This is a column for white people.
There’s a big, important conversation happening in our country right now. It is about race and identity and how we care for, treat and include one another in American life.
There are a lot of well-meaning white people out there who want to engage, but many of us have no idea where to grab on. Sometimes we just don’t understand the conversation because we haven’t lived it. Sometimes we feel defensive. And as a result, we shut down and opt out.
But we can’t afford to do that. Not now. The moment we are in is too important. We must get over our discomfort, listen, learn and use our power and privilege to make change.
I work in philanthropy, where most trustees, board members and leadership are white, and I spent the first 30 years of my career in technology, which is also lacking in diversity. So even when white people want to enter the dialogue, we often don’t know how because we’ve lived and operated in world where we never had to. We see the world through our own lens, and it takes intentionality to put another lens on to change our view. Fortunately, we’re seeing more white leaders willing to do that — in business, sports, philanthropy and politics. But we need more. A lot more.
For the past several years, the field of philanthropy has been having a deep conversation about what it means to advance equity and justice in our work. And by breaking down some of the concepts, it might make it easier for others to wade into the water.
Let me start with the word equity. Equity and equality are often used interchangeably, but they are not the same. We like the term equality. It sounds nice. It’s how America bills itself — we all get an equal chance to be successful. We think equality equals fairness and who can be against fairness? Equity is more polarizing — in part because it’s not well understood. It requires us to dig a level deeper.
Equality is when everyone has the same thing. Equity is giving people what they need. I think any parent with more than one child fundamentally understands the difference. We want to treat our children equally, but they are different people with different needs.
Our three kids are now adults, but when our oldest daughter was in middle school, she was relentlessly bullied. It took a tremendous toll on her, and my wife Tricia and I had to attend to her individual needs and give her the focused attention necessary to get her through that traumatic time. If we were treating her on an equal basis as her other two siblings, she would have been shortchanged by us, and it could have done long-term damage to her development into the healthy adult she now is.
Now expand that concept out broadly across our society and you see the ideal of equality doesn’t work very well. Just look at the statistics. Race and class are the most reliable predictors of life outcomes across several areas: academic achievement, income, wealth, life expectancy, physical and mental health, and maternal mortality, just to name a few. These statistics are not accidents. Nor are they recent developments. And treating everyone the same way isn’t going to change them.
And this is where things get more complicated. If we aren’t treating people the same way — if we are giving “more” to people who have been marginalized, we think that means others get less. We have this idea of one fixed-sized pie, and if “other” people — black people, trans people or disabled people — get more, well, that’s just unfair. After all, it’s not my fault that trans people are more likely to be victims of violence. It’s not my fault so many African-American men are in prison. And that’s kind of where the debate ends and people walk back into their corners.
But I would argue the pie metaphor is all wrong. A couple of years ago, I read “The Curb Cut Effect,” by Angela Glover Blackwell. It tells the story of disability advocates in 1972 Berkeley, Calif., pushing for creating cuts in the curb for disabled people to have better access to sidewalks when crossing the street. When the cuts in the curbs were implemented, city officials immediately saw that benefits spread to multiple groups of people they hadn’t even thought about, much less designed for. The elderly who are less sure-footed, parents pushing baby carriages, bicyclists, delivery drivers — the list went on and on.
This is an idea that is gaining traction in policymaking. It works like this: Design the solution to the systemic problem you are trying to solve for the person who is least well-served by the system you are trying to fix. Chances are, if you get it right for those who have suffered the most, others will benefit too. That’s the power of equity.
Equitable design isn’t just for philanthropy and government. Business has much to gain from putting an equity lens on the way they design their products. Good Grips kitchen gadgets started with a man who wanted to design a potato peeler for his arthritic wife, and it turned into a suite of beloved products for all kinds of cooks.
Many of the systems, products and infrastructure we all interact with — from public schools and courts to power tools and seat belts — were designed mostly by white men to work well for people like us. They were designed at a time when we had antiquated and destructive ideas about race, gender and disability. And they are holding us back.
So, as white people, let’s commit to bringing down our defenses, listening, learning and understanding the role we must play in creating shared prosperity. We don’t have to have it all figured out to make this commitment.