The (Mis)use of Intersectionality in Student Affairs: A Call to Practitioners & Researchers
Yesterday was a nourishing, provocative, and generative day at the 2nd National Symposium on LGBTQ Research in Higher Education. The ability to connect with those who want to think, imagine, and disrupt queer and trans (im)possibilities in higher education was just what I needed. I walked away with more questions than answers – something I think to be a strong indicator of a successful academic convening. However, there is one thing I wish to address that happened yesterday at the Symposium and other academic spaces I have been a part of, something that continues to happen in journals and academic writing, and something that has taken root in the student affairs/higher education canon in our everyday practice: the (mis)use of intersectionality, as introduced by Kimberlé Crenshaw (1989, 1993).
If you have not read Crenshaw’s (1993) “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color” but use the term “intersectionality” often, please go read it.
Before I go further, let me be clear: I am not the first person to think or write about this. This has been addressed in higher education news articles (e.g., The Chronicle of Higher Education), in book chapters (e.g., Pitcher, Secrist, & Camacho, 2016) and books (Mitchell, Simmons, & Greyerbiehl, 2014), and by Crenshaw herself. What I seek to do in this post is to add to that conversation in discussing intersectionality briefly and contrast it from the concepts it is often confused with, such as “multiple identities” and “intersections of identities.”
WHAT INTERSECTIONALITY IS
Intersectionality, as articulated by Crenshaw (1993) is a way of naming the “intersecting patterns of racism and sexism, and how these experiences tend not to be represented within the discourses of either feminism or antiracism” (p. 1243-1244). For Crenshaw, understanding Black women’s experiences from an analysis of racism exclusively ignores the ways in which sexism affects their experiences and vice-versa. In her article, Crenshaw specifically was naming how these intersecting patterns limit meaningful analysis of the ways in which Black women are marginalized by both sexism and racism. In other words, intersectionality is a method to understand the ways different sociocultural organizing principles (e.g., racism, sexism, heterosexism) enact a particular form of compounded marginalization that separate analyses of each do not account for. Crenshaw’s understanding of intersectionality also continues to evolve and yet simultaneously remain dedicated to its core conception, as seen in her reflection in The Washington Post.
Beyond reading Crenshaw’s (1993) article, you can also check out her TED Talk (2016) and her Women of the World festival keynote (2016). Folks should also take up the references I list at the end as other sources for learning more about what intersectionality is.
WHAT INTERSECTIONALITY IS NOT
First, intersectionality is not a math equation. It is not a rubric. It is not an additive concept. What do I mean by this? In trainings I have facilitated and/or been a part of, I have seen students and student affairs educators talk about the Big 8 Social Identities – race, sex, gender, social class, sexuality, ability, religion/spirituality, and age – and assign the ways those identities give power in a +1 or -1 format. For instance, someone who is White (+1), is middle-aged (+1), Christian (+1), a cisgender (+1) man (+1), with generalized anxiety (-1), who is queer (-1), and poor (-1) has a Privilege Score of +5. Talking about privilege, power, and oppression becomes a plus or minus concept. We all begin to size one another up and discuss who has “uber” privilege points and who does not. And yet, this is not how oppression, let alone intersectionality, works. Black women don’t experience -2 points because of race and gender. There is a compounding nature to the ways these interconnected experiences produce a unique effect on Black women’s experiences that racism or sexism alone cannot explain because of their unitary conceptualization (see Bowleg, 2008).
Second, intersectionality is not the same thing as naming and recognizing different, multiple social identities. We all have multiple social identities. As Jones and Abes (2013) pointed out, “this claim becomes reductionist if the analysis does not include connecting individuals to groups; groups to society; and individuals, groups, and society – all in connection to structures of power” (p. 141). Oftentimes, intersectionality is conflated with multiple identities because of intersectionality’s attention to the ways in which, for example, Black women are multiply marginalized by compounding oppression. Crenshaw (1993) even notes that intersectionality is not offered “as some new, totalizing theory of identity. Nor do I mean to suggest that violence against women of color can be explained only through the specific frameworks of race and gender…My focus on the intersections of race and gender only highlights the need to account for multiple grounds of identity when considering how the social world is constructed” (p. 1244-1245). Crenshaw, like others, never intended intersectionality to be a theory of identity. Rather, intersectionality is a way of conceptualizing how systems overlap to shape the experiences of those with multiple marginalized social identities in ways that singular analysis fails to explain.
