Intersectionality is one of those concepts that can be very difficult to teach to undergrads. They agree that everyone is impacted differently by race, class, gender, and sexuality. But intersectionality still seems very theoretical to them. It’s easy to say that these are not just additive categories, but it’s more difficult for undergrads to understand how to apply that theory to actual analysis of social events. We just read selections from Patricia Hill Collins and Joan Acker for the class I am TAing, “Social Inequality: Race, Class, and Power.” In lecture, the professor had gone over the key ideas. The students seemed to understand the basic idea but struggle with how to apply it.
I took this as a perfect opportunity to integrate some of my own research into my teaching. I began the discussion section by writing some key terms on the board: interlocking systems of oppression, non additive, situated knowledge, controlling images. I spent a few minutes making sure we had down the basic definitions of these concepts and then gave my students excerpts from the newsletters of the National Center for Lesbian Rights describing their Lesbians of Color Project (newsletters from the early 1990’s). NCLR explicitly describes their commitment to intersectionality.
After they finished reading, I asked students to explain why the Lesbian of Color project was important at NCLR. Their initial explanations drew on the narratives provided in the newsletters: minorities were dramatically underrepresented in LGBT organizing, minorities had different concerns from whites (especially around issues like immigration and education), and NCLR thought it would have a better reputation in minority communities if it had this project.
But then I asked my students to apply the concepts from the board to our discussion. Students quickly identified how the Lesbians of Color project was designed to address interlocking systems of oppression. They used the idea that categories interact to explain why separate LGBT and race-based organizations would not address the concerns of the LOC project. We discussed how controlling images might explain the discrimination lesbians of color faced in accessing other LGBT and race-based organizations. We then considered how many identity categories an organization should include (e.g., should we have a project for disabled immigrant lesbians of color). Some students thought this sounded a little ridiculous, but we pushed back against that and explored why there might be real reasons for a project like that. We were able to reframe the question as one about trade-offs instead of whether it was “right” or “wrong” to include more categories. This helped students connect the trade-offs in real-world activism to the similar set of trade-offs academics face in doing intersectional analysis.
Most important, this discussion made the idea of “situated knowledge” more real to my students. First, we discussed NCLR’s insistence on increasing the presence of lesbians of color on its board of directors. Students identified how the concept of situated knowledge helped us understand why white lesbians could not do the same work on the board of directors, even if they tried to address the concerns of minorities. Then a student volunteered that NCLR was also using town halls to solicit more feedback from minority communities on the concerns of lesbians of color. This allowed us to further interrogate the concept of situated knowledge. The lawyers and professionals on the board of directors might produce one type of knowledge, but the people in the town hall meetings would produce another type of knowledge. NCLR considered both types of knowledge critical to their work.
My students gained a deeper understanding of intersectionality through this discussion. Instead of just defining terms, they were forced to apply them. They appreciated how these were not just text book terms but are useful in understanding the social world. And it gave me a chance to reflect on a piece of my own research in a new context.