Are you guilty of Fakequity? If so, what to do about it.


onion-899102_960_720All right everyone, we need to talk about Equity. I know, I’ve talked a lot about it, including “Is Equity the new coconut water;” “The Equity of risk and failure,” “Which comes first, the Equity Egg, or the Accountability Chicken;” and “The inequitable distribution of hope.” (Yeah, you better hoard all the hope you can get right now!)

But, Equity is like exercise: It’s exhausting, sweaty, sometimes makes us feel bad about ourselves when we look in the mirror, but is good for us to do regularly, especially to 90’s Hip-Hop. (The 90’s Hip-Hop part is optional).

Today, I want to talk about Fakequity, a term and concept coined by two of my colleagues, Heidi K. Schillinger of Equity Matters and Erin Okuno of the Southeast Seattle Education Coalition (SESEC). They created this chart that shows the continuum from Fakequity to Equity Champion. These two have a good sense of humor, shown by the obsession with onions on their newly-launched Facebook page.

Fakequity, pronounced “fake-quity,” is basically fake equity. Here are some examples that Heidi and Erin give for Fakequity:

  • You say things like “Why do we have to focus on race? Why can’t we say we want ALL people to succeed?” Because, you know, you’re “color blind.”
  • You “try” to recruit qualified people of color to be on your staff, but they didn’t apply, or they did but they just “didn’t qualify,” and you don’t stop to think that maybe it has to do with your outreach or hiring process or definition of qualification.
  • You rely on one or two token relationships and connections you have with communities disproportionately impacted by inequity.
  • You ask people from these communities to help with outreach, advocacy, and other stuff for free because you’re “helping” them. (See “Are you or your nonprofit or foundation being an Askhole?”)
  • You create an equity advisory board to give input on your already developed plan, and then get defensive when community members question the plan or how it was developed.

Sometimes, Fakequity is actually worse than inequity, for as a wise man once said, “It is the wolf in sheep’s clothing that doth confuse and, forsooth, slaketh its thirst upon the mutton.” All right, a wise man did not say that; but he could have.

For the past couple of years, as Equity becomes more and more trendy, I’ve noticed organizations and foundations starting to form committees to tackle equity, sometimes including diversity, inclusion, and cultural competency in the mix. They have various names, these groups, but their tasks are the same: Gather feedback, identify internal weaknesses, and then provide recommendations for the org or foundation to implement. That sounds awesome. At first.

A foundation formed such a committee and asked me to join, but I couldn’t because of time. A year later, I checked in to see what the recommendations are, and am disappointed, though not surprised: Trainings for staff and board members and adding more language about race and inclusion in communication materials.

There is nothing wrong with more trainings and workshops and publicly declaring intentions to undo racism, etc. Equity is a huge challenge to achieve, with complex layers—like an onion!—and it is critical to get everyone on the same level of understanding and ownership. However—and this is why Fakequity is so dangerous—people spend so much time trying to understand the issue and get on the same level and let others know that they’re thinking about this stuff, that they seem to think it’s enough to do just that.

Necessary Versus Sufficient

A while ago, I wanted to become a lawyer. I took the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) and realized it wasn’t for me. I hated the logic games section of the test and didn’t care who had which dog on which day under which phase of the moon. (If you took the LSAT, you know what I’m talking about). But through the process, I did learn a very important concept, that of Necessity versus Sufficiency.

I’m going to simplify this, but basically, let’s say you’re trying to make wild mushroom risotto. A necessary ingredient, of course, would be wild mushrooms. You can’t have wild mushroom risotto without this ingredient. But just because you have wild mushrooms in a pot and you cook it, it doesn’t guarantee you’ll end up with wild mushroom risotto. Other things are necessary: Arborio rice, onions, white wine, water, heat, etc.  In order for you to actually have wild mushroom risotto, all these other conditions have to be met. So wild mushrooms by themselves are necessary, but not sufficient.

Or look at your computer. It requires electricity to run, so electricity is a necessary element. But just because you have electricity, it doesn’t mean you can now go online and watch all the episodes of “Charlie the Unicorn.” It also needs a bunch of other stuff. Electricity is necessary, but not sufficient, for your computer to work.

So how does this apply to Equity? People seem to think that forming an equity committee, talking about equity, sending staff and board to trainings, “listening” to communities, conducting research and gathering data, and adding terminologies to websites and brochures are sufficient to achieving equity. But no, these things are necessary, but not sufficient. When we just talk about Equity and go no further, we are guilty of Fakequity. I’ve seen many well-meaning organizations and foundations spend years talking about equity, congratulate themselves on it, and don’t do anything else that would actually help to bring about Equity.

Ending Fakequity

So, how do we stop Fakequity? There are tons of suggestions, many of which I’ve proposed here. At the heart of it, though, frankly, Equity is about resources and who receives it. Money. Well, and power. But they often go hand-in-hand, and one is the manifestation of the other. Money and how it’s allocated is the Arborio rice in the risotto of justice.

