Breaking the Boundaries of the Equality, Equity and Liberation Meme

There is a decade old meme used to show equality and the meme is still going strong. I see it at every aid sector conference and a great deal of presentations within the development sector.

Original image by Craig Froehle 2012

The original meme was created in 2012 by a fellow named Craig Froehle. He created the image to clarify why equality of outcomes was a better goal than equal opportunity.

There have been many adaptions over the years and lots of time to reflect on what it means for my DEI practice. By early 2016 Centre for Story-Based Strategy had developed the below meme — with a reality box, representing the inequality, and thus power that exists, and symbolising that many are still left behind.

The centre of story-based strategy also invited people to consider if there could be more to the story and set the scene with liberation. With the above boxes, people started to consider how to get on top of boxes. What if there is no ladder? What if the person uses mobility aids? This meme below was breaking those boundaries.

However, I have never felt that people being on the sidelines was my end goal as a practitioner. That it doesn’t represent equality, equity or liberation. Why is it that people of colour are the spectators? I have always strongly believed that an important step to liberation was inclusion and that would mean that instead of being on the sidelines, the people would be in the game. The game being representitive of participatory citzenship.

Perhaps you may think that this is the point where I am going too far. It is just a meme, and the memes shown make very good points. However, sports is a great example of on how intersecting power relations of race, class, ability, gender and sexuality organise sport. It is a great example to unpack who gets left behind and what are the sources of power that maintain exclusion.

What is liberation?

Differences of wealth, national citizenship, race, gender, sexuality and ability shape patterns of opportunity and disadvantage. Moreover, these categories are not mutually exclusive. Rather, the patterns of their intersections determine which individuals get to participate, the level of support they receive and the kinds of experiences they have, if and when they participate.

Young (cisgender) girls and boys may want to play, but rarely get to be on the same teams or compete with each other. Trans and gender non-binary folks are often excluded all together by not fitting neatly in the gender boxes institutions have created and reinforced. Sports often highlights physical ability and thus, sports brings a lens to the phrase, ‘abled bodied’ that underpins analysis of ability. If people are not playing the game, is it really liberation?

Structural power

If we start consider structural power of sports institutions, FIFA is a great example of the intersections of class (capitalism) and nation (government policy). With its headquarters in Switzerland, and a board filled with wealthy businessmen, this NGO wields considerable influence with global corporations and national governments who host the World Cup. For example, for the 2014 games in Brazil, FIFA succeeded in having the Brazilian parliament adopt a General World Cup Law that imposed bank holidays on host cities on the days of the Brazilian team’s matches, cut the number of seats in the stadiums, and increased prices for spectators. The bill exempted companies working for FIFA from Brazilian taxation, banned the sale of any goods in official competition spaces, immediate surroundings and principal access routes, and penalised bars that tried to schedule showings of the matches, or promote certain brands. Finally the bill defined any attack on the image of FIFA or its sponsors as a federal crime.

Estimating that Brazil would have to spend a billion US dollars to host the games, the inital plan presented to the public emphasised that the majority of the spending on infrastructure would focus on general transportation, security and communications. Less that 25% of the total spending would go to stadiums. Yet as the game grew, cost overruns increased stadium expenses by at least 75%. In several Brazilian cities, the cost overruns sparked public demonstrations against the increase of public transport fares and political corruption. During the July 2013 demonstrations, 1.5 million people protested the exorbitant cost of stadiums, the displacement of urban residents, and the embezzlement of public funds. Slogans expressing objection to the World Cup included, “FIFA go home”, “We want hospitals up to FIFA’s standards!” This social unrest provided the backdrop of the games.

Because FIFA is unregulated, it should come as no surprise that it has been accused of corruption. Corporate sponsors, wealthy backers, and the global media outlets appear to be the primary beneficiaries of the World Cup’s global success. The structural domain of power, requires this unpacking to see it more clearly, just as we need to unpack the meme to reflect on the domains of invisable power that creates barriers and exclusion.

