Equality Literacy

We’re all bugged, to varying degrees, about how ‘fair’ or ‘unfair’ our lot in life is. And yet this is a highly sensitive issue to discuss with other people. It’s not very British to talk about how much money we have, what privileges we experience, what opportunities we have been gifted. Our musings and comparisons are often therefore private, and conclusions of relative worth kept inside – or are they? I wonder to what extent these colour the way we interact with one another and if we can actually detect some of the judgements other people make about our privileges from how they behave towards us.

In an attempt to understand privilege and disadvantage in an educational context, I devised an equality literacy framework. I believe that these two cannot exist in isolation, they only operate together. The more privilege there is in the world, the more disadvantage there will also be, and all of experience some privileges and some disadvantages. I really should have called the model the equity literacy framework – but it was more difficult to say!

Imagine you’ve just met someone at a social-do [that would be me by the way], they are articulate, they seem well educated, they even work at a university, you assume that they must have had an easy ride through school. ‘Oh it’s alright for them’, you might think, ‘good education, lots of privilege, landed a good job, constantly on about social justice…. what do they know about education… bet they never went to a school like mine!’ Or something to that effect.

portrait of young woman against white background
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

[No that is not me – just in case you were wondering!]

The equality literacy framework helps us understand our own, and perhaps more importantly, other people’s privilege and disadvantages – I’ll walk you through it here.


  1. Pre-existing Context

People are born into situations that are not of their choosing (Archer, 1995). We are not able therefore to deploy an entirely free will as some of the conditions into which we are born will enable and constrain our actions. That is not to say that our lives are pre-determined, but shaped by contexts that pre-exist us and that are of significance (Archer, 1995). People are born into unequal circumstances; wealth and poverty, good or ill health, inclusion or exclusion are examples of the almost infinite number of differentials people are born into (Dorling, 2010).

Some of the situations that people are born into are socially and culturally produced and reproduced (Thompson, 1997; Bronfenbrenner, 1979). These include the norms and customs and invisible rules of families, communities, areas, nations, and of the world. These are technically known as habitus (Bourdieu, 1999) and as hegemonic discourses (Gramsci, 1971). These are not fixed but ever changing as illustrated by recent changes in smoking behaviours and attitudes to gay marriage in various places in the world.

I was born into a working class family (dad fixed railway trains, mum was a housewife), in Pontefract, a deprived Yorkshire mining town in the 1960’s. Gender stereotypes were alive and well, the nuclear family was still the norm. We were poor. I wore second hand clothes from jumble sales and home made clothes and got bullied at school. The house was cold – ice on the inside of the windows in the winter, and food basic. But my parents cared and put a lot of time into us kids. I went to a really rough comprehensive school. I was not ready to learn and ended up in the bottom sets where kids were not expected to do well – mining or the sewing factory mostly. 


2. Personal Lived Experience

The contexts described above set the scene, literally, for the lived experiences of individuals and groups across a range of domains of wellbeing (Maynard and Stuart, 2018). These domains are theoretically defined as: wealth, health, education and employment (Dorling, 2015), social capital and social mobility (Bourdieu, 1999; Putnam, 2000), security, precarity and fear (Furedi, 2005; Butler, 2006; Lorey, 2015). Lived experiences are open to change rather than being confined to the pre-existing context, however, the more disadvantaged that context is, the harder it maybe to change it. This is why the context is not deterministic of future outcomes although it may be highly constraining.

I felt rubbish, I felt worthless. Going to school was an ordeal, I was humiliated by bullies and teachers, I did badly in all my subjects despite trying hard. I felt a complete failure. I ran away from school a few times, but was always taken back by my parents who thought that was the best place for me, never really knowing what a terrible time I was having. I was also ill quite a lot of the time and needed hospital appointments – this seemed annoying for my parents and I felt a nuisance and missed yet more school. 

3. Positioning by Others

The real life experiences detailed above create a ‘position’ that is relative to other people. Theory documents the ways in which these relative positions are inscribed by labels and stereotypes. These labels are created by the state, media and society (Jones, 2015; Bourdieu, 1999) and produce, reproduce and protect a status quo (Dorling, 2010; Fox, Piven and Cloward, 2015). The resulting discourses are hegemonic (Gramsci, 1971; Ledwith, 2016; Wearing, 1998) in that they protect the interests of the ‘haves’ against the ‘have not’s’, or distance a subgroup from the norm (Tyler, 2013; Dorling, 2010, Blackman and Rogers, 2017; Piven and Cloward, 1993).

