When I was first elected vice president of equity and outreach for DSG, I was so exhausted from the campaign that I didn’t take time to really reflect on what the name of the position meant. But after spending this past summer in Johannesburg studying the history of queer movements in the late 80s and early 90s, I think I have a better sense of why the title of the position is so important.
The key word in the position’s title is “equity,” but what makes equity so incredible? Equity is incredible because it stands in opposition to the word “equality,” and quite frankly, equality is old news. This may be strange to hear coming from a passionate advocate for LGBTQ rights, but stick with me for a second and I hope it’ll all make sense.
I think the difference between equity and equality boils down to this: The modus operandi of equality is that you and I have the same opportunity to do what we want with what we already have. On the surface, it sounds nice; but so often, it’s a hollow promise.
Let’s say that I’m competing against you in the infamous “RuPaul’s Drag Race” (if you don’t know the TV show that I’m referring to, you should stop reading this and get on Netflix immediately), and the rules of the competition stipulate that we’re both judged on our overall appearance and that we’re allowed to compete only with the dresses that we have in our respective closets. Let’s also say that you have a custom Alexander McQueen dress made entirely of ostrich feathers in your closet and all I have is a plain dress from Goodwill. Will that be a fair competition? It depends on how you judge it. The equality perspective would say that, in fact, the competition is fair, because we both have the opportunity to participate in the competition. But that seems like a pretty unsatisfying answer, doesn’t it? Yes, we both have the same opportunity to participate in the competition, but it’s hardly a fair competition. Given that you’re rocking Alexander McQueen, it is much more likely that I’ll be disqualified and have to “sashay away” instead of you.
Equity says something different. Equity says that, while we both have the opportunity to participate in the Drag Race, the competition isn’t fair. Why? Because you, with your ostrich-feathered bodice, stand a much better chance of winning than I do. I may be much more talented at lip-synching, voguing and drag than you are (which, I’m not going to lie, is probably the case), but you enter the competition with a distinct advantage.
Unlike equality, equity acknowledges that the only way to figure out who is America’s Next Top Drag Queen is to make sure that we both start in the same place. So, if we’re going with equity here, then just because you have an ostrich feather dress, doesn’t mean that you get to use it in the competition. Instead, we should both start with the same dress and be provided an equal opportunity to add sequins and feathers. Then, and only then, will it be fair for us to competitively lip-synch to Shania Twain while wearing 14-inch heels.
Obviously this example is overly simplistic and would involve way too much hairspray, but we don’t have to look far to find examples of equity at work in our own University community. Take, for example, Duke’s robust system of financial aid. Financial aid exists only because Duke has a fundamental belief in equity. As an institution, Duke acknowledges that it isn’t enough to simply give everyone the chance to apply regardless of their socio-economic background; rather, we have an obligation to give every student who is admitted the means to afford their tuition.
The same is true of affirmative action. Affirmative action exists because we acknowledge that, when considering applications, some students come into the process with ostrich feather gowns and others come into the process with a hand-me-down from their grandmother. The admissions process can’t be equitable unless we consider the fact that some students start off the competition with much fancier dresses than others.
Throughout any student’s Duke career, there will always be debates concerning equity in our university policies. Whenever these debates come up, my hope is that you’ll work to ensure that we have an equitable campus, not simply an equal one. If we can work together for greater equity at our University, we’ll be able to build a stronger Duke than ever before.
Besides, ostrich feather dresses are overrated anyway.
Jacob Tobia is a Trinity senior and DSG vice president for equity and outreach. His column is the third installment in a semester-long series of weekly columns written by members of Duke Student Government. Send Jacob a message on Twitter @DukeStudentGov.