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Let’s create a cacophony of sound to represent our intention. To hold these women up. To bring them into the light.
– Kimberlé Crenshaw, The Urgency of Intersectionality
In a recent Ted Talk, Kimberlé Crenshaw (2016) emphasized the need to address overlapping systems of oppression, particularly the pervasive nature of racism and sexism affecting women of color, whose concerns can be rendered invisible when only one or the other is considered. As two educators who have previously taught a graduate course titled Diversity in Higher Education, we have aimed to address Crenshaw’s call for intersectional approaches in our teaching and research. In these experiences, we have found that, as Jones and Wijeyesinghe (2011) suggest, however, “The core tenets of intersectionality provide a guiding framework, but not a recipe for application to teaching practice” (p. 19). Given the lack of a recipe, how can educators infuse a framework of intersectionality into their teaching? Following Ange-Marie Hancock’s message to scholars to acknowledge the historical and social contexts shaping this framework and to fully realize its potential to transform oppressive educational structures, we propose three essential elements involved in being good stewards of intersectionality in our teaching.
Foreground Disciplinary and Activist Origins
As intersectionality has continued to gain prominence in academic scholarship, the framework has traveled across numerous disciplines (Collins, 2015). Scholars have argued, however, that intersectionality has not fully realized its potential to transform systems in ways that promote equity in educational and life outcomes (e.g., Cho, Crenshaw, & McCall, 2013; May, 2015; Nuñez, 2014a, 2014b). There has been a tendency to focus on how intersectionality is expressed in terms of multiple individual identities rather than societal power structures. Because this tendency obscures the framework’s full intention, it is imperative that educators actively engage intersectionality’s origins and aims, as well as center the contributions of feminists of color.
For example, to infuse intersectionality in a Diversity in Higher Education master’s level course we were teaching, it was important to highlight the work of Kimberlé Crenshaw through primary texts (Crenshaw, 1989, 1991) and/or through her various videos on the subject (e.g., Crenshaw, 2016). Beyond this, we also emphasized that intersectionality has a rich history in women of color feminism that spanned decades before Crenshaw first operationalized the term in 1989 to describe legal and political violence against Black women (see Hancock, 2016). Notably, Crenshaw (1989) herself acknowledged more than a century of intersectional work within Black Feminist movements, specifically referencing Sojournor Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech. To provide a historical and social context for understanding intersectionality, teachers must model good stewardship by addressing seminal pieces such as Crenshaw’s and incorporating a discussion of the framework’s roots in women of color feminism.
Highlight Overlapping Systems of Oppression in Curricula
It is equally important to recognize intersectionality’s aim to identify overlapping systems of oppression and not simply intersecting social identities (Collins, 1991; Dill & Zambrana, 2009). One way to accomplish this is to have intersectionality guide the development of curricula. In our Diversity in Higher Education course, we organized the syllabus by first discussing structural forms of oppression in higher education, addressing institutional stratification of college enrollment and completion among different populations, as well as the historical legacies of exclusion on campuses. Following this, we introduced the concept of intersectionality to show how these structures affect educational opportunities. Only after considering the role of macro-level issues in shaping postsecondary opportunity did we focus on the experiences of students, faculty, and administrators with specific social identities along the lines of race, ethnicity, immigration status, gender, class, disability, and sexuality.
By first centering structural forms of domination, we found that students were able to participate in a power-based analysis when they then reflected on the experiences of marginalized populations in college. In fact, class members frequently reflected on how oppressive histories in higher education institutions can adversely affect the lives of underserved students in the present. Similarly, they also regularly addressed the within-group differences that exist within social identity groups, such as how White queer students tend to navigate dimensions of privilege and marginality differently from queer collegians of color. An intersectional approach also guided a class discussion about how Asian Americans encounter invisibility in the student affairs profession, bringing in historical perspectives to understand and respond to this experience.
Transform Educational Policies and Practices to Challenge Oppressive Systems
Intersectionality’s roots in critical legal feminism call on us to examine how policies and practices within education disproportionately affect different groups of people. With intersectionality’s goal of creating a more equitable society (Dill & Zambrana, 2009), we must encourage ourselves and others to take a critical look at how our own educational practices perpetuate oppression. It is not enough to talk about intersectionality. We must implicate ourselves in this theoretical exploration and reflect on how we can move towards social change, enacting collective reflexivity to broaden educational opportunities.
