In Search of Fairness

When the World Doesn’t Add Up

Educators and activists love to say, “Fair is not equal.” Susie gets extra time on her test but Johnny doesn’t. Sorry, Johnny, but Susie has a documented learning disability and needs this accommodation to level the playing field. So, it makes sense that “fair is not equal.” A quick Google search of the phrase results in a plethora of teacher blogs, advocacy pages, editorials, political fact-checks, and delightful cartoons showing short people finding ways to grow taller.


This is why we have those extendable-pole fruit pickers, right? Or maybe the guy on the left could have just grabbed enough apples for everyone and avoided the whole issue, but, hey, this way each person gets to pick his own. Problem solved.

The danger, however, comes in oversimplifying the harsh realities of inequality. A trite suggestion that we all just stand on boxes until everyone sees eye to eye doesn’t exactly satisfy most economic and social disparities. The top 1% of the world owns half its wealth. People of color are overrepresented in prisons and underrepresented at top universities. Something tells me the stack of boxes to fix that one will be higher than three.

Interestingly, as a kid, my household exalted fairness. Video games had to involve taking turns. Every new toy had to be shared. If our family of four had a dozen cookies, our sacred covenant assigned three apiece. There was no first-come-first-served; if I wanted a fourth cookie, I had to obtain the rights to it through a complicated ritual of dinner-table bartering. In my rural, middle-class hometown, I’d never heard the term white privilege, but perhaps here was the finest instance of it. I grew up believing the world can and should be fair. Elsewhere in America, millions of people already knew the reality. I could list hundreds of examples to prove it, but I suppose this is one of those universal truths we don’t need to demonstrate. Anyone with half a brain and an ounce of honesty knows the world is not fair.

Really, though, this is where I get stuck. Privilege and opportunity are gifts that I have in some areas and advantages that I lack in others. Some of these gaps can close with hard work or change of circumstance while many cannot. There’s this version of me who wants to fix the system, to shatter ceilings and tear down walls, to find the exact right amount of boxes for us all to pick apples. At the same time, there’s this other version of me who calls himself the realist and thinks I should just be thankful for the apples I already have. Let others mind their own harvests. Then the blame-shifter: Not my orchard—I didn’t plant the tree. Then the deep thinker: What if not everybody wants apples?

Before I go too far with the metaphor, I need to stop and think about the goal. Are privileged people just trying to make others more like them? The implication of saying “fair is not equal” is that some other strategy would be “equal.” Yet maybe it also means that the goal of fairness is not equality, at least, not in the sense of uniformity or fitting a mold. Fair is seeing diversity, valuing difference, making college accessible but appreciating that there’s more than one road to reach a destination and more than one reason to go there in the first place. Fair is encouragement, means, possibilities. We don’t all have to grow the exact same tree, but we should all be able to garden.

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Image credit: Botelho, Rick. Equality doesn’t mean equity. Digital image. What’s Most Unfair about US Healthcare?, 02 June 2016. Web. 31 May 2017.

One thought on “In Search of Fairness

  1. Nicely thought through! Kudos …
    Interesting points. It is difficult to entertain the thought “life isn’t fair”… and those who have or were given more, have opportunity and means to share what was given to them. To be “the boxes” to lift another up on. To go the extra mile to aid and encourage. Other wise the gift or ‘priveledge’ wasted.

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