28 Equity and Inclusion

Equity and Inclusion

Rebecca Hiebert

Learning Objectives

After reading this page, you will be able to:

  • understand the importance of equity;
  • understand the importance of creating an environment of inclusivity;
  • understand how making assumptions and using microaggressions can create feelings of exclusion.

Why Is This important?

We all come to college with our own past experiences. Sometimes these experiences can create additional barriers for people. Equity means providing supports for the people who need them so that they can overcome barriers and experience success. When we provide a environment of equity, we create a place where others feel included and can grow their confidence and contribute fully.


Equity plays a major part in achieving fairness in a diverse setting. Equity gives everyone equal access to opportunity and success. For example, sign language interpreters can help Deaf people, or people who are hard of hearing, to communicate with hearing individuals. Providing immediate translation into sign language, for those that use it, means that there is no gap between what each person is saying and when all people receive the information. Similarly, many students have learning differences that require accommodations in the classroom. For example, a student with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) might be given more time to complete tests or writing assignments. The extra time granted takes into account that students with ADHD process information differently.

If a student with a learning difference is given more time than other students to complete a test, that is a matter of equity. The student is not being given an advantage; the extra time gives them an equal chance at success.

Without the above accommodations, those with a disability may justly feel excluded and unable to participate because their needs were not anticipated. It is important for the college to provide these necessary supports because paying for private tutoring can be expensive and unattainable for many people.

Equity levels the playing field so that everyone’s needs are anticipated and everyone has an equal starting point.

A diagram illustrates the difference between “Equality” and “Equity.”
In the Equality portion of the graphic, people of all sizes use the same size bike and therefore, the person in the wheelchair can’t participate. In the Equity portion of the graphic, each person uses a unique bike that allows them each to participate. Image source: https://openstax.org/books/college-success/pages/9-1-what-is-diversity-and-why-is-everybody-talking-about-it#ch09rfin-2 Attribution: Robert Wood Johnson Foundation / Custom License: “May be Produced with Attribution”


Look carefully at the image above. How does the top image represent equality? How does the bottom image represent equity? Think of an experience in college where applying equity would help students fully participate.


Inclusion means that people with different voices, skills, and interests, in any given situation, feel welcomed and able to participate fully. In an inclusive class, students with diverse abilities work together and those that need them receive additional supports to allow them to achieve success. In an inclusive curriculum, a course includes content and perspectives from underrepresented groups such as Indigenous or racialized peoples. For example, a college course in psychology might include consideration of different contexts such as immigration, incarceration, or unemployment in addition to addressing societal norms.

Inclusion means that voices of varied background and experience are integrated into discussions, research, and assignments rather than ignored.

Avoiding Making Assumptions

When we meet someone, we may be able to approximate the person’s age, weight, and perhaps their geographical origin, but even with those observable characteristics, we cannot be sure about how the individual defines themselves. If we rely too heavily on assumptions, we may be buying into stereotypes, or generalizations.

Stereotyping robs people of their individual identities. If we use stereotypes, we project a profile onto someone that probably is not true. Prejudging people without knowing them, better known as prejudice or bias, has consequences for both the person who is biased and the individual or group that is prejudged. Sometimes experiences in our past have introduced us to assumptions about certain groups of people. For example, maybe something in your past has indicated that people from a certain country are always good at math, so you ask your group member from that country to look after the accounting part of your project. It is unfair to assume that this classmate has certain skills just because they are from a particular place. When we prejudge someone and use a stereotype to assume their identity, we are unable to recognize the person as their unique self.

Stereotyping may be our way of avoiding others’ complexities. When we stereotype, we do not have to remember distinguishing details about a person. We simply write their stories for ourselves and let those stories fulfill who we expect those individuals to be. For example, a team leader may ask particular classmates to join their group because the team leader assumes that people from their culture are hard workers. In this scenario, individuals of other backgrounds, with similar abilities, may have been overlooked because they do not fit the stereotype of who others expect them to be.

Equity and inclusion are needed as guiding principles when working with diverse groups of people at college. Equity might be achieved by meeting with a classmate outside of class to provide assistance with a skill needed for an assignment. Inclusion might be achieved by inviting classmates to speak who don’t usually get a chance to voice their opinions.


Often, our assumptions and their impacts are not life changing, but they can be damaging to others and limiting to our own understanding. Consider the following scenario, and answer the questions that follow.


