The 'equality' that serves social injustice

Equality talk, with its roots in liberalism, defines those who aren’t considered equal as lacking.  A more radical approach is needed to tackle systemic and entrenched social injustice.

Reni Eddo-Lodge
24 February 2014

Several months ago, the Metropolitan Police launched a new diversity advertising campaign with bus stop posters in diverse London areas. The strap line read ‘being you means we can be us’. This a drive to get more black and Asian faces into an institution in which a disproportionate number of black male lives are lost, without explanation, at the hands of the police. Put bluntly, this is a drive for the same shit with a different skin tone. Just recently, the head of the BBC’s television output announced that the corporation is putting an end to all male fronted comedy panel shows. In a few years’ time, the repeats on Dave will have more women on it, but they’ll probably still be telling dick jokes. Both occurrences are a sanitised equality and diversity exercise. The proof as to whether any real change comes as a result of these recruitments won’t come to light for some time. But we’re told that these overtures will make things equal, because equality is always good.

Despite its hindrances, the word ‘equality’ still holds weight and influence in movements working towards social justice. Equality always seems to be the goal. Whether it is strategies aiming to get more women in the boardroom, or campaigns for equal representation in the media, equality talk focuses heavily on handing those without it a slice of power.

Equality talk, with its roots in liberalism, defines those who aren’t considered equal as lacking. It is an approach is based on sameness – a sameness that does not question who set the standard in the first place.  It hopes that an end to being treated differently is an end to inequality. But the reason that structural inequality continues to thrive is not just because people are treated differently. It continues because some people are afforded privileges that are explicitly reliant on the denial of them to others. It’s no longer good enough to look at the people who’ve always had a grossly unfair slice of the power and demand that we want the same. I used to believe in equality. But now I think it’s better to aim for equality as a transitional demand on the path to full liberation.

 We must question the very foundations of assumptions about equality that underpin liberal discourse. Who exactly do we want to be equal to? I don’t want to be equal to those who have always gripped the upswing of a gross imbalance of power in the palm of their hands. What they have is disproportionate. I’ve no desire to be equal to those who, through the entitlement of structural privilege, have never questioned their power.

Equality requires assimilation rather than self-determination and liberation. For white upper class women making it in the corridors of power, assimilation might mean slipping quietly into a capitalist structure that relies on poorer women of colour’s undervalued labour. For black faces in the Metropolitan Police, assimilation might mean unquestioningly taking part in stop and search tactics that consistently harasses boys who look just like they did when they were their age. Equality talk requires a kind of individualist cognitive dissonance, an assurance that you can get finally yours, but nothing fundamentally changes.

But perhaps those of us affected by the disease that is a white supremacist, heteronormative capitalist patriarchy can demand recognition on our own terms rather than asking for assimilation to terms that were never ours to have in the first place. We should aim better than acceptance to and a ticket into a white male standard that created policies, laws and institutions in its favour, protecting property and capital.  We can and should make our own standards and set our own terms- without modifying what’s already there, or pandering and playing catch up to a system that doesn’t work, and relies on oppression to deliver its goals.

Difference is beautiful. Assimilation politics requires us to iron those differences out. If we don’t draw attention to ourselves we’ll be equal. Ultimately equality talk still panders to the root of the problem- white as the default, male as the default. We are still all measured by those yardsticks. Instead of decentring the power, it just hands us a slice of it from the centre in. We deserve more than to be tolerated. We deserve more than a single seat at a table that is not in our best interests. Equality comes with terms and conditions in the form of regressive respectability politics.

We can have rights as long as we’re well behaved and don’t offend the sensibilities of those granting them to us. We can have rights just as long as we don’t express any indication of our difference. Rights just as long as LGB people don’t show affection to their partners in public. As long those who’ve just given birth don’t breastfeed where anyone can see them. As long as people with wombs don’t visibly menstruate. As long as transgender people pass ‘convincingly’ as cisgender. As long as black people don’t verbalise our experiences of racism.  

Instead of the rigid rules of equality, we can opt for the freedom of liberation. Liberation demands that our differences not be assimilated away, but recognised, celebrated and accounted for. Liberation demands to live freely and fully, released from the expectations that are foisted upon us by a structure that doesn’t want us to thrive. Liberation doesn’t come with terms and conditions like equality does, with its large stake in regressive respectability politics. The beauty of freedom is that you can do what you like with it.  Equality has its uses. At worst, it hands us crumbs of a cookie we’ll never be allowed to eat. At best it is a place holder of transitional demands whilst we chip away at the lifelong task of self-determination against an insurmountable mountain of entrenched and unjust power. We should start at equality – but let’s not end there. 

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