It is a common university experience to hear an unfamiliar equity term in conversation and consequently be faced with two choices. We can either admit that we have no idea what our peer is talking about and ask for clarification, or we can smile, nod, and Google it later.

The increasing stigma associated with the former — admitting to not being up-to-date with equity terminology — is part of a much bigger problem on campus. Equity language can be extremely useful, but it can also alienate the people it is being used to help if it isn’t explained. It is mistaken to assume that everyone who is affected by the issues being discussed will undoubtedly understand the sometimes convoluted language being used to describe them.

Yet exclusion based on equity knowledge can be a conscious choice, used to distinguish between those in the ‘in-group’ and the ‘out-group’ of campus equity organizations — and this is where it becomes dangerous.

This dynamic is perfectly understandable in equity circles, given that specific shared experiences are bound to bring people together. But when these circles fence off people who share similar experiences under allegations of having an ‘inadequate’ equity education, elitism in equity becomes a real problem.

Rather than buying into the elitism in certain equity circles, we should be working to unlearn it and address the various ways in which it takes form around campus.

Carving out equity spaces reserved only for those in marginalized communities who ‘get it’ is, by nature, exclusionary and elitist. I use the phrase ‘get it’ to describe people who have access to the equity education necessary to partake in these conversations; use the lingo regularly; and toe the lines set out by the ‘equity knowledge’ power structures within these circles — power structures that are often carbon copies of those they purport to be working against.

Not only does this create new types of marginalization under the guise of equity, it shows the unwillingness of some of the most powerful voices in campus equity discourse to support and engage with those in their communities who — for myriad reasons — have been unable to access the same kind of education. 

Jumping into equity discourse can be a difficult feat, especially for those who face barriers related to language differences and learning disabilities, and it is important to accommodate the fact that not everyone starts at the same point when it comes to understanding equity.

It is true that it takes an incredible amount of emotional labour to explain things like systemic marginalization to those who are unfamiliar with the term. But that explanation doesn’t necessarily have to be a one-on-one conversation; it can be as simple as providing resources for people to educate themselves. Disregarding the importance of this educational component — especially when it serves to benefit marginalized people who have not been able to acquire an equity education — turns campus equity into something inaccessible and elitist.

Regrettably, campus equity circles often leave no room for this kind of education. Those looking to voice their opinions are expected to know the catchphrases and acronyms and are not taken seriously if they do not.

On the other hand, the unwavering and uncritical praise of those who do ‘get it’ should also be avoided; it implies that there is a point that can be reached where one knows everything there is to know about equity, which simply isn’t true. Equity and social justice work is a constant process of learning and unlearning, and spaces where the learning process is ignored — or worse, stigmatized — are detrimental to the promotion of equity on campus.

Indeed, one of the biggest barriers to participation in equity groups is the use of inaccessible or ‘academic’ language in campus equity discourse. This kind of language can be very useful, but if used, it needs to be explained. The easiest way to work against elitism in equity and to ensure that it isn’t always the same voices being heard is to recognize that not everyone has had the privilege of learning these terms and phrases. Consequently, we should make an effort to explain them, particularly if they are acronyms.

Doing so doesn’t always take a lot of work. For example, organizers of events catering to BIPOC should ensure that they include the full descriptor of ‘Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour’ somewhere in their posters and Facebook events. In addition, it is possible in some cases to avoid jargon if there is an evidently simpler way to describe something — this makes the event less intimidating to students who may not be well versed in equity terminology. Saying ‘learning and incorporating different cultural elements’ rather than saying ‘acculturation’ is simpler and has the potential to increase participation from people who may have felt alienated or confused by the unfamiliar term.

Finally, context and audience must be considered before equity language is employed. For example, many South Asian people living both in their home countries and in Canada — myself included — are jarred and discomforted by the use of the word ‘bodies’ to describe those killed in conflict. Yet, this term has become a commonplace term in equity discourse, especially in the context of the normalization of war in Asian and African countries. It is most often used to draw attention to the objectification and dehumanization of people of colour by governments and the media, but this kind of ‘academic’ social science language can be perceived as insensitive and disrespectful in the context of conflict and death.

While equity language is useful, it cannot simply be thrown around to sound impressive or give credence to ideas when it will be lost on those who it affects. Equity must be accessible to those it claims to be helping, and ridding organizations and groups of this kind of elitism is one of the easiest ways to widen its reach.

Saambavi Mano is a third-year student at Victoria College studying Peace, Conflict, and Justice Studies. Her column appears tri-weekly.

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