We have heard a great deal about equity over the last few decades, but the results show that far too little is being done.
It is easy then to assume that words do little for equitable outcomes. In the sense that empty promises and declarations do not produce change, this is true. But when it comes to equity, language most certainly matters. Because language shapes thought and establishes meaning. It impacts the way we think about and understand people, occurrences, and experiences.
The words we use to speak about people have the power to:
- Provide clarity OR obscure meaning
- Promote inclusion OR enforce exclusion
- Embrace difference OR limit connection
- Acknowledge issues OR excuse problematic behaviour
- Assign responsibility OR deny culpability
- Drive change OR maintain the status quo
In short, language is powerful, and as we work towards creating more equitable outcomes at every level and in every corner of our society, it is essential that we commit to using language that supports those efforts. It is also imperative that we have a shared vocabulary to ensure our efforts are united in both direction and understanding.
This is why we are sharing our working definitions of some of the most important words, terms, and phrases in the language of equity.
The KOJO Institute Glossary of Equity
Accomplice/Co-conspirator – Refers to someone who takes equal responsibility for the work.
Ally– Refers to someone who is supportive of someone else’s work.
Anti-Black Racism – The specific form of racism perpetrated on Black people. A core feature of anti-Black racism is the way that state authority—that is, all systems, including education, criminal justice, immigration, child welfare, health, and mental health systems—is visited upon the lives of African descent peoples.
Assumptions of Neutrality – The flawed belief that societal systems are neutral, without accounting for the way biases, stereotypes, and narratives affect how spaces operate and who thrives or flounders in them. Assumptions of neutrality blame marginalized people for their inability to succeed and survive in systems that exclude or oppress them.
Disproportionality – Refers to the statistical difference in the proportion of a group within a system as compared to their percentage in the general population. Disproportionality data indicate the extent of over- or under-representation.
Disparity – Refers to the disproportionate representation of a group in comparison to another group at a certain point or a particular outcome within a system. Disparities suggest differential treatment and outcomes.
Disaggregated Identity-Based Data – Data that is contextualized (segmented by) by the social identities of the subjects being surveyed. These identities include but are not limited to race, gender, sexuality, class, age, and (dis)abilities. When data is disaggregated and analyzed by social identity, it allows the identification of those who is experiencing unfavourable outcomes.
Dominant Culture – Refers to the culture whose values, language, and ways of behaving are imposed on a subordinate culture or cultures through economic or political power. This may be achieved through legal or political suppression of other sets of values and patterns of behaviour, or by monopolizing the media of communication.
Equality– All people are treated the same way. KOJO focuses on equity as opposed to equality. Equity takes into account the way that historical legacies of oppression (such as slavery and the theft and conquest of the Americas) have devalued Black, Indigenous, and racialized lives, skills, and contributions and intentionally addresses systems and structures that create disproportionate outcomes for equity-seeking groups. Equality ignores those historical underpinnings to treat everyone the same. This often results in inequitable outcomes for Black, Indigenous, and racialized people, including less access to positions of power and responsibility within an organization.
Equity – The elimination of disproportionality and disparity. Equity asks, “Who is being overrepresented? Who is being underserved? Who is experiencing consistently bad outcomes?” and then seeks to correct those concerns.
Hegemony – Put simply, hegemony is when one group has dominance over another group. This is often supported by legitimizing norms and ideas. When we consider hegemony as a process, it is the process by which dominant groups come to be common sense- or taken-for-granted and “just how things are”- even by those who are subordinated by the dominant group. This process has happened historically through the Legacies and persists today through Powerful Unexamined Ideas. Hegemony is therefore the process by which social inequities become rationalized as natural or common sense or made invisible altogether.
The Legacies – The historical occurrences or processes that establish the location of wealth, power, and status globally and determine our societal values. These legacies are: colonialism, slavery, patriarchy, religious universalism, capitalism, the theft and conquest of the Americas, and imperialism.
Marginalized Populations – Refers to groups and communities that experience discrimination and exclusion (social, political and economic) because of unequal power relationships across economic, political, social and cultural dimensions.