An example of these discourses in British culture was the phenomenon of ‘Vikki Pollard’ a female underclass acted by Matt Lucas, and ‘Lauren Cooper’ a school failure acted by Catherine Tate. Both of these characters were comedy successes epitomising unsuccessful youth. Their creation was galvanised by societal distaste for young people and enabled members of society; to position people as different to themselves, to protect themselves from becoming like ‘the other’, and to protect themselves from their responsibility to support them.

I was aware that I was a ‘have not’ and a ‘cannot’ at school. I was at the fringes of everything with the other ‘saddos’. Bullying and social exclusion kept me in my place for a long time.

4. Technologies of Oppression or Liberation

Theory helps illuminate how positions are imposed on people through a set of technologies or tools. These technologies ensure prescribed positions have impact and endure. They are called technologies of liberation or oppression depending on the extent to which they align with the individual’s or group’s self image and the extent to which they constrain or enable access to resources. As such they are key to in/equality and thus central to the Equalities Literacy framework.

The most commonly used and understood technology is perhaps stereotyping and labeling (Dorling, 2010) which most people experience at school in one form or another. These can be for small things at an individual level such as dress sense or huge stereotypes at a global level such as racism. The labels we accrue early in our school lives such as ‘failure’ or ‘high achiever’ may be carried with us throughout our lives.

When we stereotype we make people ‘other’ to ourselves, we draw an invisible line between ‘us’ and ‘them’ (either as better or worse) and create a set of characteristics that separate us. This process of ‘othering’ psychologically protects us from the possibility of becoming like the other, or of the other having any similarities to ourselves (Foucault, 1978; 1982, Lacan, 1988; Lévi-Strauss, 1955; Said, 1994).

Another technology, ‘social abjection’ (Tyler, 2013) is an extension of ‘othering’ whereby the ‘other’ is made vile and disgusting and not worthy of consideration. It preserves ‘us’ from becoming ‘them’ (Tyler, 2013; Dorling, 2010, Blackman and Rogers, 2017). This is the mechanism that has been applied with the Vikki Pollard and Lauren Cooper characters in British comedy. They have the potential to erode all empathy and enable the rest of society to look down on or indeed straight through people who need support.

Once people are objectified (Bourdieu, 2003) and socially abject, it paves the way for us to treat them as inhumane or shameful (Nussbaum, 2004, Brown, 2010) and to adopt a willful blindness (Heffernan, 2011) where we refuse to acknowledge their human rights or even existence. Shaming and willful are therefore two further technologies of oppression.

The ‘other’ is however always in our psyche and we remain insecure and fearful (Furedi, 2005) of the risk that they pose us, and feel the division between us as precarious (Lorey, 2015; Butler, 2006). This fuels the willingness of society to adopt negative discourses about them, to accept forms of ‘legislation’ (Bauman, 1989) and ‘surveillance’ (Foucault, 1978, 1982) that keep the ‘other’ in their places. The UK has seen a prevalence of reality television that presents vulnerable people as ‘benefit scroungers’. This positioning erodes public empathy for people who need benefit support and could be argued to enable the government to reduce investment in the welfare service. The presence of these technologies serves to oppress and marginalize, defining who people are and how they are treated by the rest of society. When people are not subjected to these technologies they have more opportunity for liberty. The absence of shaming, ‘othering’, social abjection and other such technologies are therefore conditions of liberation.

I was called nick names, ignored, silenced, ridiculed at school. All of these tools of oppression kept me in my place and continued to assure me that I would amount to nothing and deserved to amount to nothing.

5. Positioning of Self

The power of the technologies of oppression and liberation provokes reactions from the people who are targeted. Individuals and groups might respond to the positioning in a range of ways. Some might comply and accept messages imposed on them, others may adopt positions of victimhood, and others again move to rebel or be deviant. This is an inter-personal process as it is in response to the positions bestowed, it is also intra-personal as individuals reconcile the messaging with their sense of self. The resulting self-position is in response to these contexts, the relative experiences of others, the positions imposed by others, the technologies of oppression and liberation experienced, and personal response. Theory shows the self-position adopted may have a major impact on the identity, agency and social mobility then experienced (Cote and Levine, 2002; Lawler, 2008). This further accounts for why there can be no fixed or determined trajectories of any individual or group. One person may respond to deprivation with resignation and victim mentality, whilst another may fight for a better outcome.

