Pattern #28


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Although absolute equality is meaningless, historic systemic injustice and privilege distort human well-being and arbitrarily marginalize needed voices and energies, distorting society’s power relations and capacity for collective wisdom among races, genders, classes, cultures and other deeply held or visible identities. So learn about and address those dynamics in social systems, interactions and spaces.

  • What does “equity” mean and what’s involved in pursuing it?
  • How do the dynamics of oppression and privilege evolve over time, generating persistent impacts?
  • What forms of privilege, marginalization and oppression apply to my life? How are they different from those experienced by others?
  • How does significant inequality impact our ability to be collectively wise – in our groups? organizations? society?
  • How much and what kinds of inequality are OK – or unacceptable – and why?
  • What factors generate serious social inequality and what can we do about them?

Going Deeper …

This is an edited version of the video on this page.

The card for this equity pattern has a good picture which makes a really good distinction between equality and equity. It shows these three guys standing on crates trying to pick apples. To illustrate “equality” we see the tall, medium and short guys each standing on one crate – but only the tall guy can get at the apples. The other two guys can’t even reach them. To show “equity” – which is equality of opportunity – the second picture shows the tall guy standing on one crate, the middle guy standing on two crates, and the small guy standing on three crates. Now all of them can reach the apples. That’s equality of opportunity, or equity.

The pattern heart says that although absolute equality is meaningless, historic systemic injustice and privilege distort human well-being and arbitrarily marginalize needed voices and energies, distorting society’s power relationships and capacity for collective wisdom among races, genders, classes, cultures, and other deeply held or visible identities.

This is interesting to me because last year I learned a lot about “white space”, which is a situation where all the racially inequitable assumptions and dynamics are present, often unseen by white people. Even if a black person is authentically invited into that space, they will feel that the space is “white”… and they will feel uncomfortable: They will have to pay special attention and do special things and not say certain things in order to be able to be in that space with other people. So that’s what is meant by “spaces” in the pattern’s heart.

Similarly if there’s no ramp for a disabled person, then you don’t have a space that is welcoming to them.

There’s so many dimensions to this!

But one of the things that I realized, that is really fundamental in the equity card, is the way it embodies the prime directive of democracy. The prime directive tells us to evoke and engage the wisdom and resourcefulness of the whole on behalf of the whole. Now, there’s two parts to this: In the first part, we’re invoking and engaging the wisdom and resourcefulness of the whole and in the second part we’re doing that on behalf of the whole.

So think about that: If we have divided ourselves in ways that lead us to oppress each other and take advantage of each other and exploit each other, we’ve broken up the whole. Unfortunately, these differences make up a lot of what people think of as “diversity”. Race, gender, class, culture – all these these differences are largely used to oppress each other. And because some of us have oppressed others of us, such distinctions become important and people – on both sides of the oppression/privilege divide – start to identify themselves and others AS those things.

In doing so, we lose track of this other pattern called “Complex Identity” – that all of us have many qualities and dimensions. People tend to reduce their identity and reduce each other’s identity to one of these categories of habitual oppression and they become proud that they are black or a woman or white or whatever. Your identity becomes reduced to one of these things. And that itself is one of the biggest problems with a society that has lots of inequities: it reduces who people think they are, both themselves and each other.

And so when you try to evoke and engage the wisdom and resourcefulness of the whole, you only have a pile of parts of the whole – the divided people in the community, the alienated people in the society, the embattled people involved in a situation. And in among them, you’ve got all these parts of the whole that are being marginalized and not being taken into account. Which means you’re not taking account what you need to take into account for the longterm broad benefit of everyone. Which means you can’t generate wisdom together!

So it turns out this whole equity issue has a direct bearing on our ability to manifest the underlying dynamics of wise democracy, our prime directive and our definition of wisdom. This was a significant realization for me, because I tend to think systemically and not personally. But most people working on equity issues – on racial equity and gender equity and whatever – a lot of the people working on those issues tend to focus on how hard oppressive dynamics make the lives of the people involved.

