Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Access 101

We are all functions of the system that we live in; a system that has taught us how to think about ourselves and others, how to interact with others, and how to understand what is expected of us. These thought processes and expectations are based on the specific set of social identities we were born into that predispose us to unequal roles that allow us to access (or deny access) to resources. 

The information here provides a basic overview of important considerations related to Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Access (DEIA). It is crucial that you continue expanding upon this knowledge and look further into the concepts presented that you are unfamiliar with and/or are curious about. 

In addition to the resources provided below, you can also review additional terminology interconnected with DEIA here.

Understanding Identity

Understanding identities can seem confusing when you hear people say, "but we are all human right?" However, identities are more complex and nuanced; by saying "we are all human," the unjust, and often violent, plights marginalized persons have experienced are completely ignored. By upholding a shared understanding that we all have our unique experiences, we also have the ability to relate and learn from others.

Think of your own overall identity (who you are as a person) as a bowl of soup. Your identity is made up of different "ingredients": race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, disability status, socioeconomic status, geographic location, education, family structure, hobbies, beliefs, career, experiences, etc. There are times where you will share the same "ingredients" as others, and there will be times you will have completely different "ingredients." No one will ever have the same exact "soup" as you. This is because all the components of your authentic self (your "ingredients"), interact together within an oppressive system that influences/cultivates your lived experience. A white, cisgender woman will have a very different lived experience than a Black, transwoman; while both may share similar experiences/understandings of oppressive systems as women, there are many experiences that each woman will not share based on additional oppression a Black, transwoman will experience. Regardless, both lived experiences are valid and true. 

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Power & Privilege

Privilege refers to a right or exemption from liability or duty, granted as a special benefit or advantage.

Power, in this context, refers to the capacity to exercise control over others, deciding what is best for them, deciding who will have access to or denial from resources. 

The following terms are ones we use to define social groups that society has afforded more or less power (more/less access)

  • Marginalized/Oppressed/Disadvantaged: Social group with less power/less access/less privilege; social groups that have been disenfranchised, invisibilized, dehumanized, and exploited. 
  • Dominant/Privileged/Advantaged: Social group with more power/more access/more privilege; social groups who have the ability navigate the world w/o consequence due to unearned advantages at the expense of folks who are marginalized.

There are a few of things to keep in mind when it comes to understanding power and privilege. 

  1. Privilege is interconnected with power in our society i.e. those who have privilege have the ability to create/maintain societal norms, often to their benefit at the expense of others etc.
  2. Privilege does not mean that a person has not experienced struggles or that their life has not been difficult.
  3. Privilege does not mean that you did not work hard for the things you have. 
  4. Privilege is fluid; it can change as you move through life.
  5. Privilege is contextual; identities you hold can give you an advantage or a disadvantage based on how people perceive you. 
  6. Privilege has strategically been set-up as a "taboo" subject, allowing those in dominant groups to ignore embedded, and often invisible, forms of oppression. 

Now, when we say someone has privilege, we want you to think about their accessibility to resources. Those in power, generally, have unearned access to things that those not in power, typically members of marginalized groups, do not have access to. This notion of unearned access is where the inequity lies because access is based on an identity someone holds that has traditionally been associated with power.

To put this in perspective, let's look at white privilege*. People who are white have unearned access to resources that work in their favor as opposed to people of color who experience a multitude of barriers to gain access to the same resources. These barriers, rooted in historical inequity, include systems, policies, and laws that disenfranchise people of color. White people are not forced to question their behaviors because the system is set-up to afford them that luxury. For example, a white child is not often taught how to interact with authority figures, like police, whereas for significant safety reasons, a child of color is. 

Bottom line--if you do not have to think about it, most often, it is because of privilege.

We want to highlight that intersectionality plays an important role in understanding how power and privilege interact to create oppressive systems. Learn more about intersectionality within our Intersectionality learning guide.

Note*: Read more about white privilege in Read more about white privilege in Peggy McIntosh's article, "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack."

"Social structures construct, limit, and place value on identities. A clash begins when the social messaging and actual experiences do not match. We cannot be equal if we define one group as better or even superior to another." 

Graduate School of Social Work-DU, Creative Commons Attribution License (resuse allowed).

What is the difference between equality and equity?

Often times people use the terms "equality" and "equity" interchangeably because there is the misconception that the terms have the same meaning. However, they do not have the same meaning and they cannot be used interchangeably even though they sound similar. 

A metaphor we often use is equality ensures that everyone has a pair of shoes; equity ensures that everyone has a pair of shoes that fitThe graphic* to the right is also a visual metaphor depicting the differences between equality and equity, but it also expands to include reality (how inequitable our system is), and the need for liberation (removing the "fence" or oppressive system all together)With both metaphors, cultural context and systematic barriers that marginalized persons are subjected to are not considered; understand that these concepts are bigger than having shoes that fit or breaking down a fence.

