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Fair Is Not Always Equal – August 16, 2020

Aug 16, 2020

Before I begin my homily, I invite you to participate in an art activity. Today’s story,It’s Okay to be Different, is appealing for many reasons, one of which is Todd Parr’s bold and accessible art style. The beauty of the illustrations lie in their simplicity.  The differences of the characters are presented simply and boldly to be celebrated.  For this activity, if you were to add a page to the story about yourself, what would it say? What would the illustration look like? Why? I invite you to create this book page while I speak. You are welcome to draw inspiration from Parr’s illustrative style, or go your own creative path. If you don’t have art materials handy, or you are not interested in participating, that’s fine–please consider visualizing what you could make, or making it later.

When I was training to be a special educator, a mentor told me this story about a little girl struggling to learn how to read:

Reading did not come easy to the little girl. She tried and tried but it wasn’t clicking.  She practiced with her peers, with her teacher, by herself, yet reading was still difficult. Maybe reading is just hard for everyone, she thought. Her teacher grew concerned and wanted to help.  She created a small group made of struggling students to receive extra support.. The teacher worried that the new support group would signal to the students and the rest of the class that these students were poor readers, causing them to lose motivation.  So she framed being in the group as a positive.  She told the group, “I chose you for this group because you are good readers, in fact you are exceptional readers, the best in the class!”

The little girl was ecstatic. Here she was worried that reading was impossible for her but it turns out she was a better reader than all of her classmates! Her teacher said so! The little girl hopped off the school bus that day with a wide grin. Her mom hadn’t seen her so excited about school in weeks! “Mommy, mommy, guess what? I’m a GOOD reader! I’m an EXCEPTIONAL reader! I get to be in a special group for the BEST READERS in the class!”

Without skipping a beat, her mother said, “Sweetie, I’m so glad that you are excited to learn to read. But you are not a good reader or one of the best readers in your class. You are having a harder time than most kids, which is why you are in a special group. That is nothing to be ashamed of. You deserve as much help as you need so you can learn how to read. If you don’t recognize that you’re struggling, you’ll never get better.”

The little girl was shocked. Her teacher lied to her? Her special group was the struggling readers, not the best readers? That wasn’t equal! She wanted to be treated the same as all of her classmates. She wanted to be treated fairly!  How could she be treated fairly if she wasn’t treated equally? 

My mentor then asked if I wanted to be like the teacher or the mother.  Before I could answer, she said, “If you’re going into special education to be like the teacher, then you are going into it for the wrong reasons. You need to be like the mother, striving for genuine FAIRNESS, not token EQUALITY.”

Actual fairness and true equality start with recognizing our first principle, the inherent dignity and worth of all human beings. When I had the great pleasure of virtually attending our annual UU General Assembly, one session, titled “Dismantling Ableism,” provided a set of kid-friendly principles for us to bring back to our congregations. The first principle is stated as: Each person is important.

If we believe each person has equal worth–that each person is important–it then follows that each person deserves fair treatment. My students reading below their grade level have equal worth to my students reading above their grade level, but treating them identically does not help either grow. There is no middle-of-the-road book that will challenge these students equally, and pretending any one book is appropriate for differently abled readers prevents growth. One book would be equal, but it would not be fair. 

Equality without fairness is an empty gesture, a token guise of equal treatment that denies the inherent worth of each person.  Instead of asking if we treated someone equally, we should ask if we treated them fairly.  Friend to the congregation CB Beals’s philosophy of preemptive radical inclusion reminds us to come to the table having already accepted each person as they are and ready to hear how we can treat them FAIRLY. Once everyone receives fair treatment, we are treated as equals. 

Todd Parr’s simple story carries the same message: It’s okay to be different. Each person is important, no matter who they are or what they do. And because each person is important but different, they should be treated fairly. Not equally–because if it’s really important to me that I eat macaroni and cheese in the bathtub, but not important to my friend, I shouldn’t force them to do so, and they shouldn’t force me to give it up.

It’s Okay to be Different, our first principle of inherent worth, and preemptive radical inclusion are different ways to think about a similar idea–fairness and equality are not the same. Equality without fairness does not celebrate the inherent worth, dignity, and differences of everyone.

Following the homily, members were invited to share their drawings over video chat, and to take a moment to scroll through and see each others’ book pages. How are we all different, and how does this knowledge help us to treat each other more fairly?

Kim Yodisborg
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