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Reimagining How We Define Equity Gaps: Decentering Whiteness and Privilege

For years, educators have defined equity gaps based on the disparities in educational outcomes among different groups of students. Most often, when presenting data on equity gaps, the performance level of students from a majority demographic group is labeled the aspirational goal for all students. Educators declare success in closing equity gaps when marginalized and racially minoritized students reach the same performance level as majority students.

But doesn’t this process for identifying equity gaps center whiteness as the norm and the definition of excellence for all students, reinforcing notions of privilege and racism with our systems, structures, and policies for student success?

In our 2020 book, From Equity Talk to Equity Walk: Expanding Practitioner Knowledge for Racial Justice in Higher Education, Estela Mara Bensimon, Lindsey Malcom-Piqueux, and I identify common obstacles for achieving racial equity in higher education. Two of those obstacles are the incapacity to see institutional racism in familiar routines and the pervasiveness of white privilege and institutionalized racism. When we privilege the performance of a group of students over another and set it up as the definition and aspirational goal for excellence, we are perpetuating a hierarchy of human value based on student experiences that may contribute to the assumptions, biases, and preconceived notions that some educators have about racially minoritized and marginalized students.

My recommendation for remediating these racialized practices related to student success data is for educators to establish equity goals not based on the performance of one group of students (often white students), but on the institution’s definition of excellence and the goals they want their students to achieve. These equity goals can be categorized by graduation, retention, progression, achievement of proficiency in learning outcomes, course completion, or an array of other metrics. Institutions should continue to disaggregate the data based on student demographics to address equity in outcomes, but aspirational goals for closing equity gaps should be defined and measured by achievement goals established by the institution—not by privileging the performance of one student group over another.

This approach seeks to dismantle the hierarchy of human value inherent in presentations of student success data and puts definitions of excellence in the purview of educators. For example, imagine that your institution has an aggregate graduation rate of 40 percent, but disaggregating the data by race/ethnicity uncovers disparities between white students and racially minoritized students. Instead of setting the equity goal at 55 percent (the graduation rate for white students), your campus might set the goal to 60 percent based on a more comprehensive, equity-conscious analysis of institutional data and culture. This goal may gradually increase over a period of time based on institutional strategies to advance student success outcomes. The equity gap shouldn’t be considered closed until the various student groups meet that level of performance, which decenters whiteness as the norm and the definition of excellence.

As Audre Lorde states, “For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.” To enact sustainable change in higher education, we must continually identify and dismantle institutional racism and the pervasive white privilege in familiar routines.

As my coauthors and I wrote in From Equity Talk to Equity Walk, higher education must “elevate anti-racism as an agenda . . . if we are ever to truly be the just and good society we imagine ourselves to be.” This requires us all to be active participants in critically examining existing practices that are commonly accepted but perpetuate privilege and the hierarchy of human value.

We invite you to join us at our 2021 Virtual Diversity, Equity, and Student Success Conference: “Upholding These Truths: Diversity, Equity, and Democracy” on March 24–26, where we will examine both the perceptions and the realities of equity and diversity and what it means to educate for democracy in a constantly changing educational and societal landscape.

Tia Brown McNair is vice president for diversity, equity, and student success and executive director for the Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation (TRHT) Campus Centers at the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Have an idea for a blog post? Write to dedman@aacu.org.

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