How to Teach and Practice Intersectionality

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By Florentina Staigers

For Women’s History Month the word “intersectionality” comes to mind along with the myriad of signs I’ve seen at recent demonstrations. At the Women’s March in 2017 in Washington D.C., I saw numerous brightly decorated signs that demanded “intersectional feminism.” This past January in New Orleans, I saw one that read, “Feminism without intersectionality is not feminism.” But I’m also afraid this is simply a catch phrase for many people. I wonder how we might go beyond symbolism, to truly begin understanding something as complicated as intersectionality. Because if we don’t understand the concept, then we can’t use it as it is intended to be used: as a practical tool. We should be using a framework of intersectionality whenever we analyze history, when we look at statistics, and even when we are relating to one another in a room. Thus, one can see that it’s especially important for teachers to understand so that we begin teaching children from an intersectional lens.

Kimberle Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality thirty years ago. Essentially, intersectionality is the recognition of the interconnected nature of multiple identities that create overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination, disadvantage, oppression, and privilege. It is a relationship between identity and power.  It’s also important to understand how Crenshaw developed the concept of intersectionality in order to understand the definition itself. 

As a young law professor, Crenshaw was reading about a case where a woman wanted to file an employment discrimination case against her employer.  This woman, a Black woman, noticed her employer was not hiring Black women for certain jobs in the company. The court denied her claim saying this would be like double dipping into two class action suits. She had to choose one, either a case based on race or gender. But the claim couldn’t stand on its own when separated because there were both Black men and White women being hired. What the court was not seeing was how one woman’s body, both Black and female, was situated at the intersection of these two collectives, each of which had different forms of discrimination. Crenshaw, both a critical race theorist and attorney, recognized this and coined the term.

Yet this intersection, or “intersectionality” of being both a woman and a woman of color is often ignored in many analyses and history. The discussion often centers around Black and White or Male and Female, and as a result, the impact of being part of these two marginalized groups isn’t fully recognized. But when this information is available, we see the impact. For example, looking at wage gaps, we clearly see intersectionality at play. As a whole, White women earn more than Black men. But White men, as well as Black and Hispanic men earn more than Black women. Hispanic women earn the least.

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When we teach from an intersectional lens, it is also important to avoid the pyramid of oppression, or oppression Olympics, where we compare the suffering of different marginalized identities. Instead, we must practice non-dualistic thinking, recognizing that groups experience different forms of racialization, oppression, and discrimination without trying to compare experiences or create a hierarchy of suffering. For a person of color who is closer to concepts of whiteness, it is also important to not use intersectionality as a means to distance oneself from privileges gained by being closer to whiteness. In an intersectional analysis, we have to acknowledge the deeply rooted nature of anti-Blackness, especially on a global scale.

Most important, we have to practice this way of thinking, to use this information as a practical tool.  In groups, I often see an intersectional dynamic play out. White men speak first, and then White women or Black men, and women of color are the last to speak.  Without awareness of this, we will continue to perpetuate the dynamic. On the contrary, if we begin to notice the dynamic, we can begin to change it. Educators can begin to use an intersectional framework to teach history and to review statistics to build this habit until it is second nature. Organizational leaders can look at their work from an intersectional lens to ensure that the needs of females of color are specifically addressed.  When reviewing history, one must think about how women of color were and are impacted. In statistical analyses of race, such as in education, housing, and unemployment, we must look for and demand a gender analysis as well. We must incorporate an intersectional framework into our thinking and acting so that we are not just talking about intersectionality or holding up a sign with the word. We must practice intersectionality.