Teaching intersectionality in inter- sectional settings

gottoIntersectionality and intersectional theories are currently some of the most important and influential theoretical, methodological and pedagogical approaches within sociology and other social sciences, especially in their critical approach. According to the most common understanding, intersectionality is not only a theory but most of all an analytical tool that “(…) provides a framework for explaining how social divisions of race, gender, age, and citizenship status, among others, positions people differently in the world, especially in relation to global social inequality” (Hill Collins & Bilge 2016: 15). Therefore, teaching sociology students how to use this tool seems to be a very important task. However, because understanding the entire spectrum of the intersectional approach is rather complex, and even among experienced researchers some misunderstandings and simplifications occur (Naples 2009), teaching intersectionality to undergraduate and graduate students can be both beneficial and challenging and strongly depends on a) teacher expertise and auto-reflexivity, and b) the composition of the student group and the level of heterogeneity.

The intersectionality concept: emergence and theories

The beginnings of the emergence of the intersectional approach can be linked to the development of the second wave feminist movement and its academic reflection. While the first wave of feminism can be characterised as rather smooth and free from major divisions and ideological disputes, the second wave, beginning in the early 60s, can be defined as an era of multidimensional discussions and splits among the movement’s activists. One of the most significant of these was the moment when white, heterosexual feminists, who mainly represented the middle class and played a dominant role in the movement, started to be accused by non-heterosexual women and women of colour of taking possession of woman as a category and the definition of women’s interests (Stuve et al. 2011). It appeared that the crucial goals of the movement focused on the problems important to white, middle class women. At the same time, other types of social problems that were characteristic for other groups of women were being neglected. Black feminists have questioned the statement that gender is the most important category in discussions about oppression, domination and power relations, claiming that race can be a much more essential category, one that causes discrimination against certain groups of women. They noticed, however, that this particular social category was invisible for the rest of the movement’s activists, who did not seem to notice or problematise their whiteness. Thus, feminist discussions started to evolve, and non-heterosexual, Black, Latino, Muslim, disabled and many others actresses started to appeal for more complex and diverse political and theoretical approaches, not only in the movement but also in academia (Stuve et al. 2011). From this particular combination of diverse voices and variety of life experiences, the concept of intersectionality emerged. Kimberle Crenshaw is considered to be the first scholar who actually used the term, and in her historic paper from 1989 she underlined the importance of a real life and unique biography of individuals entangled into relations of power, dominance, oppression and discrimination, which became the most important terms in theories of intersectionality (Berger & Guidroz 2009).

However, intersectionality as a term seems to be a kind of zipper that combines the issues mentioned above, such as domination, oppression etcetera, with different types of social categories and is constructed on their basis (Stuve et al. 2011). Therefore, to this day a number of definitions of intersectionality have developed, leading to different theoretical, methodological and practical approaches mostly based on underlining diversified accents in particular description (Berger & Guidroz 2009: 11). The most widespread interpretation of the term is founded on the statement: “The construct of intersectionality refers to both a theory and an analytical tool derived from the theory. The idea is that a person’s experiences with a multitude of factors, such as race, gender, ability, age and socio-economic location, can interact or intersect in ways that can either advantage or disadvantage the person’s well-being and development. Using that rationale, intersectionality as an analytical tool can be used to study, understand and respond to the ways in which these factors do intersect (Symington 2004: 1-2) and can expose different types of discrimination and disadvantage” (Cassidy & Jackson 2006: 438). With regard to the intersectional approach, it is rather obvious that the list of mentioned factors can be infinite and can contain a number of categories that influence the position of an individual in social structures (Stuve et al. 2011). Thus, theories of intersectionality act as a kind of umbrella term that: “(…) provides a conceptual language for recognising that everybody is simultaneously positioned within social categories, such as gender, social class, sexuality and ‘race’” (Crenshaw 1989: 23). Moreover, this concept is related to underlining that all social categories are involved in creating certain types of power relations and dominance and, therefore, cannot be seen as neutral (Stuve et al. 2011). Last but not least, intersectionality is applicable both in theory and praxis. It needs to be underlined that: “(…) intersectional inquiry is inherently critical because it criticized existing bodies of knowledge, theories, methodologies, and classroom practices, especially in relation to social inequality” (Hill Collins & Bilge 2016: 31).