(The Myth of) Meritocracy – Meritocracy is the belief that people reach positions of power, not because of wealth, dominance or social capital but based on their abilities. This system falsely assumes that nepotism and discrimination are non-factors and is propped up by the myth that society’s systems are neutral. Meritocratic arguments are often raised when the system responds to inequity and discrimination with programs like employment equity and affirmative action, disregarding the reality that the need for such programs is based on inequities caused by the historical and social dominance of particular groups.
Neoliberalism – An ideology rooted in the belief that meritocracy, minimal government intervention, and free-market competition will result in a fair society where members will achieve individual success. It assumes that individuals and groups competing for opportunities and resources are doing so on an even playing field and efforts to develop collective social good are unnecessary. Therefore, when an individual or group succeeds, it is on their merit, and when an individual or group fails, it is because of their own shortcomings.
Oppression – Refers to when a person or group in a position of power controls the less powerful in cruel and unfair ways. Subjugation is a related term
Posture of Practice over Perfection – The understanding that our views, perspectives, and actions are informed and determined by our social location and identities which causes us to miss the ways we participate in or perpetuate oppression. Holding a posture of practice allows us to accept that we will not be perfect in our commitment to equity and instead remain open to learning, welcome correction, and meaningfully address errors when they are made.
Powerful Unexamined Ideas – Refers to pervasive negative ideas about marginalized groups, which are not rooted in facts, but are nonetheless widely accepted. The Powerful Unexamined Ideas come from the Legacies that shape who has dominance and who does not. Once identified, Powerful Unexamined Ideas provide an opportunity to notice and disrupt the discrimination that results from the pervasive negative ideas about marginalized groups.
(The Myth of) Reverse Discrimination
Given the power structure set up by the Legacies, reverse racism is not possible, as oppressed people do not have the systemic power to enact oppression against dominant people. But people in dominant groups can use the system to further oppress those who are already marginalized. The myth of reverse racism does not account for the prolonged advantages provided to dominant identities and prolonged disadvantages perpetuated against equity-deserving groups. With regard to race, for example, Ricky Sherover-Marcuse asserts that “we should not confuse the occasional mistreatment experienced by whites at the hands of people of color with the systematic and institutionalized mistreatment experienced by people of color at the hands of whites” (p. 2). While expressions of racial prejudice directed at white people may hurt the white person/people individually or personally, and are never to be condoned, they do not have the power or authority to affect the white person’s social/economic/political location and privileges.
Unconscious Bias – Refers to unconscious assumptions, beliefs, attitudes and stereotypes that human brains have about different groups. These learned mental short-cuts affect how we perceive and respond to people. KOJO Institute, and many others in the equity space do not subscribe to unconscious bias as a helpful construct. In fact, Harvard Business Review reports that research has shown that after taking unconscious bias training, discrimination in the workplace can increase. Go to “Powerful Unexamined Ideas” to learn about how KOJO conceptualizes assumptions, beliefs and attitudes about different groups of people.
Racialization– Refers to the act of being “raced” or seen as someone belonging to a particular race.
Language is only step one. If you would like to learn how you can take action for equity, visit our shop for online learning resources.
Calgary Anti-Racism Education (2021). Racialization. ACLRC. https://www.aclrc.com/racialization
Gino, F., Coffman, K. (2021). Unconscious bias training that works: Increasing training isn’t enough. Teach people to manage their biases, change their behavior, and track their progress. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2021/09/unconscious-bias-training-that-works
Hughes, G. (2013). Racial Justice, hegemony, and bias incidents in U.S. higher education. Sociology and Anthropology Faculty Publications, 22. https://scholarship.richmond.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1022&context=socanth-faculty-publications
National Collaborating Center for Determinants of Health. (2022). Glossary of essential health equity terms. https://nccdh.ca/glossary/entry/marginalized-populations
Calgary Anti-Racism Education (2021). The Myth of Reverse Racism. ACLRC. https://www.aclrc.com/myth-of-reverse-racism
Sherover-Marcuse, R. (n.d.). A Working Definition of Racism: Revised 7/88. https://communityfoodfunders.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/Ricky-Sherover-Marcuse.pdf