Sunday, August 10, 2014

4 != 4: Equality

And you can quote me on this: "Equality does not mean treating everybody the same. Equality means being flexible and responsive in appropriate ways that meet people's needs with respect, honor, and dignity." ~ Rita 2014

I use this quote and concept often, both when teaching multicultural counseling and engaging in the practice of counseling.  Sometimes people get stuck on the idea that equality means symmetry in balance.  For example, 4 = 4, end of story.  While this has merit in certain situations, it is very limiting.  Helping people move beyond that limited conceptualization and recognize that 1+3 = 4 and 2+2 = 4 are also valid, useful ways of obtaining an equivalent outcome of 4 is a challenging but valuable task.  Just as you can have two cups of water, a pint of water, or 32 tablespoons of water and still have the same amount, people can get their needs met in different and creative ways.  It is also about the quality of the diverse and creative ways needs are met.  Incomplete or partial combinations do not lead to an equal opportunity or outcome.  There is no rounding up or down in regard to equality.  It's all whole numbers.  

I think equal in terms of flexibility could easily be misconstrued as equal but separate, an unfortunate mistake.  In reality, it is quite the opposite.  Oftentimes, the attention to meeting the needs of diverse groups of people is done in an integrated and functional way such as universal design.  A person who does not use a wheelchair can use stairs or an escalator, yet someone who does use a wheelchair has little use for either.  A ramp, however, can be used by both in addition to people with strollers, walkers, canes, luggage etc.  Flexible, respectful, functional, equal.  

Conversely, sometimes when an inflexible, "uniform" approach to something is implemented it is not functional and is poorly conceived due to bias and privilege in the decision making process, such as "regulation" military hair styles in the U.S. 

Can you imagine what would happen if all mechanics treated every car issue the same, using only specs for an '89 Yugo, based on the belief that all cars are cars, and therefore the individual differences or between group differences were irrelevant in maintaining them?  Sure, it would be equal treatment and it would seem efficient...until a fuel injected car started having issues and no one could figure out what the hell a fuel injector was and why the carburetor was missing.  Or what an on-board computer does and why the check engine light wouldn't go off.  It's not to say that there aren't similarities between cars that would be transferable (changing a tire, having a steering wheel, an engine etc.).  But come on, really?   It isn't like they would then say, "Only cars that fit these specs/can be made to fit them are worth our attention!"  The entire concept is unreasonable and unsustainable.  Yet, that is what we do with people and groups of people.  

"But, Rita, people aren't cars and we can't be tailoring everything to everyone all the time!"  Yes, and when there are people involved and inequities persist, people get hurt.  That's a problem.  It's true we can't tailor everything, but that is not what I am advocating for.  This is where " flexible and responsive in appropriate ways" comes in.  There are limits to what can be done to address the specific needs of individuals and groups when balanced with everyone's needs.  Flexibility is requisite for all involved, and sometimes that means compromise.  And it also means get creative and be proactive.  Before something can be addressed, it has to be recognized.  Gaining recognition involves highlighting the concern and creating awareness.  Although there are often institutional and societal roadblocks to this flexibility and growth, it doesn't mean we get to be complacent or steeped in our own privilege and ignorance.  Achieving equality also involves being open to awareness, which seems to be where most people really struggle...somehow, it is inconceivable that two people can have different cultural backgrounds and needs while respecting and valuing those differences and sharing an understanding. 

Too many people are driving in other people's lanes without realizing that I can drive my car with all of its quirks and specific features, and you can drive your car too.  We don't have to drive the same car to safely share the road and arrive at the same destination. 

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