Headmaster’s Assembly – 16 March 2018

Equality and privilege

Today’s assembly may cause some debate and indeed some disagreement amongst you and that is fine. As I have said often, part of my job is to get you to think critically, not to just accept something as right or wrong, black or white, but to critically analyse what you think and feel and then make up your mind.

I was recently asked at a conference I attended last week for a definition of “equality”. The first thoughts sprang to mind – treating people the same, sharing resources equally and so on. We were challenged on the usual areas where equality is often discussed, particularly in SA – race and white privilege, black economic empowerment, affirmative action, class privilege, male privilege, family situation and so on. And then we were shown a slide of three young boys each standing on a box while looking over a fence to watch a game of sport. This was a wonderful opportunity for these boys, except that one was tall, one was medium height and one was short and the fence was the height of the shorter boy as he stood on his box. The tall boy has an excellent view of the game, the medium-height boy’s experience was also not too bad but the short boy had to jump up and down and was still battling to see. He could only just enjoy the activity his friends were watching as each stood on their own same-sized box.

And then the second slide came up whereby the three boxes upon which the boys were standing were distributed differently – not one to each person but two boxes to the shorter boy, one to the medium-heighted boy and none to the taller boy. Each boy was now at the same height and was able to watch the game with the same enjoyment. This was now making sense to me – and then this speaker’s definition of equality came up.

He said that equality is not treating people the same. Equality is treating different people differently so that each person can have the same opportunity. Equality was about opportunity to have the same experience.

Whenever I go to conferences I take notes. In the past these notes were copious by nature and I would never look at them again. But at every conference I go to I have one moment that stands out for me as the defining moment of the event. This image of equality was defining for me. I didn’t have to write it down – it is stuck in my head forever. You know the feeling in class when you take down piles of notes only to forget what you have written, yet the teacher may say something profound that sticks with you without having to look it up later.

I know this concept of equality may seem a paradox for you and will be the subject of much debate. Surely equality means treating people the same? What if everyone worked hard and everyone had a positive attitude and so on? The problem is that not everyone starts off from the same place. If we were to run around the athletics track and some started 50m in front of the others, that would be unfair. If everyone was equal in ability, the positions would be the same as they were at the start of the race. The person behind would have to work twice as hard to even try to keep up with those who started in front and would have very little chance of winning the race at all.

And so these images I leave you with today of the boys standing on their boxes and watching a game and a race being run I hope give you food for thought as you think of the privileges you have that have given you a head start in life. It could be your race, it could be your gender. It could be the family you were born into that gave you everything you wanted. It could be the school you go to that immediately puts you at an advantage to others. It could be many more things – each of you have this start in life, some many such starts and some less so. All I ask of you is that you start understanding privilege better and that you think about this man’s definition of equality: treating different people differently in order that everyone can have the same opportunity.