ResourcesImage of an open book with a library. Text says: The Language of Equity: The KOJO Institute Glossary

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 declaration 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

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.

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.

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.

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.

(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.

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.

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.  

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.