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A Threat to Equity or a Threat to Inequity?


On February 13th, GSE hosted Dr. Paul Gorski of George Mason University and EdChange as part of its Centennial Lecture Series. Gorski’s work sits at the intersection of education, equity, and community organizing and focuses on the gaps between best practices and reality. Gorski created a framework for Equity Literacy and argues that “we need to be careful about adopting frameworks for talking about diversity or equity that are designed to avoid dealing with equity and social justice in a real way.”

The lecture covered the dangers of performative equity. Gorski began his talk with a set of reflections and stories about inequity and diversity in schools. He described two school focus groups: students of color and administrators. When asked to define the problems around equity, the students said things like I feel like a visitor in my own school; I feel invisible and also hypervisible; and There is racism at this school and nobody is doing anything about it. Whereas the school leader said We need to celebrate the joys of diversity.

According to Gorski, the problem is not that most educators are oppressive, it’s that they need to reframe the way they think about and see problems of inequity, i.e. viewing problems through marginalized people’s eyes. “We expect [marginalized students]to participate in celebrations of diversity but we don’t attend to the reasons they’re being marginalized.”

Part of the problem, Gorski says, is in how we talk about diversity. We often use vague terms, such as cultural competence, cultural proficiency, or culturally and linguistically diverse. The term “culture” is often misapplied to imply that it’s something that needs to be fixed or overcome, such as “the culture of poverty.” It is also used as a replacement for issues about power, such as racism, sexism, or xenophobia.  Using culture in these ways ignores institutional and structural barriers for marginalized people.  His argument is that “we should stop using ‘culture’ when we mean something else [e.g. race, class, gender] and stop focusing on culture at the expense of focusing on inequity.”

He then offered several concepts and guidelines for building equity literacy.

  • Inequity should be defined as unequal distribution of access and opportunity.
  • Stop looking at issues from the top of the hierarchy downward.
  • Recognize and remove structural barriers.
  • Realize that “celebrating diversity” is not equity.
  • We need to shift from mitigation to eliminating inequity. Holding multicultural or diversity events will not create racial justice in schools.

Gorski closed his lecture with a set of questions to help guide equity practices.

  • Who or what are we trying to fix? Equity efforts need to focus on fixing inequitable conditions, not on fixing marginalized people.
  • Do we mitigate or transform? Equity efforts need to be a threat to the existence of inequity, not mitigate their symptoms.
  • Are we dancing around or digging in? Equity efforts need to contribute to redistributing access and opportunity, not leaving the current unequal distribution and helping marginalized people adapt to it.
  • Who are the experts? Equity efforts need to work with marginalized people, not on them.

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