listening and allowing people of color to speak honestly and fully. Create space to listen without censorship. Recognize the verbal gymnastics we sometimes do to have you hear us. I have a colleague who is bi-racial with white passing privilege. He grew up with both the white side of his family, as well as deeply ingrained with communities of color. With his white passing privilege, he is privy to how conversations sound with people of color are in the room, and how they change when the pocs step out. The conversations are different, with the pocs it is guarded and safe for fear of being offensive. How much more freeing would it be if we were all able to say what is needed and to have open conversations where we can check assumptions and hear each other. Let’s work on that and maybe we can stop having to white speak and play Oppression Olympics.

By Erin Okuno