Recognizing Identity and Intersectionality in the Classroom

Rather than assuming that a student can be ascribed an identity, consider spending plenty of time getting to know your students, and having them get to know one another through icebreakers, autobiographical collages, and other creative activities. The Office for Diversity and Inclusion offers an in-class facilitated program on social identities that aims to raise awareness among students of the many ways their identities show up in the classroom.

Legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw’s influential concept of intersectionality, in brief, recognizes that each person carries a number of identifications that shape their social experience of oppression or marginalization, and that policies and laws are inadequately designed to uphold the rights of people who have multiple oppression. Crenshaw’s legal theory has influenced many disciplines and organizations, including institutions of higher education. Translating this into practice might mean designing ways for students to articulate to themselves and others their intersecting identities, and explaining to students why this is important, namely that it helps establish community and may mitigate stereotyping based on racial, ethnic, gendered, and other kinds of stereotypes, increasing the quality of communication so that learning can happen. As Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie phrased it, there is a “danger of the single story.” Instructors should be aware of the histories of institutional racism, sexism, ableism and ageism that have resulted in extremely challenging educational climates for BIPOC students, in particular female, trans, and queer BIPOC students and BIPOC students who have a disability.

As an instructor, you may also wish to reflect on how your own identities—both those you identify with and those that are ascribed to you by others—show up in the class. Doing so can be a productive way to examine instructor bias. Just as many disciplines now require a positionality statement in published research, instructors may consider reflecting on their teaching positionality.

Thinking intersectionally can help us identify subtle dynamics that disadvantage some students and advantage others unjustly.

 

There are many ways of visualizing intersectionality. While this Venn diagram was created in the context of business organizations, it may be useful to prompt a reflection. What layered identities might a student have, and what identities might educational settings activate?