I am tired. It is a Monday morning, and I am usually tired on Monday mornings. Yet, this is the unique exhaustion that comes from the casual dismissal of my hurt, the subtle challenging of my reality by the white imagination. In this particular incident, I have just shared with a white, female colleague my frustration that once again my expertise as the school’s Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Justice coach was overtly questioned and belittled. This despite being given the role for a supposed trust in my lived experience and cultivated academic expertise. In her imagination, this cannot have anything to do with skin color in our “nice community.” I have now been met with a fifteen-minute anecdote about how as a white woman who has a few different hobbies than the others in her office, “she’s experienced being left out and knew how I felt.”
The anecdote above is one of many I’ve experienced with white women in the workplace. And, admittedly, it is also not too far off from the ways I, as a non-Black woman of color, have at times engaged with Black women in my life, assuming that because I have experienced racism, I knew exactly what my Black friend had gone through.
And while there is something innately human in trying to connect when someone shares something with us, some even call it “active listening,” both I and the woman in the anecdote above were wrong and our behavior harmful.
To engage any further in this conversation, it is important I note that I write from the fundamental belief that the world we live in is both outstandingly beautiful and deeply flawed. While I work every day to experience joy and celebrate the joy and beauty in others, I also know there are systems of oppression, systems like white supremacy, patriarchy, heteronormativity, that seek to deprive people of their joy and humanity. How these systems move and function within a given country, community, and international school varies, but I know they are there. The existence of these systems is not up for debate for me. I also recognize the way forward is complex and requires nuance and critical thinking.
A key element of that nuance and critical thinking is the theory and practice of intersectionality; intersectionality was what was missing from the dialogue when my well-intentioned colleague tried to “empathize” with my experience of being shut out from doing my job.
Few theories have generated as much debate, dialogue, and in some cases vitriol, as the work of Kimberlé Crenshaw (1989) and her development of intersectionality, which she coined more than two decades ago in her analysis of the treatment of Black women and their experiences with both racial and gendered violence. Today, when asked about intersectionality she refers to it, “a lens through which you can see where power comes and collides, where it interlocks and intersects. It’s not simply that there’s a race problem here, a gender problem here, and a class or LBGTQ problem there. Many times, that framing erases what happens to people who are subject to all of these things...,” (Columbia Law School, 2017, para. 4).
As the term became more widespread, especially across college campuses in the United States (Nicholas & Stahl, 2019), so did misunderstandings, misuse, and misappropriation of the theory. For many conservatives’ pundits, this concept is equivalent to playing “oppression olympics” and primarily about allowing people to gain varying levels of special treatment depending on labels you place on yourself (Crenshaw, 2015).
This criticism of intersectionality is based on the inaccurate notion that the theory, subsequent practice, and ultimate aim of the work is simply to create hierarchies of victimhood.
Intersectionality does not concern itself with naming who is most victimized. Intersectionality simply understands that recognizing how systems of injustice interlock to create compound oppressions and layered experiences of discrimination as the only sustainable way forward. Intersectionality invites us to see the whole picture and not just the digestible fragments. Intersectionality is not at all interested in problematizing people, or creating any understanding of identity as a problem, but it does invite us to see where the problem lies within how our systems treat people.
Those who say that acknowledging the various ways in which systems of oppression interact and impact people differently is divisive are almost always those who are content to live in willful ignorance or complicit acceptance about how divided we already are as a society.
Using an intersectional lens means recognizing the historical contexts surrounding any issue and how that history plays out in the modern day. There is an undeniable history of colonization and harm in the story of international schooling (Hartman et al., 2020; Heron, 2019; Majhanovich, 2013). And as international schools across the globe begin to take up different iterations of equity, inclusion, and justice work, many will be tempted to avoid the path of intersectionality, a path of least resistance. To engage with intersectionality in international schooling, to deeply examine how systems of oppression intersect to create disparate experiences for staff and students, can feel intimidating.
Yet, engaging with intersectionality is also a practice of freedom. When we engage with intersectionality, we release ourselves of the notion of liberation as a zero-sum game. Freedom isn’t pie; gain for some doesn’t equate to loss for others. Audre Lorde knew this when she said, “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.” In her intersectional, liberatory praxis, Lorde recognized that our collective liberation comes not from naming hierarchical victim hoods but does recognize that when those most harmed in our society are free, everyone benefits.
As more initiatives related to equity, inclusion, and justice take shape in international schooling, we must be cautious that the work doesn’t land itself in the relocation of power and management of oppression alone.
Equity, inclusion, and diversity works asks the question, “how do we locate and attend to harm that is currently being caused in our community?”; liberatory praxis asks, “how can we imagine new ways to be in community outside of these systems of harm?”; intersectionality allows us to do both.
It would be the absolute height of hubris to pretend this short article addresses all of the ways intersectionality frees us and can be applied in schools. My hope is to deeply engage in these conversations, from what is intersectionality and what it is not, to how to practically apply an intersectional lens, in the upcoming ISS Women’s Symposium. Even those sessions will not provide enough time to fully understand a theory that has been challenging our notions of justice for over two decades, but I am excited to be in community with those willing to ask, “what does it truly mean to be free?”
Learn more about the ISS Women’s Symposium here.
Crenshaw, Kimberle. “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Policies.” University of Chicago Legal Forum 1989, no. 1 (1989): 139-167.
Crenshaw, K. (2015). Opinion | why intersectionality can't wait. The Washington Post. Retrieved September 29, 2021, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/in-theory/wp/2015/09/24/why-intersectionality-cant-wait/.
Columbia Law School. (2017, June 8). Kimberlé Crenshaw on Intersectionality, more than two decades later. Columbia Law School. Retrieved September 29, 2021, from https://www.law.columbia.edu/news/archive/kimberle-crenshaw-intersectionality-more-two-decades-later.
Heron, B. (2019). ‘Global citizenship’: A new manifestation of whiteness. Critical Race and Whiteness Studies Journal, First Glimpse, 1–14.
Hartman, E., Reynolds, N. P., Ferrarini, C., Messmore, N., Evans, S., Al-Ebrahim, B., & Brown, J. M. (2020). Coloniality-Decoloniality and Critical Global Citizenship: Identity, Belonging, and Education Abroad. Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad, 32(1), 33–59. https://doi.org/10.36366/frontiers.v32i1.433
Majhanovich, S. (2013). English as a tool of neo-colonialism and globalization in Asian contexts. Critical Perspectives on International Education, 249–261. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-6091-906-0_18
Nichols, S., & Stahl, G. (2019). Intersectionality in higher education research: A systematic literature review. Higher Education Research & Development, 38(6), 1255–1268. https://doi.org/10.1080/07294360.2019.1638348
Over a decade in education, Alysa’s work is driven by the question, “what does it mean to be free?” She began her journey exploring this question as a classroom teacher learning, laughing, and growing alongside high school students in the literature classroom for eight years. In the last five years, her work has expanded to include curriculum design, adult learning, strategic planning, and educational consulting, all through an anti-bias, antiracist, and justice centered lens. She has provided consulting services and in-depth professional learning on anti-bias and antiracist practices with various international and independent schools and has presented on the work of equitable, liberated learning communities at various conferences around the globe. She combines her own lived experiences as a biracial, multicultural woman, and the intentional study of the practitioners of abolition and liberation who have come before her to bring an intersectional lens into all the work she does. Currently, she is pursuing a PhD in Education for Social Justice at the University of San Diego researching critical Global Citizenship and antiracism in international schools.