Module 12: Equity Versus Equality, Diversity versus Inclusion

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Module 11: Confronting Colorblindness and Neutrality
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Module 12: Equity vs. Equality, Diversity vs. Inclusion
Module 13: Allies and Antiracism

After working through this module, you will be able to:

  • Define equality, equity, diversity, and inclusion.
  • Describe the distinction between equality and equity.
  • Describe the distinction between diversity and inclusion.
  • Explain why these distinctions are important.


ALA states that equity, diversity, and inclusion are “fundamental values of the association and its members” (2008, para. 1). While we hear these terms often, it can be difficult to tease out their specific meanings, the distinctions between them, and why these distinctions matter. In this module, you will explore the meaning of these terms. Your understanding of their definitions will serve as a foundation for your commitment to working toward equity and inclusion.

Equity Versus Equality


We often think of equality as an important value: making sure everyone receives the same treatment. As this article from the National Association for Multicultural Education  (NAME) points out, however, equal treatment may not be enough to ensure the BIYOC we serve can reach their highest potential. Read the article for an accessible introduction to the difference between equity and equality, and an explanation of why working for equity is a better way to help BIYOC have the opportunity to succeed.


If you didn’t watch it as part of reading the NAME article above, watch this video to hear two young people explain the difference between equity and equality.

As you watch, consider these questions:

  • What does it mean to treat people equally?
  • What does it mean to treat people equitably?
  • Why is it important to treat people equitably?


You may have seen a version of the equity-versus-equality graphic in which several children are attempting to watch a baseball game from behind a fence. Read this article from Cultural Organizing blog founder Paul Kuttner, which critiques the messages behind this graphic and offers alternatives.

Putting it All Together

The articles and video above all reach similar conclusions about equality and equity:

  • Equality means that everyone gets the same treatment, the same chances, the same resources, etcetera. When we focus on equality, our ultimate goal is fairness.
  • Equity means that everyone gets what they need to succeed. When we focus on equity, our ultimate goal is justice.

This is a critically important difference because, in the United States, many of the arguments against racial justice initiatives use “fairness” as their underlying rationale. For example, some argue that affirmative action isn’t fair because it gives advantages to BIPOC that white people do not have (as we discussed in earlier modules, this is a specious argument, but a pervasive one). Similar arguments are frequently made against other social safety net programs like welfare, food stamps, and the Head Start preschool program. In many cases these arguments are explicitly or implicitly about race, even though white people are the biggest beneficiaries of social safety net programs in the United States: among 59 million people identified by the Urban Institute as receiving some sort of assistance in the U.S., 43% were white (compared to 23% Black, 26% Hispanic, and 8% Asian or Native American) (Urban Institute, 2019).

Arguments like this are grounded in an assumption that equality – rather than equity – should be society’s goal. But this ignores the huge differences in resources and treatment that already exist across racial groups in our country (see Module 2 for a refresher on these). For everyone to have a true opportunity to succeed, we need to acknowledge that we are all starting from different points on the track. From there, we need to recognize that those “different starting points” are not solely individual, but are related to categories of privilege and marginalization based on race, gender, sexual orientation, ability, and other aspects of identity. Only then can we begin to question and disrupt the systems that are responsible for creating and maintaining these differences, and in so doing work for equity.


In the library world, we often assume that our services are equitable because “everyone has access” to them. But even if that were true, does universal access necessarily lead to equitable outcomes? Most equity advocates would argue that it does not. As equity experts Heidi Schillinger and Erin Okuno point out, access alone does nothing to shift systemic power imbalances. In fact, when we focus on access as our primary goal, we may in fact reinforce existing power structures by positioning BIPOC and other marginalized community members as dependent on the largesse of the library. Read their two blog posts below, which distinguish between access and equity:

Reflect on these blog posts in your journal. To what extent does your conception of equity in libraries boil down to providing access to library resources and services, and in what ways might that reinforce existing racial power structures? What might equity in library services look like beyond access?

Diversity Versus Inclusion

According to projections from the United States Census Bureau (2018), the population of young people in America will become increasingly racially diverse over the next forty years. The library and education professions have a long way to go to increase their diversity, according to the American Library Association’s (2012) “Diversity Counts” study and the United States Department of Education’s (2016) report “The State of Racial Diversity in the Educator Workforce”, but diversity in our classrooms and communities is present and inevitable.

The mere presence of BIYOC in our schools, however, isn’t a guarantee of integration or inclusion. As legal scholar Jeffrey S. Lehman points out, “The word diversity can feel somewhat one-dimensional, connoting only a property of racial heterogeneity that may or may not exist in a particular place at a particular moment in time” (2004, p. 62). Lehman suggests that “integration does a better job of capturing the special importance to our country of undoing the damaging legacy of laws and norms that artificially separated citizens from one another on the basis of race” (2004, p. 62). Building on Lehman’s points, sociologist Marta Tienda offers inclusion as another term for integration, defining it as “organizational strategies and practices that promote meaningful social and academic interactions among persons and groups who differ in their experiences, their views, and their traits” (2013, p. 467). Inclusion goes beyond making space for BIYOC to be present and extends to making an effort to ensure that they are included in our schools and libraries as active participants and leaders.


In this video, diversity trainer Kenyona “Sunny” Matthews explains the difference between diversity and inclusion and how she experienced institutional transformation from diversity to inclusion at her alma mater, Guilford College.

After watching the video, ask yourself: in what ways does your library value “diversity” as opposed to “inclusion?” Why does this matter? What can your library do to move from diversity to inclusion? 

Additional Resources

Hudson, D. J. (2017). On “diversity” as anti-racism in library and information studies: a critique.  Journal of Critical Librarianship and Information Studies, 1-36.

References and Image Credits

American Library Association (2012). Diversity Counts 2012 Tables. Retrieved from es2012.pdf

American Library Association. (2008). Equity, diversity, and inclusion. Retrieved from

Lehman, J. S. (2004). The evolving language of diversity and integration in discussions of affirmative action from Bakke to Grutter.  In Patricia Gurin, Jeffrey S. Lehman, and Earl Lewis, Defending Diversity: Affirmative Action at the University of Michigan (pp. 61–96).  Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press.

Tienda, M. (2013). Diversity ≠ inclusion: Promoting integration in higher education. Educational Researcher, 42(9), 467–475.

United States Census Bureau. (2018, March 13). Older people projected to outnumber children for first time in U.S. history. Retrieved from ttps://

United States Department of Education. (2016). The state of racial diversity in the educator workforce. Retrieved from

Urban Institute (2019). Five Things You May Not Know about the US Social Safety Net. Retrieved from 

Go Back:
Module 11: Confronting Colorblindness and Neutrality
You Are Here:
Module 12: Equity vs. Equality, Diversity vs. Inclusion
Module 13: Allies and Antiracism