The responsibility to teach intersectionality

During my undergrad degree, I noticed that in social science classes there’s often an expectation that certain students in a class will speak up to represent the feminist view or the minority perspective.

While there is no problem with students who have a personal or academic interest in certain issues choosing to include those in class discussions, there is a problem when those issues are not otherwise brought into the discourse. At the root of this issue is the need to complicate the way we approach the abstract subjects of the social sciences. If there’s anything I learned during my time in Women’s Studies classes, it is that we need to reconceptualise the way we perceive different realities and experiences.

Who is the subject of the majority of social sciences classes? I was in a political science seminar last semester and the discussion of issues such as regime type and identity politics were conducted as if they affect a population that is genderless, classless, and usually race-less. Rarely are any further particularities of identity considered. The abstract subject position taken up in the social sciences is most often a white, male, able-bodied heterosexual, existing in an overall dominant position, and it’s important to recognize that.

More classrooms and professors need to incorporate an intersectional approach that looks beyond the abstract individual with the goal of addressing the variance in human experience. (If you’re unsure about what intersectionality is, check this out for an overview!)

But how do we do that – and why should we bother? The trend of relegating discussion of gender to Women’s Studies classes is not doing enough to address the issue. Women’s Studies is an important discipline, but it can’t be the only place where there is a real discussion about gender, race or sexuality.

Only a small percentage of students will have the inclination or the elective flexibility to take Women’s Studies or similar classes, and only a relatively small number of men will take these classes. If thinking critically about gender and intersectionality continues to be fostered in only certain settings by a minority of students, most social science classes will continue to lack this important discourse.

Just because someone personally relates to something doesn’t mean they are expected to represent that particular issue. Is it too much to expect that people who enjoy relative social privilege should question that privilege and consider perspectives that they don’t experience on a daily basis? Obviously there are limitations on the extent to which this can happen – you can’t speak to or represent an experience you haven’t had. However, the deliberate inclusion of an intersectional approach, and the consideration of more than the abstract subject, would be a welcome addition to most social science curricula.

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2 thoughts on “The responsibility to teach intersectionality

  1. Vegan Noodle soup for the soul says:

    Rita Pierson once eloquently put it that there is “no significant learning without a significant relationship”.
    I fear the injustice that would come of Academia attempting to foster more intersectional critical thought in this manner.
    Academia, especially in the areas of the social sciences that lack intersectionality in the analysis otherwise cultivated, is dominated by the privilege you gave a brief synopsis of; white, male, heteronormative, cis-gendered, able-bodied, English-speaking, upper-middle class, and so on. When this individual, embodying their role as a facilitator of academic inquiry, approaches intersectionality, he carries with him a specific perspective. Furthermore, what is the relationship that the students have with this individual and how do they engage with the discourse when academics often presuppose themselves as experts?
    Intersectionality is beautiful, in that it allows each of us to be the expert of our own experiences while demanding that we take responsibility not to assume that we can claim full understanding of another individual’s experiences. We are experts of our own experiences, but we can empathize and learn upon reflecting on other narratives.
    I am weary of the state in which Academia is currently posited; one of great authority and unapologetic privilege.
    As a student of intersectional thought, I can only speak to my experience of how it was taught in my institution, how I came to internalize and utilize it, and how I developed my relationship with the professors who employed it. I must also preface those statements by stating my privilege as an educated, white, able bodied, cis-gendered woman that has felt comfortable enough to discuss my passing privileges and my unearned privilege during the course of my education. I was able to speak, where others may not have felt comfortable enough, and I was heard, at times when others were not given an opportunity.
    Intersectionality cannot be taught, per se. Intersectionality is explored within one’s self. It takes years, endless strokes of keyboards or marks of pens on countless mediums, and a lot of mental energy during this intensive self reflection process. Intersectionality can be introduced but it cannot be taught in a brief gist and expected to blossom overnight.
    The teaching of intersectionality worries me as much as the teaching of Anti-Oppressive Perspectives does. When students are introduced to AOP, it is often overwhelming as it brings our privileges to the forefront where they can no longer be comfortably used as guilt. I have struggled watching my peers assume that they act in anti-oppressive ways just because they have successfully completed one course on the incredibly deep concept. By the same extension, intersectionality informs our analysis but it is limited to our honesty in the process of self reflection. Perhaps I’m pessimistic but I do not have that kind of faith in all the students that would be presumed to have this capacity during class.
    I use intersectionality to help me analyze how I move in the world as a white queer identified woman. I use intersectionality to help me be critical of my suggestions and my use of space when I am speaking to make changes that will affect others. I use intersectionality to better challenge the oppressive social and institutional structures that operate around me and educate me.
    One of the ways I have used this framework is to be critical of the professors that have introduced me to this very important concept. My professors have all been white, heterosexual, feminist women (with the except of a talented white man). When intersectionality is taught by the dominate perspective, it fails to connect to the depth that intersectionality seeks to reveal. As a student of similar privilege, my relationship with this perspective comes at the cost of reproducing dominate discourse and therefore replicating the same limited discussion that was generated before intersectionality was introduced into my vernacular. I have had the privilege of listening to Kim Crosby speak and this experience taught me more than I could have ever imagine learning from my professors; this connection, this relationship to the one instructing is what is vital.

    Academia, in its current form, cannot be counted on to fulfill the hopes you have for the social sciences. Perhaps one day it will.

  2. I love intersectionality and how challenging its introduction can be to those who aren’t marginally familiar with it. People throughout the social sciences and even Women’s Studies programmes sadly don’t have the exposure they should to the theory and practice of intersectionality.

    Discussions become much more interesting when a student is encouraged to think about an issue from a different perspective. Someone who is an able-bodied, middle-class, White, straight, male-assigned-at-birth man (who make up the majority of theorists who are given credit in social science circles) has a wildly different perspective from some people with different identities and backgrounds in the classroom.

    Let’s get more profs and students talking about intersectionality, shall we?

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