For a long time I complied with these messages and this positioning. Then, like many other young people, I decided to find power in the margins and became a gothic and then punk. I revelled in being different rather than cowering in my difference. I found a way to express myself, and in finding an identity, somehow affirmed to myself that I could be something and would be something. I redoubled my efforts at school, took extra classes, did nothing but study – a rebellious conformity!

6. Impact and trajectory

The culmination of the contexts people are born into, lived experiences, positioning by others and self, mediated by technologies of oppression all lead to an impact and future trajectory. This is only fixed moment by moment as the societal responses to individual’s and groups and are not a deterministic end point. People re-author their lives moment by moment (Clandinin, Steeves, Caine, 2013).

Whilst the impact of privilege and deprivation are not fixed, theory shows that groups of people experiencing deprivation on the whole experience a higher prevalence of negative trajectories of inequitable outcomes than the privileged (Wilkinson and Pickett, 2010; Sen, 1999). Whilst these negative outcomes are not fixed, they are increasingly likely for young people who are disadvantaged and may be reproduced in on-going generations and attitudes, expectations and behaviours are reproduced.

My family was in upwardly socially mobile – my dad had sought promotions and was working in management, my mum taught herself shorthand and typing and became a PA, we moved to Rainham in Kent and I went to a grammar school. This opportunity and my new voice radically changed my trajectory – which had, until then, been poor. I now started to think about studying at college or university rather than getting a job in a factory. Fast forward through A-levels, teacher training college, and a wide range of jobs, and here I am, an Associate Professor. No one would have predicted that outcome back in 1980.

The full Equalities Literacy Model can be accessed with this link: figure i

So what?

Well I have used this model in a classroom with a group of students. We all mapped our educational experiences and the results were powerful. Lots of realisations about our own lives, about our own behaviours and what was in and out of our control. We also had rich discussion about the range of experiences that we had across the room – who had experienced which kinds of privileges and disadvantages. This brought the equality conversation out into the public domain and changed the dynamics in a powerfully positive way.

Leading on from this, I think there are four reasons why practitioners who support the wellbeing of young people (such as teachers, nurses, social workers and youth workers) need to have high levels of Equalities Literacy.

Firstly practitioners need to understand the unique contexts and lives of the people they support. This is similar to cultural competence (Rathje, 2007; Like, 2011) and includes having an inequalities imagination (Hart, Hall, Henwood, 2002).

Secondly, practitioners need to understand the ways in which their life experiences and professional enculturation impacts on their language, choices and actions in practice (Bourdieu, 1999) in order for the to avoid unconsciously using technologies of oppression themselves. Once Equality Literate practitioners are able to make choices and take action that support social justice. These approaches are often referred to as ‘empowering’ (Illich, 1971; Friere, 1970; Maynard and Stuart, 2018) or ‘critically pedagogical’ (Giroux, 2011; Smyth, 2011). These collective actions enable societies to deliberatively work towards a more socially just world.

Thirdly, practitioners need to ensure they do not inadvertently create further marginalisation by treating people as the locus of the problem (Illich, 1971).

Finally, practitioners, particularly teachers and youth workers, have opportunities to support the Equalities Literacy of the people they support – a process akin to ‘conscientization’ (Freire, 1974, Andrade and Morrell, 2008). If children and young people became Equalities Literate they would hopefully then avoid unconsciously perpetuating inequality and instead treat one another with respect creating a more socially just world.

From a research perspective the Equalities Literacy framework highlights the need for researchers to reflexively acknowledge their privileged position and to understand how that interplays with the position of their participants. Methods such as the Indirect Approach (Moshuus and Bunting, 2012), and Participatory Action Research should be used to address the inequity of such power relationships. Further, we need to do more with our research findings. Collating stories of in/equality on our living room floors is not enough as Michelle Fine has challenged and shown (2017). Researchers have a moral obligation to lift their work to the macro level to support social justice at a systemic level.

As a human being – think before you judge. You probably don’t know your own story well enough, let alone other people’s. Talk, ask, explore, share. Get the unspeakables into the open, it builds trust, integrity and empathy. And quit the comparing – as I said in yesterday’s blog. Be who you are, be the best you that you can be, and be compassionate rather than competitive with others.

I’d welcome any thoughts or responses to this big old theoretical and practical ramble!




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