Intersectional Feminism in the Classroom

On both January 21st and 22nd of this year, three women organized the country’s largest political demonstration, drawing in nearly half a million Americans to The Women’s March on Washington and over 3 million nationally. These women – Linda Sarsour, Tamika Mallory and Carmen Perez – sought to amplify the voices of all those who find themselves at the mercy of patriarchy’s clenched fists. In addition to the typically advertised causes of feminism including reproductive rights and the gender wage gap, protesters rose signs calling attention to police brutality against black bodies, waved rainbow flags in support of LGBT identifying folks, and called out against the Dakota Access Pipeline. This was a demonstration of third wave feminism. This was intersectional. And despite the valid intra-community criticisms against the actual execution of the Women’s March, I ask what we as educators can take away from this major event and how can we bring what we learned into the classroom?

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(Photo Source: Do I Have a Place in Your Movement? On Intersectionality at the Women’s March on Washington)

Intersectionality, coined by scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, is “ a concept to describe the ways in which oppressive institutions are interconnected and cannot be examined separately from one another”. All of us hold a multitude of identities that are consistently interacting with one another and with the institutions we come into contact with. I, for example, am a white-passing, Puerto Rican, cis gendered, bisexual, able bodied, middle class raised woman. All these identities have directly and indirectly contributed to the opportunities I have had, the worldview I hold of society and my place in it. Change any one of them, and those very opportunities and perspectives change. Even amongst those who share similar identities, we find diversity. And if we know anything about this country’s history, some identities are privileged over others for no reason other than institutionalized ignorance refusing to retire unearned power. As educators, we participate in what has historically been intended to further the oppression of marginalized people, pacifying youth with white washed, patriarchal narratives that erase the injustices forced against them and the generations before them. And as agents of this system, we are especially obligated to reflect on the power bestowed on us over the development of young minds.

When approached to write this piece, I was prompted with the question: Why is it important for educators to understand what intersectional feminism is? The answer, for me, is simple: because we are responsible for the holistic development of youth that ought to not only be prepared to survive oppressive systems or excel in them, but to dismantle them. White feminism, also known as first wave feminism – a debatable term considering the ideology surrounding equality and equity amongst the sexes is one found well throughout history, not limited to white American women – has never represented the voices of women and non men whose gender identity is compounded by other systems of oppression (i.e., class, race, ability, sexual orientation). It is, therefore, incomplete and inapplicable to classrooms that seek to create a generation of liberated thinkers.

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So, what is the first step? We look at the syllabus. Often times when discussing feminism, the target audience is young girls and women (again, by default, typically white). But intersectional feminist thought centers the experiences of all non men, especially marginalized demographics such as women of color and trans women. It must be clear that middle class, cis het, able-bodied white men (and women) cannot be the only people that exist in our curriculums. They are not the only authors who have stories to be told. They are not the only inventors with contributions to be celebrated. They are not the only leaders to write essays about. They are not the only survivors of tyranny with pain that cannot afford to be ignored. Only when we actively and intentionally engage our students in material that reflects these realities, which may or may not reflect that of the students, are we using our position as educators to develop and liberate young minds.

What we teach, however, is not the only line of defense against a white supremacist, patriarchal, academic agenda. How we teach is what separates intention from impact, especially when educating vulnerable populations (i.e., non men of color). Intersectionality is primarily concerned with making visible and audible the narratives of non men typically and systemically ignored. For the past three years, I have served as the program director of the L.A.C.E. Youth Leadership Program, educating low income, inner city Puerto Rican youth grades 6-12. I learned rather quickly that my students are far more knowledgeable about their realities than any college textbook could prepare me for. I learned that my voice was not the most important in the room, that they are aware of what matters to them  – and if intersectional feminism teaches us anything, it is that people are the experts on their own lives and it is their voices that ought to speak for their experiences.

But if we are honest, this is not an approach that most students are accustomed to. Educators hold a privileged position over students in that we are the decided expert in the classroom. This can be especially dangerous when educating non men of color, for example, whose voices are often interrupted, undervalued and invalidated. If we are intent on cultivating multiple perspectives, especially within the context of intersectionality, it is vital that educators make an exerted effort to create safe spaces for these students while also allowing for more privileged students (whether that be due to their race or gender) to actively listen to their fellow classmate. Whether that includes house agreements created by the students in the efforts of structuring fair and impactful discussions, or creating seating arrangements that de-emphasize a primary speaker, or encouraging students to make “I” statements so to not speak in generalizations and encourage interpersonal dialogue that builds connections, there are several ways to ensure that all voices are heard and, most importantly, that no marginalized voices are spoken over.

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One of the best teaching methods I have found to promote an intersectional agenda – and therefore an agenda rooted in self liberation, equity and community – is to pose students as the teachers. If the goal is to cultivate multiple perspectives within the feminist group, the educators cannot always be the main one talking. I refuse to facilitate every group discussion, especially when the topic is of something that does not directly impact me. In discussions about racism, for example, I – a white passing Boricua woman – would do better to co-facilitate alongside my Afro Boricua female student who is directly impacted by the topic at hand. In addition to cultivating leadership and public speaking skills, both she and her classmates are able to see a young black woman, who not only experiences racism, but sexualized racism at that, at the center of a discussion that has material consequences in her life. In this space, if only in this space, she has the power to structure a conversation about misogynoir amongst a mixed group on her own terms. That is the kind of leadership I want my students to have. That is the kind of feminism I want my students to practice.

I do not see intersectional feminism as some theoretical ideology reserved for dissertations and stimulating conversation amongst the academic elite. It is a tool. One that seeks to personalize the human condition and, if executed properly in the classroom, allows everyone an opportunity to transform what is often a mechanical, academic environment into a space that centers community building amongst youth on the collective desire for self-determination.

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