Much has been made in the media and in popular culture regarding the term “intersectionality,” but few people seem to know what the word actually means. Some, such as Ben Shapiro, claim that intersectionality is “a form of identity politics in which the value of your opinion depends on how many victim groups you belong to. At the bottom of the totem pole is the person everybody loves to hate: the straight, white male” (Airey, 2018). This definition, however, is a perversion of the true meaning of intersectionality and its importance in social justice work and understanding the role that systems play in the outcomes for our students.
The concept of intersectionality was first introduced into the lexicon by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, a law professor at both UCLA and the Columbia School of Law.  After reviewing several court cases, Crenshaw concluded and highlighted that when discrimination is viewed through only one lens of identity, people often fail to see the cumulative effect of systems of oppression. For example, in the case DeGraffenreid v. General Motors, five black women brought action against their former employer GM, claiming that the seniority system of “last hired--first fired” discriminated against them on the basis of both sex and race, not just on each aspect individually. In their complaint, the women pointed out that GM had almost no female employees on its assembly line prior to 1970 and only one black female employee in the entire plant. Only three white women were employed in one part of the assembly line, cushion-making. Beginning in 1970, GM began hiring larger numbers of women, with a limited number of those being black women. When layoffs were prescribed at the GM plant in 1974, all five of the plaintiffs were laid off. They argued that they were discriminated against based on both their sex and their race. The women were unsuccessful in their suit, with the court arguing that both men and women were subject to the same lay-off policy. The court essentially made the same ruling as it applied to racial discrimination. As Crenshaw pointed out, the discrimination that these women faced was intersectional: they were not discriminated against solely because they were black nor solely because they were women but rather because the hiring and thus firing procedures had been discriminatory because they were both black and women, meaning that because black women were always the last hired, they were subjected to a unique and intersectional form of discrimination.
In the California Community Colleges system, these intersectional identities can help to explain data showing greater performance for majority groups over minoritized groups of students and faculty. In developing class attendance policies, for example, many districts provide guidelines around attendance that can result in a student being dropped after just a few absences, such as three in one semester. According to a 2019 Los Angeles Times article, one in four community college students is a parent (Agrawal, 2019). As many faculty can relate, being a parent is an aspect of identity that affects multiple facets of people’s lives. Further, children, particularly young children, have a propensity to get sick. In thinking about the care of sick children, one must also consider who traditionally is tasked with the care of children. According to a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, four in ten working mothers—39%—must take time off and stay home when their children are sick, which is over ten times the share of men at only 3% (Ranji & Salganicoff, 2014). Students who are single parents often have no other alternative but to stay home and take care of a child. Thus, strict adherence to such attendance policies penalizes parents more than non-parents but also penalizes mothers more than fathers. To add further dimension and highlight the very real role of cumulative oppression, one should also consider also the role of race and economic status in the aforementioned scenario. A report from the National Women’s Law Center points out that mothers in the low-wage workforce are disproportionately women of color and immigrant women (Vogtman & Schulman, 2016). Through this lens we must begin to question how the system is set up, who it is structured to help, and who it is structured to hold back.
For Emilie Mitchell, co-author of this article and Pride Center Coordinator for American River College, equity work has been a process informed by her own experiences and by her students’ stories. She began to consider the role of systemic oppression when she found herself an unexpected single parent of two young children entering full-time employment after eight years. When she was first employed within the California Community Colleges system, like all other faculty, she had to work toward tenure. At this same time, she was recently divorced, the primary caregiver to two young children, and without economic resources. Her son was in kindergarten and was sick frequently during her first semester of full-time teaching. One day she received a call that her son was sick and she had to pick him up from school. His childcare provider was not available, and she was out of options. She had no choice but to bring her child to her afternoon class, where he spent the time propped on a chair quietly weeping. She had been very worried that if she cancelled class, she would be viewed poorly by the administration, worried that she would somehow not make tenure and that ultimately she would be unable to support herself and her children.