The wise democracy paradigm (due largely to my personal biases and limitations) has been less focused on that than on the systemic and cultural dynamics that facilitate or hinder the prime directive – that is, how do we access the wisdom and resourcefulness of the whole? So I have focused more on that than on the effects oppression and marginalization have on individuals.

But then I realized that equity is so much about ensuring everyone has adequate opportunity to develop and give their particular gifts to the whole. So this is about opportunity – and not so much about having an opportunity to be a big deal in your life as about as having gifts – perspectives and knowledge and skills and experiences that you can share if you have the capacity – the opportunity – to develop and share them – if you can be heard, if you have enough education to be able to express yourself and see what’s going on, and if you are not marginalized, and if you’re welcomed into the center of what’s trying to be dealt with so that you are part of the conversation in all the ways that people can be part of the conversation.

So your historic or systemic oppression or marginalization plays a role in your ability to do all that, and so it needs to be part of how we organize the conversation, how we bring you in, how all kinds of people – the real whole – can be included. The whole question of inclusion is major major major here! But it’s about people’s gifts. They have something to offer that would be useful for taking things into account and generating broad benefits, so we want to create the larger systems, the interactions, and the spaces that will allow us to evoke – to draw up into reality – and to engage in a creative way whatever gifts everybody has.

And that requires looking through an opportunity lens – thinking about the ways we’re setting things up, the ways we’re creating our spaces. When people come into a space and when people interact with us, will they experience opportunity that draws out the best that they have to offer? From the wise democracy perspective, that needs to be a major piece of what’s going on.

But we also need to attend to larger power dynamics. We talk about this in some of the other patterns like “Constraints on Concentrated Power”. The more inequity there is – particularly in the realm of wealth – the more the power dynamics of society get distorted. If you have lots of money… if you have lots of media control… if you have lots of either membership in official decision-making bodies (i.e., you’re an elected official) or you can buy off politicians… if you’re the president of a major corporation – or if you ARE a major corporation – then you can wield tremendous influence beyond anyone else’s. And the more everyone else is impoverished while you are made wealthy, the more capacity you have to influence the economic and political systems to give you even more wealth and power.

That’s something that’s being commented on more lately by economists and political scientists: the extent to which wealth inequality has been magnified. And of course, if you are a woman, if you are a person of color, if you’re a person from another culture – these things impact your ability to acquire concentrated wealth. Of course, certain people rise above those limitations and manage to enter into the mainstream enough so that if they’re ambitious and capable or manipulative or whatever, they can rise into the wealthy classes. That tends to be rare, but is (hopefully) becoming less so – although that doesn’t address the issue of concentrated wealth!

One of the ironies of all this is that if you want to keep your tremendous power, a good way to do it is to make sure that those who could take away your power are divided from each other. And the best way to do that is to focus on these oppressive differences. Like in the United States right now, Trump is using immigration and Muslim culture to get poor white people to focus on those things as threats, rather than on more realistic sources of their own misfortunes, on the fact that they’re getting the short end of the deal in the way the US system is set up. Instead of dealing with what’s really keeping them down, they scapegoat some Other that they can identify, that those in power have pointed out to them as the source of their problems.

The “othering” of people who are marginalized and oppressed is a great political tool to maintain your power. You get the oppressed white Christian men with European roots to focus on what the black people, the women, the Other poor people, the other races and cultures and immigrants and whatever – are taking away from them, and you can divide and conquer them all. You win, they lose.

This is one of the most potent feedback loops that generates negative power dynamics in our society. So it is a major part of what needs to be attended to as we try to take into account what needs to be taken into account for long-term broad benefit. The dynamics that reinforce concentrated power are one of the main things we have to take into account. And equity is the other side of the concentrated power coin. If concentrated power was minimized, equity would be maximized or optimized, and vice versa.

