Intersectionality – what exactly is it, and why does it matter in the classroom? For many, intersectionality might appear to be just another one of those sanctimonious buzzwords. While the term’s everyday usage, especially over the internet, has spread like wildfire over the past few years, it is essential for teachers and students to understand intersectionality. Intersectionality is more than just a trending word at the center of a tweet; it is an idea and practice that has a far-reaching impact on the daily operations of our world and our students’ worlds.
Here are some tips on how to not only to explain intersectionality to students so that they can effectively apply it to their study of character, but also to help apply that understanding to the day-to-day activities of your classroom.
1. Start with a broad definition of the term, allowing yourself and students to explore analogies.
Oxford dictionary defines intersectionality as “the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.” If you are introducing your students to intersectionality, begin with only the first six words of this definition – at this point, there is no need for excess verbiage. Ask students how they think this concept connects to their lives and what they see around them. Allow them to postulate and be creative – this will help them later in fully understanding and empathizing with fictional characters and all their intersectional identities.
One way that you can incorporate this into the classroom is to have your students create a mind map of the word, adding in thoughts, ideas, and doodles that help them make sense of intersectionality.
Another way to incorporate this into the classroom is to discuss characters from stories you’ve already read. Who are those characters? What social categories do they fit into? How are those categories connected and different at the same time?
2. Provide real-world examples.
Following an initially somewhat vague approach, students may still be unsure of how intersectionality applies to the real world. At this juncture, consider introducing them to the idea of intersectional feminism – the movement which aims to empower all women across the globe, without exclusion based on race, religion, etc. Use this real-world concept to segue into how intersectionality can be seen and analyzed in any literary text – of course, for not just female characters but also any character with more than one dimension.
3. Leave plenty of room for questions and idea-sharing.
Since intersectionality involves the simultaneous study of many different identities, there is bound to be uncertainty and perspective-challenging questions within your class. Remain open to any questions that arise, and remind students that all perspectives, so long as they aren’t discriminatory, are welcome. When students feel comfortable sharing their full selves, they will likely be more confident and prepared to tackle intersectionality within their reading.
At this point in the classroom, students may want to journal their thoughts. In fact, journaling might be a better alternative than a classroom discussion right away because it will provide students with some time to sit with their thoughts and questions.
4. Always be ready for drawbacks – they’re natural.
Young students are certainly being asked to understand a lot that might seem over their heads when it comes to intersectionality. Recognize that many students have perhaps only really associated themself with one identity over the years and might not be able to grasp the idea of intersecting identities without careful guidance. This is where, again, open dialogue and perspective-exchange with classmates come in handy. But, at the end of the day, learn to be patient with students and whatever hesitance they might have. After all, learning to analyze individuals on a variety of fronts, not just the main one they present us with, is no easy task, for students and teachers alike.
Ultimately, intersectionality is about the crossroads of identity – how everyone maintains a number of identities relating to different aspects of their life, and how each of these identities is equally important. Grasping this concept will help students understand characters in literature as multi-dimensional beings available for boundless study. As an added benefit, students will also become more open, empathizing, and conscious people in the process.