If you look at that diagram of the difference between equality and equity, the shortest kid has two boxes. Boxes, representing resources, have to be moved as a necessary, critical, condition of Equity. If your organization is talking about Equity, and it hasn’t significantly changed its budget or how it allocates funding, it may not be doing it right. Too many well-meaning foundations talk about Equity and yet continue to perpetuate a funding process where the most disproportionately affected communities continue to not be able to access funds. Too many well-meaning “mainstream” organizations talk about Equity and continue to perpetuate Trickle-Down Community Engagement, where they absorb funding that should be going to organizations led by communities most affected by inequity. Too many politicians talk about Equity and continue to perpetuate a political system where the loudest voices get the most resources.

When it comes down to it, Equity is not reflected in talking about Equity, creating committees to get people to talk about Equity, attending workshops to discuss Equity, gathering input from affected communities, writing shiny data reports with lots of statistics and charts, etc. These things are necessary, but they are not enough, and when we think they are, we are guilty of Fakequity and will never reach our goal. Without the rice, we’re just stirring a bunch of chopped up wild mushroom pieces and thinking we’re making risotto.

Equity is not reflected in all of us holding hands chanting “Equity.” True Equity is reflected in the budget. As 90’s Hip-Hop Artist Juvenile says on his hit song, Back That Thang Up: “Girl you looks good, won’t you back that discussion on Equity up with some actual funding and systems change.”

Make Mondays suck a little less. Get a notice each Monday morning when a new post arrives. Subscribe to NWB by scrolling to the top right of this page and enter in your email address.

  • Devra Thomas

    Just posted on Fb about 2 different surveys my friend and I took. While they were both well-meaning surveys about theater or other artistic creation, we both responded to them in the same way: “why are you asking me because you don’t care as evidenced by your funding and support mechanisms for our communities?” (My friend is black and I serve rural communities). I doubt we’ll hear anything back from either organization about our responses (to be fair, we both did fill out the surveys honestly and entirely) but it speaks to your point about it’s not enough to just ask or to just say “oh this is available for everyone.”

    • Thanks for sharing, Devra. Yup, those surveys. And those summits, meetings, convenings. If funding is not moved to communities that most need it–not just to orgs that have the best relationships and fundraising skills–then there is no Equity.

  • Great post, Vu! Thank you. LOVE your wild mushroom risotto analogy. Its like forming an anti-racism task forces without including ANY PoC. It translates to: we know what’s good for your community, so let us decide how we think it should be. Its so important to share the power, even more so than the money. Money is always nice, but without the community involvement to lead the discussion and articulate what they think is good for their own community, and buy-in to implement the change, it is just lip-service, or “fakequity” as you put it.

    • Thanks, Mona. I agree on the power sharing. And POCs should be involved in these anti-racism task forces. But it can’t be tokenized, or it can’t be only POCs, as I’ve seen happen a few times.

  • eyzonfire1

    What’s the unintended consequence of giving all the boxes to the short guy? They expect to be ‘given’ all the solutions. They don’t ‘get creative’ to solve their own problems. Did they REALLY want to see the game?… or did we just assume they did because they were at the fence with everyone else? Isn’t equity trying to give everyone an opportunity to ‘be like us’?

    • Rhiannon Orizaga

      I don’t think anyone expects to be given solutions. They want to be included. I really think INCLUSION is sadly overlooked when we talk about diversity, equity & inclusion. Having a real chance to fix your own problems, as you put it, is more valuable than being given a solution, no matter how well-meaning that solution is. In other words, being able to afford your own customized box to stand on is more satisfying than being given boxes. Being in a position to help others like yourself get the exact box they need is exponentially more satisfying, too. So let’s not forget the importance of INCLUSION.

  • Sam

    I work in Baltimore and my employer has a”Diversity” committee that works to “incorporate diversity in what we do” by hosing speakers and other activities. I found it interesting though, that during the latest unrest surrounding Freddy Gray, that nothing was said or done here to talk about inequality or the issue at all. Basically it was completely ignored here even though 85% of our staff are probably African American. Very few are in any kind of leadership position and everyone was talking among themselves during the weeks of unrest about the situation. Our executive director made a tasteless remark in an email almost joking about the situation, and it infuriated me. To think we have this so called Diversity Committee but take a look at our organization and it is a microcosm for what is wrong in our society.

  • Paul

    Hi Vu, great article. Could you please elaborate on what you mean by, “But, Equity is like exercise: It’s exhausting, sweaty, sometimes makes us feel bad about ourselves when we look in the mirror, but is good for us to do regularly, especially to 90’s Hip-Hop. The 90’s Hip-Hop part is optional.”

  • Rhiannon Orizaga

    In my humble opinion, the diversity of staff is a key proof of equity. Equity can’t just be giving money to underserved communities. People don’t want handouts. They want jobs, and a voice. They want a place at the table- on a regular basis. They want the opportunity to contribute to solutions and to lead in change. Until I see diversity of staff in an organization, I will always somewhat question their commitment to equity.