Intersectionality (Crenshaw, 1989) is a concept we can use to teach students that people do not identify with one monolithic identity throughout their lives. Rather, we often represent a multitude of intersecting identities, and the various ways in which we view ourselves/are viewed by others may ebb and flow.
Intersectionality prompts us to consider how society and systems privilege some identities over others, while remaining mindful of how these different identities that we identify with interact – even when society may paint us with one-dimensional brushes. For example, as we consider the protests in honor of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, we might think about protests as a collective actionable step in defense of justice, diversity, and inclusion, and objection to longstanding social, political, and economic inequality.
To offer a personal example on intersectionality, despite the one-dimensional brushes that I have been and may continue to be painted with in the eyes of others, I embody many different identities. For instance, I identify as a woman, I’m white, I’m Greek, I’m Jewish, English is my first language, I’m fastidiously organized, but I’m the worst cook you’ll ever meet (see Simpsons clip – not exaggerating). I’m old in the eyes of the elementary students I work with, but I’m young in the eyes of my parents. I’m a giant in the eyes of my cat and two dogs, but I’m short in the eyes of my spouse. I’m nerdy in the eyes of my college friends, but I’m cool in the eyes of my colleagues (unlikely, but for the sake of the metaphor…). These various identities, among many others, may privilege me in some spaces, but may limit or stifle me in others. When I think about my positionality in relation to the research I’m conducting, I must reflect on my own identity, stance, and positioning in relation to the social, political, and economic context of the study. I must consider the positionality of the community, the organization, and the participant group with whom I am researching. I must be thoughtful, reflexive, and empathetic in my pursuit of tracing a path toward equity.
Another example to consider: Emergent bilinguals whose first language is not English might have a certain shared experience with prejudice in a country where English is the most widely-spoken language. However, emergent bilinguals who also identify as [identity], [identity], and/or [identity] might have a very different experience. Please pause, mentally fill in those brackets, and reflect.
So, when we discuss qualitative research and its grounding in justice, equity, diversity, inclusion, oppression, reform, and reconciliation, and all the laws, systems, and cultural norms that enact those things, we must consider the whole system and the whole person.
I remember using the concept of intersectionality when I was still teaching high school students and first-year undergraduates. It is important to note that by the time I introduced this exercise, we had cultivated a trusting and respectful learning environment, and I reminded students that they could participate to whatever extent they felt comfortable.
Before introducing intersectionality, I asked students to grab a marker and write as many labels, identities, stereotypes, etc. as they could think of inside boxes on our board. As the instructor, I also participated in the activity. As you might imagine, the students generated tons of labels and, naturally, introduced me to new youthful slang. Once they finished writing, I asked students to place a tally inside every “boxed label” that they either personally identified with and/or had been stereotyped by at some point in their lives. After asking them to reflect on all the boxes where they and their peers placed tallies, I asked them to consider how the concept of intersectionality influenced their personal, professional, social, academic, etc. identities throughout their lives. This powerful exercise created a space for students to speak their truth and provided a window for peers and me to understand the lived experiences that influenced their present-day intersectional identities and self-perceptions.
Now, as a qualitative methods professor, exercises related to unpacking intersectionality and positionality statements help me (and other readers) understand:
- Who is the researcher in relation to the research?
- What experiences led the researcher to the research?
- Why is the researcher well-positioned to carry out the investigation?
Understanding the researcher’s connections to and motivations for their study speaks to the heart and soul of qualitative research. That is, to understand the social world as others experience it.
Miriam Dobson’s Infographic on Intersectionality