It’s interesting to note that race and gender are more visible than many other kinds of difference (except for some cultural and religious practices that make it obvious you are from a marginalized group). Race and gender are kind of hard to hide. One of the interesting developments is that even as those identities become more solidly held – for example, women are holding themselves more solidly as women and that they have a right to be equal to men, and blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans, and other people who are racially or culturally identified are taking that on as a point of pride and identity. And yet, at the same time, the evolution of our multicultural culture and the evolution of science are revealing the extent to which racial identities are relative. For example people say that Obama was black when he had an African father and a white mother. That means he’s 50-50, so why is he considered “black”. Sometimes people who are 1/10 black will still be considered black – and they identify as black because they have been treated as black and have common ground with others who’ve been so considered and treated. But genetics tells us that race is much more a social construction than a biological reality. And there are more and more “interracial” relationships and children and people.

That’s like what’s happening with gender: there is now transgender, gender queer, gender fluid and more – so that our good old binary set of gender categories is transforming in a way that’s shaking apart the culture right now.

It is intriguing to watch the whole society responding to all this in so many different ways. We’re so grounded in these categories that we’ve used to keep us separated from each other – the characteristics we’ve held onto to maintain a narrow identity. And those identities are being threatened by these larger realizations that we are complex humans who don’t readily fit into identity boxes. And all that is happening at the same time that major forces in our society are trying to reinforce those boxes in ways that facilitate both liberation and oppression. This whole complex transformational dynamic is fascinating to observe and learn from.

There’s now a growing movement based on what’s called “intersectionality”. Intersectionality is an academic way of suggesting that all of the forms of oppression and privilege are intimately related and that for too long they have been seen as separate. So you get poor white men being helped to identify as “white and male” so they will feel threatened by women and people of color – and then a black man is then put off against a black woman because she’s a woman and he’s a man…. And so we’re being divided in a way that makes it harder to create alliances. White men and black men can’t build alliances because they’re black and white, and black men and black women can’t build alliances because they’re women and men…. It’s fragmenting us. And the intersectionality movement is saying that all these things have deep roots which in turn are rooted in white patriarchy and European Western kinds of logic and straightness and so on.

Since all these oppressive isms have the same roots, we need to understand the dynamics of oppression and privilege as such, and wake people up to how those dynamics work. And we need to get beyond, for example, white people who are trying to wake up to their racism getting mired in white guilt. We need to move from that into understanding what’s going on, what are the dynamics of racism, of white privilege and white supremacy – indeed, the whole idea of supremacy of superiority because you are one of these things and that other people are inferior because they are one of these other things. You need to understand that and you need to understand how history has unfolded around those assumptions and dynamics. You need to know how the slavery, the oppression, the privilege have been built into the structures and systems so that for many people it’s hard to get a job, hard to get a house, hard to have good encounters with police. All these endless things that make it hard to have opportunities that are anything remotely similar to more privileged people. And we all need to really get it that (and why) the more privileged people most of the time don’t even realize that they’re privileged. It’s invisible. Part of privilege is not having to pay attention to privilege, to be able to say “All lives matter!” Well, it’s true that all lives matter, but the point is that some people have to live through the experience of not mattering over and over and over and over and over again, while other people just experience themselves as human beings. They’re not trying to threaten anybody. But the story and system they’re living in that helps them feel that way does threaten other people!

So you have to somehow climb out of your own personal guilt or innocence or involvement in these things and go “Oh, this cultural-systemic-economic-political-whatever dynamic of oppression and privilege is built into the culture.” It’s built into me, it’s built into you. It’s built into the ways our lives are organized.

For several decades there has been growing understanding of “internalized oppression” and “internalized privilege”. These phenomena are among the things that make it so hard to deal with inequitable dynamics. We need to name them and have them become objects for analysis and action and not get caught in these divide-and-conquer roots and cycles, these personal guilt or innocence dynamics. Some black people are (understandably) saying whites are guilty of this or that and some whites are (understandably) feeling guilty or reacting back and saying “I’m not privileged. You guys are messed up!” That dynamic is messed up!

Until we get out of those reactive modes so we can more clearly see this issue as a systemic, cultural, psychological, whole-system phenomenon and together address it, we won’t make much progress. And this dynamic will continue to undermine our ability to include all the gifts of all the people in our deliberations and distributions of benefits.

