Commentary  Being equal does not mean being fair

Examining microaggressions on campus

Imagine if our society were a group of homogenous individuals, each one with the same ability to perceive and navigate the world around them. This would be a place where individual and communal experiences are inseparable and identical. The needs of every individual in this society would be universal: simply share everything equally, and everyone will be satisfied.

Take a look at yourself, and then the people around you. The society we live in is nothing like our imagined society. It is vividly heterogenous, with unique individuals revolving in the spaces we share. Yet in blatant defiance of reality, the governance and structure of our society tend to assume that we are all the same. The straight, white, cis-, able-bodied, upper-middle class male is the normative template, and for this reason he has become the point of reference in our continued struggles against oppression.

We would like to think that being equal is the same as being fair, and the easiest way to fulfill everyone’s needs is simply to give everyone an equal amount of everything. However, this concept of equality fails, for it operates under the assumed notion of a homogeneous society, ignoring diverse individual needs. Imagine that a vegetarian, a professional football player, and a celiac are having a meal together. Equality would mean giving them the exact same portion of meat lasagna, failing to account for the vegetarian’s lifestyle choice to not eat meat, the football player’s occupational need for more calories, and the celiac’s biological response toward gluten. None of these outcomes seem to be fair for each person, even though they all received an equal share.

The example above highlights a need to shift our focus from equality to equity, two concepts that are sometimes used interchangeably, but are fundamentally different. Equity represents fairness and justice, and can also be defined as the ‘equality of the outcome.’ It involves respecting the heterogeneity of our society, where individuals have different needs, and acknowledging historical and current oppressions that continue to divide this society. Equity also requires an understanding of privilege: the benefits and rights held by a small group of people to the disadvantage of others.

McGill, in many ways, operates under the presumption that we are all students on the same level playing field. Many are proud of how international our community is, how vibrant we are as a group of diverse people, with a range of different cultures and languages. We forget that with diversity comes responsibility, and we often ignore the fact that the complex dynamics of society are reflected within our community – a microcosm where equity has not been achieved.

Oppression in our community is often perpetuated by micro-aggressions: commonplace, day-to-day interactions in which intentionally or unintentionally, people are discriminated against and insulted. Asking a person of colour who identifies as Canadian, “where are you actually from?” perpetuates the racist notion that people of colour will always be foreigners in their home country. Having sexist team names such as “Occupy Vagina” at Carnival contributes to the objectification of women and their bodies. Using the words “no homo” or “that’s so gay” implies that homosexuality is negative and deviant.

But, unlike physical aggressions, microaggressions are often ignored. Individuals who experience microaggressions are often told that it is not a big deal, or that they are overreacting.  In denying the experience of the individual, we overlook the fact that microaggressions arise from systemic oppressions that are embedded in our community. There is a tendency to define oppression only in extreme terms, evidenced by the perception that only intense physical and verbal violence toward people of colour constitutes racism. Yet the truth is that oppression is experienced differently at all levels of society. Only by acknowledging and addressing oppression in all its forms can we begin to create a community that is equitable.

Therefore, readers should know that SSMU has an extensive Equity Policy which attempts to create a functional anti-oppressive environment, condemning harassment and discrimination of disadvantaged groups and individuals. Integral to this policy is the Equity complaints process which allows a formal resolution to be made after a thorough investigation by the Equity Commissioners in conjunction with the Equity Committee.  These resolutions include, but are not limited to, suspension or dismissal from a SSMU position, or suspension of financial support for Clubs, Services or Independent Student Groups that violate the Equity Policy.

The EUS and MUS both have Equity Policies operating on similar principles, and AUS is in the process of developing their own, having recently established an ad hoc committee.

Justin Jek-Kahn Koh is a U2 Cognitive Science student and one of two SSMU Equity Commissioners. He can be reached at