Being civil and inclusive does not require a deep-seated knowledge of the backgrounds and perspectives of everyone you meet. That would be impossible. Avoiding assumptions and being considerate will build better relationships and provide a more effective learning experience. It takes openness and self-awareness and sometimes requires help or advice, but learning to be sensitive — practicing assumption avoidance — is like a muscle you can strengthen.

Be Mindful of Microaggressions

Whether we mean to or not, we sometimes offend people by not thinking about what we say and the manner in which we say it. If we have less experience interacting with people from a particular group, we may hold a single story in our head about people from that group. This means we may make assumptions about people from this group due to our lack of knowledge. These assumptions may lead us to accidentally say hurtful comments to people from this group. These comments are called microaggressions. The term microaggression refers to acts of insensitivity that reveal our inherent biases, cultural incompetency, and hostility toward someone outside of our community. Those biases can be toward race, gender, nationality, or any other diversity variable. The individual on the receiving end of a microaggression is reminded of the fact they are not truly welcomed and included.


Microaggressions may be comments that, by themselves, may not seem consequential; however, over time an individual that experiences many microaggressions begins to feel excluded and rejected. Consider the following scenario, and answer the questions that follow.

One reaction to this interaction might be to say, “So what? Why let other people determine how you feel? Ignore them.” While that is certainly reasonable, it may ignore the pain and invalidation of the experience. And even if you could simply ignore some of these comments, there is a compounding effect of being frequently, if not constantly, barraged by such experiences.

Examples of Microaggressions

Consider the table below, which highlights common examples of microaggressions. In many cases, the person speaking these phrases may not mean to be offensive. In fact, in some cases the speaker might think they are being nice. However, appropriate terminology or acceptable descriptions change all the time. Before saying something, consider how a person could take the words differently than you meant them.

Category Microaggression Why It’s Offensive
Status or Situation “You’re an athlete; you don’t need to study.” Stereotypes athletes and ignores their hard work.
“You don’t get financial aid; you must be rich.” Even an assumption of privilege can be invalidating.
“You speak so well for someone like you.” Implies that people of a certain race/ethnicity can’t speak well.
Race, Ethnicity, National Origin “My people had it so much worse than yours did.” Makes assumptions and diminishes suffering/difficulty.
“I’m not even going to try your name. It looks too difficult.” Dismisses a person’s culture and heritage.
“I guess you can’t meet tonight because you have to take care of your son?” Assumes a parent (of any gender) cannot participate.
“They’re so emotional.” Assumes a person cannot be emotional and rational.
Gender and Gender Identity


Sexual Orientation

“I don’t get all this pronoun stuff, so I’m just gonna call you what I call you.” Diminishes the importance of gender identity; indicates a lack of empathy.
“I can’t even tell you used to be a woman.” Conflates identity with appearance, and assumes a person needs someone else’s validation.
“You’re too good-looking to be so smart.” Connects outward appearance to ability.
“You seem so rugged for a gay guy.” Stereotypes all gay people as being “not rugged,” and could likely offend the recipient.
“I can’t even keep track of all these new categories.” Bisexual, pansexual, asexual, and other sexual orientations are just as valid and deserving of respect as binary orientations.
“You can’t just love whomever you want; pick one.”
“I might try being a lesbian.” May imply that sexual orientation is a choice.
Age “Young people have it so easy nowadays.” Makes a false comparison between age and experience.
Size “I bet no one messes with you.” Projects a tendency to be aggressive onto a person of large stature.
“You are so cute and tiny.” Condescending to a person of small stature.
“I wish I was thin and perfect like you.” Equates a person’s size with character.
Ability (To a person using a wheelchair) “I wish I could sit down wherever I went.” Falsely assumes a wheelchair is a luxury; minimizes disabilities.
“You don’t have to complete the whole test. Just do your best.” Assumes that a disability means limited intellectual potential.
“I’m blind without my glasses.” Equating diminished capacity with a true disability.

Have you made statements like these, perhaps without realizing the offense they might cause? Some of these could be intended as compliments, but they could have the unintended effect of diminishing or invalidating someone. When considering microaggressions, it is important to consider the impact of your statement instead of the intent. Maybe you have intended to say something kind or funny but in reality the receiver felt hurt or diminished. It is how the receiver feels that we need to focus on. When we realize the impact our comments have on other people, we can adapt our communication to create an environment of inclusion for others.


Key Takeaways

Equity means providing supports to those who face particular barriers so that they can experience success. Inclusion means creating an environment where people feel welcome to share their voice and be their true selves. We can create an inclusive environment when we consider the assumptions we may be making about diverse groups of people and avoid using microaggressions.

Attribution Statement: Adapted from College Success by Amy Baldwin, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.