Teaching Intersectionality intersectionally: two different cups of tea?


Intersectionality has become somewhat of a buzzword in contemporary social sciences. It provided a short-hand term for a more complex and comprehensive understanding on identity, which would take into account the ways in which people are invariably positioned through differences in gender, class, sexual orientation, race/ethnicity, ablebodiedness, and more. This theoretical perspective, however, often overshadows more practical approaches in conversations about intersectionality.

In a diversifying classroom, the theme of intersectionality is increasingly relevant. But teaching about intersectionality and teaching intersectionally is not self-evident for every lecturer. To provide hands-on tools for lecturers to integrate the concept of intersectionality in their work (both as theory and as practice), I worked on an academic workshop called “On Teaching Intersectional(ity)”. In this two-fold blog, I try to find ways to think through intersectionality for a critical teaching praxis that is relevant for an increasingly diversifying classroom.

The (im)possibilities of distinguishing teaching intersectionality from teaching intersectionally

The workshop-day started with a panel in which the panelists were asked to elaborate on three questions, based on their own experiences concerning teaching and being taught intersectional(ity): why should we teach intersectionality? How should we teach intersectionality? And what does it mean to teach intersectionally?

These questions already caused some constructive confusion among the panelists. What do we mean with teaching intersectionality? Is it a theory? A research method? Some kind of ontological positioning? Or maybe all three at the same time? And how does it differ from teaching intersectionally, i.e. teaching in an intersectional way? Are these two faces of the same coin, or do they need to be seen apart? And if so, where and how are the relationships between the two? 

Before the opening panel, I had tried to make a clear distinction for myself between teaching about intersectionality and teaching in an intersectional way. To me, teaching intersectionality entails teaching students intersectional theory or intersectional research methods. It means to introduce students to the contents of intersectionality, and discuss with them its histories, contemporaneities and possible futures for research. Teaching intersectionally, on the other hand, is a rather methodological approach in having to deal with a diverse classroom in which everybody (teachers and students) brings along their own intersectional experiences. Teaching intersectionally, then, means adjusting your teaching – regardless of the content – to the imaginaries and life worlds of the students, so that what is being taught becomes recognizable and meaningful to them.

However, as the panel and the discussions continued, the question arose if one can teach intersectionality without teaching intersectionally, and vice versa. Can we teach about intersectional theory, without taking into account the intersectional lives and lived realities of ourselves and those who are engaging in our classes? And what theoretical knowledge on intersectionality do we need to incorporate in our efforts to teach intersectionally?

During the panel, we first discussed what it meant to teach intersectionality. For which courses would intersectional theory be relevant, or would it be relevant in any course, regardless its disciplinary content? Does teaching intersectionality mean that you always have to address the ‘Big Four’ (race/ethnicity, class, gender, and sexuality), or might one axis of difference be more relevant than another, and could other axes of difference matter even more?

These questions sum up the confusion that is visible in many discussions on how to teach intersectionality. This confusion is not necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, it shows how intersectional theory is continuously evaluated for its appropriateness in specific, local research and teaching contexts. There is no – and should not be a – single, universal application of intersectionality. When it comes to teaching intersectionality and teaching intersectionally, there seems to be one common goal that can be universalized: addressing and dealing with power dynamics that shape and are shaped by social hierarchies in and outside the classrooms in which we are teaching. In this way, integrating intersectional theory becomes relevant in teaching, regardless the disciplinary focus – as its aim is to expose how power dynamics work and operate and shape the everyday lives of human beings. Teaching intersectionality and teaching intersectionally, then, might be indeed two different cups of tea. Not because the tea is different, but because it is served in different cups.

Who is (ought to be) teaching intersectionality?

Thinking through intersectionality goes further than scrutinizing differences between teaching intersectionality and teaching intersectionally. Questions on with whom and how to teach intersectionality are also relevant. As the workshop day went by, I was surprised that I was the only person that identified themselves as somehow male. Why was it that only femxle*[1] academics were interested in a workshop on teaching intersectional(ity)? Did I fail to motivate other male teachers at our university to participate?

In line with this observation, the question can also be raised why we often automatically only look at femxle* scholars – and in particular, those with a migration background or femxle scholars of color – when something concerns intersectionality? On the other hand, one can also raise the question if it is really that bad if the straight, white male scholar remains out of the picture when it comes to teaching intersectionality.Because, what valuable perspectives can they add that do not turn conversations about intersectionality into straight-white-mansplaining? 

The questions above illustrate a particular dilemma in teaching intersectionality. On the one hand, teaching intersectionality needs to be organized around the marginal(ized) voices of those who are experiencing the adverse effects of power dynamics within and outside the university – however, without essentializing and fixating the marginality of these voices. On the other hand, teaching intersectionality should not be a burden that solely rests on the shoulders of these marginalized groups within the university. Instead, there is an important role – or even responsibility – for privileged groups of people in the university that can use their privileged positions in teaching intersectionality. Therefore, I end this blog with a call upon my fellow white male teachers to take their responsibilities in facilitating a socially just and inclusive university. Hopefully I will see you next time.    

[1] Here, I use the term “femxle*” as an alternative term for the English language word female, to explicitly move beyond using the masculine as the default and to include transgender women, women of color and femme/feminine-identifying genderqueer and non-binary folks.

Kay Mars is project coordinator and junior researcher at the Refugee Academy (Institute for Societal Resilience) at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, engaging with themes around intersectionality, diversity, and inclusion.

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