People are not just one identity or another. There are many different parts that make us who we are. We may be black, male, and rich. We might be white, female, and from a family that is not rich. These are all different ways in which we choose to identify ourselves. We might be any mix of identities. There are many factors that go into who we are. Identities can overlap and affect each other. Understanding this is called intersectionality.
Kimberlé Crenshaw is a law expert. She invented the word intersectionality. She sees intersectionality as a way to better understand people. In schools, it can help teachers and students treat each other more fairly. It also shows where oppression and privilege affect relationships. Oppression is when people face unfair treatment because of their identity. Privilege is when someone has better choices in life because of their identity.
Nicole: A Case Study
Nicole is in the ninth grade. She is a good student. She gets along well with others. The only thing is, she's always late for school. She often misses her first class and rarely turns in her homework. She is getting bad grades. Nicole's teachers know very little about her life. Maybe they think she is doing poorly just because she is black.
If her teachers knew more about Nicole's different identities, they might understand her better. She isn't just a black student. She is from a low-income family. Low income means her family does not have a lot of money. Both of her parents also work. She is the oldest girl in her family. She has to take care of two younger brothers. What if her teachers knew more about Nicole's multiple identities? They might be able to find better ways to support her.
Nicole's challenges are not just about her different identities. They are also related to the oppressions she faces because of them. Her different identities may cause specific problems. For example, she is a girl. In her family, she is expected to look after her brothers. She is often late for school or can't finish her homework because she is taking care of them.
Intersectionality In The Classroom
Understanding intersectionality can help teachers and classmates. It can help them get along better. It can also let them see how privilege affects their relationships.
Christina Torres is a teacher in Hawaii. She works to understand the intersectionality of her students' identities. They are male and female, rich and low income, and of different races.
She points out where someone lives or grows up also affects their identity. Someone from a big city like Los Angeles may have certain life experiences. They may be very different from someone who grew up on a farm in Arkansas. All these differences can impact how students feel. They can also affect how well they do in school.
Torres and her students also explore internalized oppression. That is when people accept negative messages about who they are. For example, a mother playing catch with her daughter may say "don't throw like a girl." The daughter may get a negative message. She may think she can't be good at sports because she is a girl.
Navigating The Intersections
Talking about identity and oppression may seem like a big challenge in the classroom. Teachers show they care about their students' differences when they are brave enough to talk about the variety of identities. Torres believes she gives her students the skills to examine their beliefs. They learn to question why they may have different ideas from another classmate. They figure out how their ideas about others might be shaped by their own privilege.
For Torres, supporting students like Nicole is an important part of her responsibilities as a teacher. "When we stop seeing our kids as whole people ... we stop seeing them as real people," she says.
Reprinted with permission of Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center.