Note*: While this graphic helps us visualize the differences between equality, equity, reality, and liberation, it is potentially problematic. The crates are meant to symbolize equity ("leveling the playing field"), however, the focus becomes on the individuals who are "shorter" and need the crates.The inequity of the height of the fence therefore becomes inherently biological i.e. persons of color need help because they are biologically deficient (emphasis on height of person), not because of systemic racism (height of fence). Furthermore, it perpetuates deficit thinking where victims of oppression are blamed for their situation, therefore needing a "savior." Cultural context and systematic barriers marginalized persons are subjected to are not considered. 

Understanding Bias

"Our lives, our cultures, are composed of many overlapping stories. Novelist Chimamanda Adichie tells the story of how she found her authentic cultural voice -- and warns that if we hear only a single story about another person or country, we risk a critical misunderstanding."

Bias refers to prejudice that is in favor of or against one thing, person, or group compared with another, usually in an unfair way. 

Biases develop over the course of a lifetime beginning at a very early age through exposure to direct and indirect messages all around us i.e. media, punishment and rewards, education, peers, family etc. These learned associations cause us to have feelings and attitudes about other people based on characteristics such as race, ethnicity, age, gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic status etc. ​

Implicit Bias (also known as unconscious bias) refers to the attitudes based on stereotypes we have been taught that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner; the attitudes and beliefs are often involuntarily and without an individuals’ awareness or intentional control. 

Explicit Bias (also known as conscious bias) refers to attitudes and beliefs we have about a person and/or social group, on a conscious level, based on stereotypes we have been taught; these biases are attitudes and beliefs formed and acted upon with deliberate thought. 

News flash: we all have biases and no one is exempt from having them. Naturally, our brains categorize things. So, it makes sense that we would do that with the people we interact with.

There is also an assumption that only people in power can have biases, when in fact, people who are in marginalized groups can also show biases in favor of or against certain groups.

Are you curious to know what your own implicit biases are?

Learn what your own implicit biases are by taking Harvard's Project Implicit Association Test.You will be prompted to answer questions that describe your own self-understanding of the attitude or stereotype that the Implicit Association Test (IAT) measures.


Microaggressions refer to the normalization of commonplace verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities (whether intentional or unintentional), that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative prejudicial slights and insults toward culturally marginalized groups. While microaggressions can be seen as innocent, harmless comments, they actually reinforce stereotypes and are a form of discrimination. The term "microaggressions" was coined by Dr. Chester Pierce in 1970 and was resurrected by Dr. Derald Wing Sue in 2003.

Let's look at the impact of microaggressions through the metaphor of a crumpled-up piece of paper. The piece of paper represents one person and each crease on the piece of paper represents one ignorant comment someone has made to them. So, the hundreds of creases on the piece of paper represent the many ignorant comments made to this person, every day, by folks they interact with. It would be impossible to flatten out the piece of paper  enough to remove all the creases; the creases are  permanent. Just like a crumpled-up piece of paper, microagressions can make a permanent impression on someone. It is important to understand that the cumulative impact of microaggressions can be severely traumatic and painful for folks who continually experience them. 

Learn more about microaggressions using another metaphor--"mosquito bites."


You have probably heard this word thrown around, particularly in the DEIA world, but do we actually know what it means? The answer is, it depends on the context because it boils down to intent.  

In one article written by the Business School at Vanderbilt, tokenism is “the practice of doing something (such as hiring a person who belongs to a minority group) only to prevent criticism and give the appearance that people are being treated "fairly.” In this example it mentions tokenism in relation to hiring.

We can take this further in another example, think about committees and task forces that are often put together at institutions. One common theme that comes up in creating such entities is to make sure that there is diverse representation. One thing to note is when “diverse representation” is mentioned, nine times out of ten, they are referring to visual diversity, not the other ways diversity can show up (campus diversity in offices represented, or other identities that can bring about diverse perspectives). Once this is mentioned, the folks in charge with creating this committee or task force often go to racial/ethnic diversity category and immediately start thinking about colleagues they can ask to be part of the group.  

Tokenism and representation are often confused with one another and used incorrectly. The difference between the two is the intent

Are you asking a person to be part of the group because you are wanting to make sure you appear diverse?Are you afraid of your committee or task force appearing too white? Too male or female dominated? Or is it because you value different perspectives and are genuinely trying to diversify (beyond the visible)? Are you wanting to give other community service opportunities to your colleagues that may not otherwise have a chance to participate? 

Cultural Appropriation

Cultural appropriation refers to the borrowing or adoption of something as one's own when it did not originate from them or their culture. This type of use occurs without proper understanding, credit, and/or permission. 

What is E.Q.U.I.T.Y.?

In the Office of Equity, we want to promote key principles of allyship for our campus community to follow. To understand these principles, it would be helpful to know how we define "ally."

Allyship works like a timecard; every day you clock-in you are working to fulfill your assigned duties as an ally. Then you clock-out and repeat it all again the next day.This metaphor illustrates that allyship is a verb An ally is not a title that someone gives themselves; it is the embodiment of equity in the form of action. 