Third, often people use the term “intersectionality” interchangeably with “intersections of identity.” I often hear people say, “we need to pay attention to the intersectionality of identities.” This utterance is reflective of the ways intersectionality’s original definition and meaning has been co-opted and shifted. In this understanding, intersectionality is reduced to meaning “let’s look at the whole of a person’s identities and how they come together.” This is an important thing to do in our work as educators; I’m not arguing it’s not. What I am asserting is that this is not intersectionality; it was never intended for analysis of individuals independent of the contexts in which they exist that are laden with mechanisms driven by power that determine one’s livelihood and life chances. We can pay attention to particular intersections of identity, such as race, gender, and sexuality when centering queer people of color.
If we don’t get intersectionality right in our field, we will reify a narrative that individuals must adapt to oppressive systems rather than having an informed approach to addressing the ways these systems affect students’ experiences within and outside of the container of higher education. When we approach intersectionality in the ways we continue to do in our scholarship and practice that name it as a way to talk about multiple identities instead of a system-level interrogation, we reify that racism and sexism and cissexism are all distinct with no connections between them and also privilege discussions of those with only one minoritized and marginalized identity; those who are marginalized from multiple social positions do not see themselves in our conversations and understandings. This also allows those who hold both minoritized and privileged identities to see themselves as being able to avoid discussing their privilege/immunity.
Many who have been educated in higher education and student affairs graduate preparation programs will point to the brilliant work of the Model of Multiple Dimensions of Identity (Jones & McEwen, 2000) and the Reconceptualized Model of Multiple Dimensions of Identity (Abes, Jones, & McEwen, 2007) as examples of where they learned what intersectionality is. And yet, those articles talk more about the model(s) being ways to understand the ways identities intersect; they are not models of intersectionality. Indeed, the authors of those models even name that they were not exactly applying the tenets of intersectionality until later (Jones & Abes, 2013). The Intersectional Model of Multiple Dimensions of Identity is presented later and grounded in intersectionality theory, with a more explicit nature of macro analysis (Jones & Abes, 2013). These models challenge us to do our work intersectionally, to do our work in ways that we tease out and interrogate the ways interlocking systems of oppression affect individuals of different social positions differently depending on the ways they’ve been rendered by said systems. These models help us begin to think about how we honor the full complexity of each other and our students and remind us that we must look to the ways systems which shape these identities intersect with one another.
These models when combined with the work of Crenshaw (1993) and others like Audre Lorde, Dean Spade, and Gloria E. Anzaldúa remind us top-down and checklist forms of social justice work where we try to tackle one –ism at a time in our education programs or reform efforts always leave people behind. Let’s get intersectionality right and start envisioning a higher education (and a broader society) where we continue to name and dismantle these intersecting systems that affect our (students’) lives.
 Whether we view those identities as something natural and inherent (second wave student development theory) or as something that is the product of sociohistorical structures that seek to organize who has power and who does not (third wave student development theory) is something beyond this post. I’d encourage you to read “Evolution of Student Development Theory” (Jones & Stewart, 2016) for a broader discussion of these distinctions.
Abes, E. S., Jones, S. R., & McEwen, M. K. (2007). Reconceptualizing the model of multiple dimensions of identity: The role of meaning-making capacity in the construction of multiple identities. Journal of College Student Development, 48(1), 1-22.
Bowleg, L. (2008). When Black + lesbian + woman ≠ Black lesbian woman: The methodological challenges of qualitative and quantitative intersectionality research. Sex Roles, 59(5-6), 312-325.
Cabrera, N. L. (2017). White immunity: Working through some of the pedagogical pitfalls of “privilege”. Journal Committed to Social Change on Race and Ethnicity, 3(1), 78-90.
Crenshaw, K. (1989). Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex: A Black feminist critique of antidiscrimination doctrine, feminist theory, and antiracist politics. University of Chicago Legal Forum, 140, 139-167.
Crenshaw, K. (1993). Mapping the margins: Intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color. Stanford Law Review, 43, 1241-1299.
Jones, S. R., & Abes, E. S. (2013). Identity development of college students: Advancing frameworks for multiple dimensions of identity. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Jones, S. R., & McEwen, M. K. (2000). A conceptual model of multiple dimensions of identity. Journal of College Student Development, 41(4), 405-414.
Jones, S. R., & Stewart, D-L. (2016). Evolution of student development theory. In E. S. Abes (Ed.), New Directions for Student Services: No. 154. Critical perspectives on student development theory (pp. 17-28). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Mitchell, D., Simmons, C. Y., & Greyerbiehl, L. A. (Eds.) (2014). Intersectionality & higher education: Theory, research, & praxis. New York, NY: Peter Lang.
Pitcher, E. N., Secrist, S. M., & Camacho, T. P. (2016). (Re)fractioning singularity. In N. M. Rodriguez, W. J. Martino, J. C. Ingrey, & E. Brockenbrough (Eds.), Critical concepts in queer studies and education: An international guide for the twenty-first century (pp. 329-339). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.