But the question of what exactly to do about it remains. One of our other cards is about “restorative justice”. This is intimately related to equity, promoting the idea that different parties who have caused harm and who have experienced harm – and the larger community that contains those parties – all these parties need to heal. They need to hear each other. They all have different experiences and we need to respect the validity of all those experiences. If there is a good hearing of what that’s really like by all parties of all parties, then very often “the whole” can heal. And many restorative justice advocates add in the need to change the system, because system dynamics play a role in the harm happening in the first place. So if all the parties can participate in changing the system dynamics so this kind of harm doesn’t happen as much, then that’s kind of an ideal.

Now, the idea of forgiveness, of healing, of civility, of “let’s talk respectfully to each other”, let’s listen and all that – all that is really important and fundamentally valid. However, if people have been messed with personally and historically and all of their friends and associates have been messed with personally and historically, then priority needs to be given to hearing what that’s like for them – to prioritize hearing their stories, and taking in their emotions and struggles, to have them able to come out in some way that’s clearly witnessed. Yet very often the people who have been more privileged in the oppressive systems have a hard time listening to the strong energies of people who have been oppressed. It’s hard for them to be present with those energies, so it’s a tricky space to navigate and to do true healing in that space for everyone involved.

I want to note that although this pattern’s page will offer some resources to try to navigate that landscape, it’s not as if we can say “okay everybody, let’s just make sure everyone is equal, or that everyone has equal opportunities.” There are a lot of social, psychological and systemic dynamics at work that make it very delicate and complex. So I want to acknowledge that complexity.

I also want to highlight Robert Fuller’s “dignitarian movement”. Fuller was once president of Oberlin College and he’s saying that dignity is the opposite – the other side of the coin – of every oppressive dynamic. It’s like the positive perspective on intersectionality. He’s looking at the thing which is at the root of all this – which he calls “rankism”, that sense of being more important and valid than other people, and how that sense gets solidified into the culture and into the institutions, and how it undermines the dignity of the people involved. And he asks to what extent can we shift our attention from specific oppressions to giving everybody dignity and respect.

Along the same lines, I want to note research done in prisons by psychologist James Gilligan, who investigated the roots of violent crime by observing and interviewing violent criminals in prison. He found that shame was at the root of their violence. They were lashing back at a society that had made them feel ashamed and made them feel invalid as human beings. He suggests that truly respecting people would drastically reduce the violence in society.

So it’s not just opportunity that is being taken away. It is identity and legitimacy – the right to exist in the world – that is being undermined by these dynamics of oppression and privilege. The lack of respect is fundamental here. This is perhaps epitomized by Aretha Franklin’s famous R-E-S-P-E-C-T song. So how can we grant full legitimacy – full right to exist as a human being – to each other… and to ourselves?

And do we recognize that sometimes – at a social systemic level as well as at a personal level – people need to be given special supports to help them become in fact equal in their ability to function in the world. Those of us who are more privileged so often don’t realize what it’s like for those less privileged. After all, part of our privilege lies in not having to think about it (whereas less privileged people live inside that awareness constantly!). But our ignorant bliss doesn’t always last.

Sometimes some disabled people call more able-bodied people “temporarily abled”. They are pointing out that if at some point you are in a car crash and you are suddenly crippled and in a wheelchair, you will then realize that the absence of ramps impacts you. Now you think about ramps all the time, whereas before, you didn’t think about ramps at all: you just started to walk upstairs or whatever.

The fact that the world is not designed for you as a blind person or as a disabled person comes home and you realize that you need those supports in order to function at an “ordinary” level. And you realize that there’s a privilege to being able to see, and there’s a privilege to being able to walk and there is a privilege to being white. You see that there’s a privilege to all these things that we (in our various states of privilege) may think of as just human behaviors and ordinary reputation and stuff like that.

And so that’s some of the dimensions I see in this – and from a wise democracy perspective, I want to honor all the people who are doing the work in this and I want to feature the idea that what we’re trying to do is give everyone legitimacy and opportunity to develop their gifts and to offer their gifts into the deliberations and implementations of things that will then benefit everybody. That’s the dynamic that we’re working for in this pattern language and that’s the role that we’re focused on and that we invite other people to focus on as we all do work to make more equitable societies.