Through reflexively connecting across our different identities and roles in educational systems, we can actualize intersectionality’s potential to foster coalitions across identity differences in order to enact social change (Cole, 2008). Engaging intersectionality’s origins, focusing on the structural dimensions of intersectionality, and taking responsibility for organizational transformation can help get us there.
Cho, S., Crenshaw, K. W., & McCall, L. (2013). Toward a field of intersectionality studies: Theory, applications, and praxis. Signs, 38(4), 785-810.
Cole, E. R. (2008). Coalitions as a model for intersectionality: From practice to theory. Sex Roles, 59(5-6), 443-453.
Collins, P. H. (1991). Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness and the politics of empowerment. New York, NY: Routledge.
Collins, P. H. (2015). Intersectionality’s definitional dilemmas. Annual Review of Sociology, 41(1), 1-20.
Crenshaw, K. (1989). Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex: A black feminist Critique of antidiscrimination doctrine, feminist theory, and antiracist politics. University of Chicago Legal Forum, 8(1), 139-167.
Crenshaw, K. (1991). Mapping the margins: Intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color. Stanford Law Review, 43(6), 1241–1299.
Crenshaw, K. (2016, October). The urgency of intersectionality [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/kimberle_crenshaw_the_urgency_of_intersectionality
Dill, B. T., & Zambrana, R. E. (2009). Critical thinking about inequality: An emerging lens. In B. T. Dill & R. E. Zambrana (Eds.), Emerging intersections: Race, class, and gender in theory, policy, and practice (pp. 1–21). New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Jones, S. R., & Wijeyesinghe, C. L. (2011). The promises and challenges of teaching from an intersectional perspective: Core components and applied strategies. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 2011(125), 11-20.
Hancock, A-M. (2016). Intersectionality: An intellectual history. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
May, V. M. (2015). Pursuing intersectionality, unsettling dominant imaginaries. New York, NY: Routledge.
Nuñez, A-M. (2014a). Advancing an intersectionality framework in higher education: Power and Latino postsecondary opportunity. In M. B. Paulsen (Ed.), Higher Education: Handbook of Theory and Research: Volume 29 (pp. 33-92). New York, NY: Springer.
Nuñez, A-M. (2014b). Employing multilevel intersectionality in educational research: Latino identities, contexts, and college access. Educational Researcher, 43(2), 85-92.
Anne-Marie Nuñez is an associate professor of Higher Education and Student Affairs Program in the Department of Educational Studies at The Ohio State University. Her award-winning research focuses on how factors such as race, ethnicity, class and linguistics shape postsecondary opportunities. One line of her scholarship has focused on the higher education experiences and trajectories of Latino, first-generation, and migrant students. Another has emphasized institutional diversity in the United States, including the role of Hispanic-Serving Institutions in promoting college access and success. Two of her current projects involve National Science Foundation grants to broaden participation in geosciences, particularly through experiential learning. Her articles have appeared in Educational Researcher, Harvard Educational Review and American Educational Research Journal, and she is the lead editor of the International Latino book award winner Hispanic-Serving Institutions: Advancing Research and Transformative Practice (2015, Routledge). She acted as Program Chair for the 2014 Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE) Conference and now serves on several editorial boards, as well as an Associate Editor for Higher Education: Handbook of Theory and Research.
Antonio Duran is a second-year doctoral student in the Higher Education and Student Affairs program at The Ohio State University. Prior to arriving at OSU, Antonio received his undergraduate degree in English and American Literature from New York University, in addition to acquiring his master’s degree in Student Affairs and Higher Education at Miami University. Antonio is extremely passionate about advancing asset-based research about historically marginalized communities. Specifically, his research interests center the experiences of queer students of color from an intersectional perspective that critically investigates the role that racism and heterosexism plays in their identity exploration. Moreover, he is interested in how educators employ intersectionality when teaching undergraduate and graduate students. As an aspiring faculty member, Antonio hopes to empower the voices of students with multiple marginalized identities on campus. Identifying as queer person of color himself, Antonio desires to increase the representation of QPOC faculty on campus.