Intersectionality in the classroom: chances and challenges

Education can be either oppressive or liberating, and schools and universities “(…) are venues where intersecting power relations of race, class, gender, sexuality, nationality, ethnicity, ability, and age routinely privilege some students over others” (Hill Collins & Bilge 2016: 161). Therefore, teaching students how to properly analyse social relations, (in)equalities, power relations and the privileges of certain groups is one of the crucial tasks for sociologists who are dedicated to passing on knowledge and skills and interested in empowering students. Therefore, in my teaching practice I try to incorporate an intersectional approach into every course I teach and to underline the fact that power relations cannot be analysed and/or explained by one factor (e.g. the differences among people cannot be reduced to gender or social class). As knowledge is socially constructed and can be seen as a set of collective experiences, opinions, views and beliefs, but also prejudices and misconceptions, one can say “that there is no such thing as objective knowledge” (Elmgren & Hendriksson 2014:43). Therefore, in the production of knowledge one of the most important factors is heterogeneity and diversity in the group of people who take part in the process of knowledge construction. Thus, heterogeneity in the student group plays a positive role, especially while incorporating an intersectional approach. Students with different social, cultural and religious backgrounds bring very different problems, experiences and needs to the classroom, and as they usually fit into more than one social category, the process of collective knowledge building is much easier and more fruitful. As a full understanding of the complexity of social and power relations is possible only if students are able to look beyond their own experience, bringing together students with different cultural backgrounds, religions, social classes, abilities and genders is one of the most recommended methods for intersectional pedagogy. Increasing diversity among students is strongly connected to internalisation processes and the fact that university education is becoming more and more accessible for groups that used to be marginalised and that had limited access to education. It means that diverse students are now able to speak up and spread their unique experiences and perspectives, and this is one of the biggest chances for all teachers working in their daily practices with an intersectional approach.

Nevertheless, diversity and heterogeneity are not without limitations, even in countries like Sweden where the number of citizens with a migration background is one of the highest in Europe, and where gender equality policies are the most developed. One of the biggest challenges in teaching intersectionality is a certain danger that the analysis of social and power relations might be limited to one or two particular social categories that dominate in the classroom. In my teaching practice I often face situations where discussions on, for example, social inequalities and discrimination focus on gender, sexual identities and class differences, while other categories (mostly race, religion and disability) are omitted. This is connected to the fact that higher education, both in Sweden and Poland where I have worked so far, even if it is becoming more and more inclusive, is still dominated by white women and men who come from different social classes but still represent a very specific type of habitus (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992). In both the abovementioned countries, the number of non-white, non-Christian/secular groups is still relatively low, and therefore their voices and perspectives are not properly adopted in the process of collective knowledge production. Therefore, one of the biggest challenges in intersectional pedagogy is the temptation to reduce discussions and analysis to one or two of the most common or favourite categories (Naples 2009). In these cases, the main goal of intersectional teaching, which is engaging people in specific pedagogical practices that enhance social justice, is not fulfilled.

Teacher positioning

The role of a teacher and her/his self-awareness, not only during lectures on intersectional theory but in general, cannot be overestimated. The teacher her/himself must be aware of the (often dominant) position in social structures that she/he represents, her/his role in power configurations and his/her cultural and social habitus (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992). This is very important, especially when the student group is composed of students representing different cultural backgrounds, classes, genders etcetera. This statement seems to be rather obvious, but to this day many teachers treat themselves as objective and neutral subjects, thereby neglecting their role in creating a specific form of social relations in the classroom and in wider society. This is especially visible when the teacher is a representative of a privileged group. In the case of Sweden this would be a white, heterosexual, male Swedish citizen from a middle class background who treats his own habitus as a universal one, while other types of these social constructions are defined as different and non-normative and are to be adjusted to the neutral one. This particular statement draws not only on a bulk of literature on pedagogy, hegemony and privileges, but also on personal observations conducted during my work at different universities. The most recent example of this type of attitude comes from a (white, male, Swedish etc.) faculty member who complained that he feels uncomfortable when he teaches classed comprised of female students wearing headscarves. His attitude not only proves that he finds himself a central figure in the classroom, but also that he is unaware of his own perception of neutrality and his role in reproducing power relations. As Messner concludes: “Members of privileged groups rarely recognize the institutional processes and interactional dynamics through which we ‘do difference’ in ways that reproduce our privileges and others’ subordination” (2000: 464). Therefore, in my own practice I constantly try to remind myself of the specific position that I have, not only in the classroom but in any type of interaction with the students. As an international teacher (and researcher) used to working in diverse cultural settings, but also one who has had rather rich previous experiences as an international student, I can recognise and appreciate the specificity and role of heterogeneity in the student group. I am aware of the fact that students represent not only different cultures but even different regions within one country, that they come from different social classes and groups, might have different needs and learning styles, different social and language skills, and most of all different positions in social structures and, therefore, different opinions and points of view that influence the teaching/learning processes. Moreover, I am a sociologist and in my opinion this also helps, since being “sensitive to other cultural systems and the ability to approach cultural “others” without feeling insecure or threatened” (Gopal 2011: 374) is one of the core skills that sociologists are supposed to acquire. Understanding of different cultures, social systems and attitudes has somehow been “injected” into my veins. Therefore, incorporating an intersectional approach into my teaching seems not to be such a complicated task to me, as I am able to acknowledge that “(…) faculty who teach students are also frontline practitioners for intersectionality as critical praxis. Their practices entail multiple courses of action in different but interrelated areas of pedagogy, epistemology, theory and methodology” (Hill Collins & Bilge 2016: 47).


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