Yet even in this situation, Mitchell had and still enjoys great privileges—she is white, has an advanced degree, and now with tenure has a career that provides not only financial stability but personal fulfillment. Community college students are rarely as privileged. Mitchell recently had a student who had already missed two classes consecutively early in the semester. She spoke to the student about her attendance and explained the drop policy, at which point the student began to sob almost uncontrollably: she had recently lost her housing, was living in a car with her daughter, and was trying to maneuver her way through the bureaucratic social welfare system. She also would lose her financial aid if she was dropped from the class, which was the only money she currently had.
Many college policies such as attendance are well-intentioned but fail to see students as whole people. This failure to consider the multiple identities that individuals hold inevitably perpetuates oppression instead of fostering liberation.
Students are talented, amazing individuals who have varied lived experiences, and they deserve faculty’s empathy and open-mindedness, as do faculty colleagues. Faculty often fail to recognize how they themselves, as illustrated by Mitchell’s story, may be affected by intersectional oppression. Michelle Bean, the other co-author of this article and a Student Equity Committee member at Rio Hondo College, has also had privilege as well as struggles, especially as a woman of color in a system not set up to support historically marginalized groups.
Many parts of Bean’s identity intersect, and she often feels not seen, marginalized because she is a woman, because she is brown, because she shows emotion in a setting often devoid of emotion, because she is spiritual, and because she speaks with the passion of a Latina. She has been the target of anger from those seeking to compare her lived experience with their own or even that of their friends of color. Unfortunately, the demonization of intersectionality is their standard response. In a meeting, Bean once said, “Let’s dismantle the existing structures. Tear them down to rebuild them,” which seemed to trigger some people in the room. Emotions run deep when people discuss race and the structural systems that create barriers for historically underrepresented groups. The most painful aspect is that the attempt to compare stories and to vilify those people who bravely share theirs not only falls short of eliminating barriers, but it often perpetuates them. Intersectionality is not a new term, nor are efforts toward inclusion, equity, and diversity. The California Community Colleges system has, since 1960, worked toward embedding equity into master planning, but the system today is still reflecting the biases perpetuated in culture and society. In the recently adopted paper Equity Driven Systems, the ASCCC asserts that
The role of academic senates is to provide advice and recommendations regarding academic and professional matters that best serve the needs of students and communities through the expertise of the educational professionals of the colleges. Every system of bureaucracy, including the California Community Colleges, reflects the biases present upon that system’s creation. The role of the local academic senate, in partnership with other constituent groups of a college, is to identify and deeply examine those biases and correct them through structural change, professional development, and re-imagining how colleges serve the students and communities of today most effectively (Academic Senate for California Community Colleges, p.4).
Perhaps the discussion of critical race theory and intersectionality needs to be had in more spaces. Educators need to examine and analyze power imbalances and have courageous conversations that do not ignore race, gender, class, and the myriad of facets of identity that affect people’s lived experiences. They need to bravely discuss the dangers of equality as opposed to equity. No one would wish to perpetuate a system that does not serve students and that dismisses the needs of faculty of color. Hierarchies and comparisons are not healthy either to individuals or to the system. The time has come to do better.
Academic Senate for California Community Colleges. (2019, November). Equity-Driven Systems: Student Equity and Achievement in the California Community Colleges. Retrieved from Academic Senate for California Community Colleges website: https://asccc.org/sites/default/files/Equity%20Driven%20Systems%20Paper…
Agrawal, N. (2019, December 27). For students with kids, college can be a lonely struggle. One program aims to help. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2019-12-27/community-college-p…
Airey, J. (2018, June 19). Ben Shapiro: What is intersectionality? The Daily Wire. Retrieved from https://www.dailywire.com/news/ben-shapiro-what-intersectionality-jacob….
Ranji, U., & Salganicoff, A. (2014, October 20). Data note: Balancing on shaky ground: Women, work and family health. Kaiser Family Foundation. Retrieved from https://www.kff.org/womens-health-policy/issue-brief/data-note-balancin….
Vogtman, J., & Schulman, K. (2016). Set up to fail: When low-wage work jeopardizes parents’ and children’s success. National Women’s Law Center. Retrieved from National Women’s Law Center website: https://nwlc-ciw49tixgw5lbab.stackpathdns.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/0…
1 Crenshaw’s work can be found at https://www.ted.com/talks/kimberle_crenshaw_the_urgency_of_intersection… and https://chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1052&co…