Narrative Power

Given the growth of mass media and digital media, it is important to ask what cultural messages concerning race, gender, class, sexuality and similar categories are being broadcast to the vast global audiences of the big business of sports. Sports contests send an influential message that not everyone can win. On the surface this makes sense, but why is it that some individuals and groups are consistently winning and some are consistently losing? We are led to believe that winners have talent, discipline and luck, while losers suffer from lack of talent, inferior self discipline, and/or bad luck. This view suggests that fair competition produces just results. Armed with this worldview concerning winners and losers, it’s a small step towards using this frame to explain social inequalities of race, class, ability, gender and sexuality as well as their intersections.

Disciplinary Power

The disciplinary domain of power refers to how rules and regulations are fairly or unfairly applied to people based on race, sexuality, class, gender, age and ability. Often these rules are not transparent, and thus, there is no accountability to citizens excluded from participating. As individuals and groups we are ‘disciplined’ to fit into existing status quo, often not by overt pressure, but by ongoing disciplinary practices. Within sport, power operates when some youth are forbidden to play, others are discouraged from playing, whereas some receive top-notch coaching in first class facilities to cultivate their talent. Many are simply told that they are the wrong gender or lack the ability to play at all.

Gendered rules also reflect power in ways that produce significantly different experiences of people wanting to play. An intersectional analysis suggests that the convergence of class and gender translates into pay inequities. The fight for equal pay within US soccer has generated considerable attention, especially since the US women’s team consistently outperforms the mens team, on the field, in media interest and in revenue. Rankings among the women’s teams, correlate with race and nation and, by implication, with the different levels of support provided to women athletes in rich and poor countries. Despite being on of the wealthiest countries in continental Africa, South Africa sent its first women’s team to the 2019 World Cup, joining Nigeria and Cameroon as one of only three African teams that qualified. All three were ranked at the bottom of the list of teams that qualified and lost in the first round to better funded teams. Intersections of race and gender characterise both men’s and women’s sport, with financial implications for all players.

Gendered Norms

Because gender is a foundational social division in everyday life, managing identities of masculinity and femininity takes on a larger than life significance. Regardless of which sport, women, trans and gender non-binary folks have faced an uphill battle to play sport at all. Treatment of women athletes who appear to violate norms of femininity offers a window to the broader issues of how athletes deal with hegemonic masculinity and femininity. As more women play sports, they increasingly contest the rules of heteronormativity. For example, tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams have been legendary in challenging the dress code of women’s tennis and both have been accused of being overly masculine because they ostensibly play like men. At the inception of of the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA), the leagues overwhelmingly black female players were encouraged to model traditional femininity to counter accusations of lesbianism. Athletes attended to their hair and makeup and brought children and male partners to games to signal their sexual orientation.

In sport, gender centres on verifying the eligibility of an athlete to compete in an event that is limited to a single binary sex at birth. The disciplinary domain of power reinforces exclusionary measures that are used against intersex, trans and non-binary people with allegations that male athletes have attempted to compete as women or, in Caster Semenya’s case, that a woman who has an intersex condition provides an alleged unfair advantage. Over the years numerous sex or gender tests have been used to verify athletes’ eligibility to play sport, ranging from physical examinations to chromosome testing and more recently hormone testing.

Revisiting Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

As individuals, people may have comparable talent, aspire to the same things, or hold similar views. Yet norms of heteronormativity, cisnormativity and gender binarism are closely aligned with power that shape individual experiences of inclusion and exclusion. From playgrounds, community sports, and playing on the international stage.

Intersecting identities and experiences reflect power plays across the structural, social, disciplinary and interpersonal domains of power, identities that play out in everyday social interactions as well as public images. Overall, sport is not just a game, but rather, it offers a rich site for exploring equity, equality, diversity, particpation and power.

We talk a big game with equality and inclusion, who gets to play and under what circumstances. Dig deeper and consider the different types of power behind the games we play and the work we do.

Revising the diversity, equity and liberation meme, it is important to disrupt the status quo and transform power relations. How is diversity, equity and inclusion transformed into an institutional practice? I argue, that it is ‘working at the intersections’. Intersectionality isn’t just a meme or a tick box approach to liberation. It is an approach to understanding human life and behaviour rooted in experiences and struggles of marginalised people. It is necessary to link the theory of diversity, equity and inclusion with practice that can aid the empowerment of communities and individuals. Liberation is not allowing people an unrestricted view from the sidelines, but people having a unrestricted opportunity to step up to the plate and bat for a home run.

But enough of the sports metaphor for now.