Some of our students experience racism, sexism, classism, ableism, and other oppressions every day. Sometimes, they experience more than one of those oppressions at the same time. In the classroom, a student might experience classism when an instructor requires an expensive textbook and does not provide any alternative options. A student who is a woman of color may experience racism and sexism when someone assumes they are not a STEM major. Students may also face barriers within the institution (like financial aid, advising, and other spaces) because of their identities.
A big part of creating a safe classroom and facilitating the learning process for diverse groups of students is tailoring your approach to who is in the room. This can be tricky, as students often have multiple identities that intersect in ways that can allow them different access to power and privilege at UConn. In this article, you’ll read about a helpful and impactful concept called intersectionality and some strategies for teaching students with multiple identities.
What Is Intersectionality?
Intersectionality is a concept Black feminist legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw coined in her work in the early 1990s. As Crenshaw worked with the law, she found that Black women were often erased or excluded from legal progress. In her landmark essay, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color,” Crenshaw describes how challenging it was for women of color to get help in domestic violence cases. She describes feminist groups as fighting primarily for white women and in white communities and anti-racism groups as fighting against the tendency for men of color to be criminalized. Between these two groups, no one was looking out for women of color.
Within Black feminism, intersectionality describes how oppression can multiply when a person embodies intersecting marginalized identities.
Crenshaw saw that because Black women existed at the intersection of racial oppression and gender oppression, their experience of both those kinds of oppression multiplied.
She describes this more below in this 1-minute, student-friendly video:
While the term intersectionality did not arise until the 1990s, the concept of intersecting identities and oppressions has existed in Black feminism and women of color feminisms for a long time. Black feminist scholar bell hooks preferred the term “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.” hooks saw that intersectionality could sometimes be used to refer just to intersecting identities and not the associated power dynamics. With “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy,” the intersecting oppressions are hard to ignore.
Intersectionality is one way to understand the structures of our society. Race, class, gender, sexuality, and ability (to name a few) are all connected, so the discriminations and oppressions connected to each of these identity groups are also connected. For instance, Asian women have been much more likely to experience anti-Asian violence than Asian men. This is in part because they exist at the intersection of both racial discrimination directed at Asian people and gender discrimination that marks women as more vulnerable than men.
Intersectionality also helps us understand how our students experience power and privilege. Some students may not have access to privilege because of intersecting marginalized identities and knowing that can help us as instructors guide them to appropriate resources.
Identity and Intersectionality Begins with You
Are you wondering how to incorporate the concept of intersectionality into your teaching? Intersectionality can be a helpful addition to any teaching praxis, and the process begins with you.
Consider writing a journal entry or doing a mind map where you list and describe all the different aspects of your identity. Then, journal or think about the following questions: How do these pieces of you intersect in your life? What are some of the ways you have privilege (or not)? How do your identities and life experiences contribute to how you view people of other identities and life experiences?
The last question in that journal prompt encourages you to engage with your implicit biases. Identifying and reducing biases you might have toward your students will help you create a safe classroom space and facilitate learning for all your students.
Feminist pedagogy emphasizes that an instructor’s values and identities contribute to how they think about teaching and learning. By identifying your relationship to power and privilege and reducing implicit bias, you can shape your ideas about teaching and learning in ways that allow you to effectively teach diverse groups of students.
Identity and Intersectionality in the Classroom
Once you have acknowledged your identities and your relationship to power and privilege, you can start to think about how to bring intersectionality into your classroom.
Here are three activities you can incorporate into your classroom to get to know your students’ identities better.
Large lecture class: Exit cards are an excellent way to conduct a formative assessment for students. You can also use them to ask students to share about themselves. First, come up with an identity-based question to ask. You can keep it general like, “What’s one thing you’d like me to know about you?” Or you might choose something more specific. Then, you might give students an index card or generate a QR code that leads to a Google Form where students can answer the question.
Medium-sized class: Icebreakers are a great way to build community at any point in the semester and allow students to get to know each other as you get to know them. One fun icebreaker for a medium-sized class is bingo. Create a bingo table with some fun facts that might apply to your students (and you). You might include some UConn-specific bingo squares, like “Rubbed Jonathan’s nose” or “Had ice cream from the Dairy Bar.” This allows students to reveal things about themselves in a fun, low-stakes way that is not inherently attached to their oppressions.
Small seminar class: After you have already built trust and worked to build a safe/brave space, consider guiding your students through a privilege walk. With a privilege walk, all students start the activity in a single line. Then, as the instructor reads out statements, students step forward or backward depending on whether the statement pertains to them. It is a strikingly visual way to understand the different kinds of privilege your students have access to. You can find detailed instructions for a privilege walk through the Dolores Huerta Foundation.
How does this translate to bringing intersectionality into the classroom?
You may not be able to shield your students from racism and sexism. Still, as you get to know your students better, you can start to see how their overlapping identities impact their access to your course material and the necessary materials. You can direct them to specific resources on campus. You can adjust assignments or materials to be more accessible to your specific group of students. So, keep getting to know your students. Do icebreakers in the middle of the semester, not just at the beginning.
More on Intersectionality
“Teaching at the Intersections” by Learning for Justice
The Urgency of Intersectionality by Kimberlé Crenshaw (TED Talk)
Kimberlé Crenshaw on Intersectionality by The Institute of Art and Ideas
Intersectionality 101 by Learning for Justice
Crenshaw, Kimberlé W. “From private violence to mass incarceration: thinking intersectionally about women, race, and social control.” UCLA Law Review 59, no. 6 (2012): 1420–1472.
Crenshaw, Kimberlé W. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color.” Stanford Law Review 43, no. 6 (1991): 1241–1299.
Kwak, Jessie. “Promoting Equity in the Classroom with Intersectional Pedagogy.” Every Learner Everywhere. https://www.everylearnereverywhere.org/blog/promoting-equity-in-the-classroom-with-intersectional-pedagogy/.
Liu, Helena. “All about bell hooks: A Visionary Feminist.” Disorient. https://disorient.co/bell-hooks/#relationship-to-intersectionality-theory.
King, Deborah K. “Multiple Jeopardy, Multiple Consciousness: The Context of a Black Feminist Ideology.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 14, no. 1 (1988): 42–72.