Key principles of allyship:

  • An ally consistently promotes and embodies inclusive leadership and equitable behaviors/practices;
  • An ally understands the necessity of moving beyond diversity initiatives towards human equity; and 
  • An ally passionately and actively engages their own communities and continuously works to dismantle oppressive structures. 

E.Q.U.I.T.Y. was created to serve as an acronym to remember our office's charge to you; a charge to be better so we can cultivate a campus environment built upon inclusion and advocacy. Please note that while most allies come from dominant/majority groups, many allies come from oppressed groups as well; horizontal/internalized oppression (fighting within groups and/or with ourselves) is a tool implemented by those in power in order to maintain the status quo. 

The moment you stop learning is the moment you die. Sure, this metaphor may seem intense and a little dramatic, yet it highlights just how vital educating yourself on topics pertaining to diversity, equity and inclusion are.   

Let’s face it, we live in a world that is constantly changing and evolving.  Daily we are charged with striving to be more inclusive than the previous. How does one do this when language is evolving? When thought, theory, cultural/political dynamics are shifting to become more equitable? The answer is simple; commit yourself to learning

Below are a few ways to get you started on your continuous journey to learning: 

  • Understand your identity (see above section, "Understanding Identity") and how it interacts (and impacts) with society and systems.  
  • Take stock on what you believe to be true and question it. Often times the things we learned in history classes as children are false and inaccurate. For example, the concept and recount of what we were told about Thanksgiving.
  • Explore various scholars. Be sure that you are learning from scholars that are part of the community in question. Have you read any Black feminist theory? Queer theory? Anything written by native and indigenous folks? If not, ask yourself why? As a general rule of thumb, if you are unsure of where to start, DO NOT immediately go to a friend or colleague that is part of (insert marginalized identity here) and ask them for suggestions. It is not their job to educate you. Google is your friend. If, and only if, you have searched and need more guidance, then, and only then, can you ask your friend or colleague for their suggestions. It is always good to come with some information first, as opposed to setting up the expectation that they will “teach you.” 
    • If you ask someone for their input or suggestions, that individual is not obligated to provide you answers. This is perfectly okay; do not make this about you.  
    • If you are the person being asked for personal input or suggestions, you are not responsible for educating them. Do not feel guilty or like you must represent your community.  
  • Do not think of learning as a “one and done,” it is continuous and ever evolving.
  • Just because you read a book, researched a topic, or attended a webinar, that does not give you the pass to now consider yourself the expert on said topic. Give credit where it is due and do not take up space by speaking for a community that you are not a part of. Sure, you can share your experience in learning about the topic, but before you do, make sure you are providing the space and opportunity for someone to speak up about their own community.
  • If you perceive that a community is not represented, bring it to the conversation and ask if there is a perspective that might be missing. Be cautious here. Do not assume identities in the room.  While you may not be an expert, it is important for you to share what you have learned or your experience in learning (without taking up space), so that an opportunity for dialogue presents itself. This can hold us accountable by fact checking one another, create space for learning, and ensure communities are not associated with inaccurate storytelling.  
  • Remind yourself that this is a marathon, not a race. 

Expanding Your Awareness

Let’s face it, we live in a world that is constantly changing and evolving.  Daily we are charged with striving to be more inclusive than the previous. How does one do this when language is always evolving? When thought, theory, cultural/political dynamics are shifting to become more equitable? The answer is simple; commit yourself to learning. 

Language is a critical aspect of this learning because it is what communicates, enforces, and perpetuates the “status quo,” or in other words, our society’s collective shared rules and values.

We know there are certain words or phrases that society commonly considers problematic to use because of painful, historical connotations. Some examples include, but are not limited to:

  • Using the “R” word or words that end in “-tard”. The implication is that persons with intellectual disabilities are unintelligent or incapable.
  • Using “as a rule of thumb” as an approximate method for doing something. The use of the phrase lacks understanding of the origin; phrase comes from an 18th century law that legally allowed men to physically assault their wife with a stick no thicker than their thumb.
  • A person who is non-native or indigenous referring to something as their “spirit animal.” The use of the term by a non-native or indigenous person lacks understanding of the act being cultural appropriation, which is defined as the borrowing or adoption of something as one's own when it did not originate from them or their culture. When folks are participating in this type of behavior, it negates and trivializes the historical, cultural, and ancestral practices that are sacred and meaningful.

It is essential that you are aware of the impact our words have and the power of language. You don’t have to know everything about every identity or every new development in the DEIA field; however, it is your responsibility to educate yourself on the evolving cultural/political climate so you can mirror relevant, critically-aware, trauma-informed, language and spread that knowledge within your circles of influence. 

To reiterate, content in these guides are designed to provide a basic overview of key components related to DEIA; content is not exhaustive, and much more can be discussed in relation to these topics.

We highly encourage you to reach out to your campus-affiliated DEIA office to find additional resources, facilitated training opportunities, and learning tools to further your education.




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Credit: Sara D. Anderson, Karissa Stolen, and Paulina Venzor, 2020, Office of Equity at the University of Colorado Denver and University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus