Equity vs. Equality – Not the Box Graphic

February is Black History Month. Take a moment to celebrate Black joy and liberation. As an action step learn about Black history in the place you are. I’m in Seattle and plan on digging into these Black histories as a way to connect more with the Black history of my neighborhood and city. I hope you’ll look up something similar in your own town or city.

Many of us have seen the ‘Equity Box Graphic’ that depicts the basics of how to understand the difference between equity and equality. It shows the shorter kid having more boxes to stand on in order to see over a fence. The picture is easy to understand and conveys quickly what is needed to achieve fairness.

Many people see limitations in the picture — Heidi wrote a whole blog post about it. It is one of the most read post on the blog, make sure you read it.

At the risk of adding another picture and analogy to the litany of ways to understand equity vs equality, I will offer one.

Equity — My definition you need to know for the rest to make sense

When I’m asked what does equity mean to me, my answer is “Everyone has what they need to be whole — regardless of race, disability, LGBTQ, immigration, and other social constructs. Everyone has what they need to be whole, not more and not less. This may feel like taking something away from some but it is actually right sizing or balancing needs.”

The analogy I use when I’m presenting on racial equity this comes from my spending a lot of time thinking about race over food. (If you missed last week’s blog post, go back and check it out — it is another food and race themed post). I’ve shared this in a couple of other places and it seems to resonate, so I thought I’d share it here too. It isn’t perfect, but some ‘food for thought.’


Picture of a sandwich cut in half. Text: •Everyone receives the same sandwich
•Everyone receives an equal portion
•The sandwich maker has control/power over what is in the sandwich, no differentiation

Equality is like a sandwich. Cut it half or fourths and everyone gets a fair and equal portion of the same sandwich. This leads to treating everyone the same, no special services, no differentiation, no accommodations for taste, preference, culture, allergies, religion, etc.

It is easy to give everyone the same sandwich. The sandwiches can be made in bulk and on an assembly line, not a lot of extra skills are needed to make the sandwiches.

Equality is easier to understand and apply. But there are limits to equality. Giving everyone the same sandwich, or program or service, often isn’t going to make everyone feel full or whole. People who can’t or aren’t accustomed to eating bread may not want a sandwich. If the sandwich has peanut butter and someone is allergic to peanut butter the sandwich can do more harm than good. Many religions have guidance and practices about what to eat – no pork, keeping Kosher, fasting, celebration foods, etc. Giving everyone an equal portion of the sandwich doesn’t account for people who might have just had a meal and not hungry, but someone else may not have eaten all day and may need more of the sandwich.

Giving everyone the same sandwich is treating everyone the same and not recognizing the reality of situations. It isn’t taking into account systemic racism that allows for hunger in some and abundance in other places. It doesn’t take into account food desserts where some people don’t have access to fresh produce. Nor does it account for food liberation and allowing communities of color the access to spaces that allow people to create their own foods.

There are better ways to having people be whole and pushing towards justice.


Picture of different sandwiches, tortillas, salad, bowl of rice. Text: ◦People have what they need to eat a meaningful meal
◦Multiple strategies are used, not every meal is the same
◦We support the people to achieve their potential

In the food analogy, equity looks more like a menu of options. In this way people have the agency and power to create their own meal. For people who don’t eat bread, they are now able to create a meal that accommodates their cultures – rice, tortillas, or salads are now available as options. For people who are more hungry because they haven’t eaten all day they can not receive more food, while people who are not as hungry do not need to take as much.

Equity creates multiple pathways towards feeling whole and satiated. We are no longer confined to accepting the half a sandwich we would have been handed through the equality strategy. Equity also allows for people to have more control and comfort in meeting their own needs. We are no longer forced to accept what is handed to us.

Working towards equity does take more thoughtfulness and pre-planning. Creating the options of different meals takes more pre-planning (note I did not say more work, same amount of work, but it looks different). Instead of having an assembly line of sandwich makers, we now have to pre-plan to have several different options available to people. We need to do more front end work, community engagement, to learn what people may want to eat so we can have those options ready. We also need to learn more about the people we hope will benefit from the service so we can meet their needs – what are their home cultural foods so we can incorporate it into the menu, are their religious preferences or restrictions on food, how communal is an eating experience? All of these and many other questions allows us to more fully see people and create better partnerships to work towards racial equity.

Limits to the Food Analogy

This analogy isn’t perfect. There are many things it does not capture, such as historical trauma, systemic inequalities, etc. No one analogy or picture can fully capture a complex concept.

What I hope this gives you is another way to think about the complexities of equity and equality, that more fully encompasses home cultures, religious needs, and other parts of people’s identities that helps them feel whole and seen.

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