Individual Difference vs. Structural Inequality: What’s Wrong With Equity/Equality Images?

So you’ve probably heard about the illustration contest Meyer and Northwest Health Foundation launched a few months ago, to help identify images from Oregonian artists that further the discourse on equity.

We were drawn to the illustrations floating around the web, usually depicting three individuals standing on boxes outside a fence. Often the images were used to show the difference between equality, where everyone gets the same resources, and equity, which speaks to each person getting the resources they need.

Our contest ends March 31st, and while we’ve gotten some really interesting submissions from youths and adults, we’re excited about what more may come our way.

Recently, we came across a LinkedIn post by Aasha M. Abdill, an independent evaluation and strategy consultant based in Washington, D.C., taking on the ubiquitous image of those three figures on boxes stacked outside a fence. She had a fresh perspective about how the popular image gets equity so very, very wrong.

With her permission, we share Aasha’s post:

I have seen this picture floating around many times on LinkedIn for several months now.

While I very much appreciated the intended purpose of the image– distinguishing equity from equality– the first time I saw it, I could not click the “like” button. Something about the image bugged me.  Yet, I couldn’t easily figure out why and I didn’t have any free time to think on it. After a while I stopped seeing it in my feed and I forgot about it.

A couple of months later,  a slightly different version resurfaced. It appeared consistently and boldly in my feed with little concern for my escalating irritation. As each LinkedIn colleague liked, shared and commented in its favor, I felt an irrational exasperation. I am not easily vexed so this was a clear problem that I knew I needed to address.

I stared at the image. It “stared” back at me. I frowned. I sighed. I furrowed my brow. I walked away. And, then it hit me.  My voice in my head screamed with a mixture of indignation and relief, “That’s why I can’t stand you!”

Do you know why? If you don’t, it’s understandable because it exemplifies the insidiousness of implicit bias. So, I will not keep you entrapped for a second longer. Instead, I will ask you one question.

In the picture, why are the three individuals so observably different in capability (physical height and age)?

Social equity is imperative because structural inequality exists; that is, you can predict the outcomes of individuals based on social characteristics that should not have any direct correlation to the outcome. Why then, is it possible to predict? Because, social inequality is perpetuated by institutional and individual discrimination. So, to address social inequities, the boxes appearing in the second frame are necessarily doled out unequally so that equity can be achieved.

The problem with the picture is in its implicit bias that many do not see. If we believe, fundamentally, that all people regardless of race, class or creed are comparably able, there should be little difference between the individuals in this picture. What should be drawn as dissimilar are not the individuals but rather the bottom boxes they are standing on in the first frame.

While I fully appreciate the intended purpose of the image, its point regrettably rests upon a deeply ingrained belief of the inherent inequality of people.  And, despite the sincere explicit intention for increasing understanding, empathy, and justice for redressing social inequities, the picture’s sentiment implicitly reinforces the idea that minorities (or those otherwise unprivileged) have inferior abilities.

So, for all you artists– please! Please create another picture. One that conveys the important distinction of equity and equality without the hidden and deeply ingrained bigotry.

On that note, please submit your own entry into the Equity Illustrated design contest. Help us get this right.

And read the rest of Aasha’s conversation-provoking post on LinkedIn here or on the Equity Illustrated contest website.

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  • Lori Kuechler

    I completely agree. In addition to the false assumption that systemic structures are equal – the drawing perpetuates the assumption that people of color cannot afford to buy baseball tickets.

  • Sean Stevens

    Could the problems with this image that Aasha has so ably described be fixed by altering the fence height in front of the different characters and making the characters the same height? It seems that would make a good metaphor. The structural inequalities faced are pretty well represented by a taller fence – populations facing institutional discrimination inherently have more obstacles to overcome to “see over the fence.”

  • g myers

    Let’s just work to get rid of this fence, and all other barriers.