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


By Heidi Sohn

Years 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?

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One thought on “Can we stop using the box graphic when we talk about racial equity?

  1. Cindy Mathew says:

    Not sure this would be more useful, but I was describing privilege to someone recently, and asked they visualize a staircase, where people start at different points, and the higher on the staircase you are, not only are you closer to the top, but the stairs are a lot shorter. Those at the bottom have much bigger steps to climb, making catching up that much harder. How do we get people closer to the same starting point? I’m sure that one has issues too, just trying to think of other frames.


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