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Volume 52 Number 3 Summer 2019
Edited by Jennifer Wallin-Ruschman, College of Idaho and Lauren F. Lichty, University of Washington, Bothell
Written by Desdamona Rios, University of Houston-Clear Lake
Community psychologists understand that people live in culturally specific systems of power and hierarchy, with differential access to resources (e.g. employment, education, law, healthcare) and representation (e.g. media, political movements), which then has implications for psychological processes and outcomes. In my 13 years of teaching, I have taught in different regions of the United States and at different types of institutions including a large public research institution, a small private liberal arts college, and a public comprehensive university. Two were primarily white institutions with more affluent student bodies, while my current institution is considered Hispanic serving with a largely first generation, working-class student population. I have found most students are concerned about social issues, and their understanding of the issues are based on their specific social locations. In most cases, some form of privilege shielded them from social and structural barriers experienced by less privileged groups of people. Although the American Psychological Association has identified the need “to respond to the issues and importance of diversity” (Sliwa, 2016, p. 11), mainstream psychology curriculum does not yet reflect the diversity of the U.S. population, nor unearned privileges held by some groups and oppressive circumstances experienced by others.
Importantly, the APA (2013) has acknowledged the need for the construct of “diversity” to go beyond single identity issues (e.g. racism, sexism, ableism), and explains that teaching “diversity also comprises intersections among these social identities and the social power differences that are associated with diverse identities and multiple contexts” (p. 12). Notably, goal three of APA’s guidelines for the undergraduate psychology major reflects core values of community psychology by featuring social justice language such as privilege, social change, benefiting community, global concerns, application of psychological principles to public policy, and the importance of serving others.
Regardless of the area of psychology, these should be goals for all psychology students, as well as for teachers and researchers, and if we are going to prepare our students to be of service and responsive to “multicultural and global concerns” (p.27) we’ll need to expand our toolbox. Intersectionality honors diverse experiences of various groups as both an analytic tool and a theoretical frame for psychology courses. Additionally, it is critical for community psychologists to practice intersectional cultural humility (Ortega & Faller, 2011), or the acceptance of never fully “knowing” a culture different from one’s own. Instead, community psychologists can commit to life-long learning rather than focusing on an outcome (e.g. cultural competence). Intersectional cultural humility provides space for teachers, researchers, students, and clients to learn, grow, and attend to the individual while acknowledging their experiences in the context of relationships and social institutions.
The term “intersectionality” was coined by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1991, although women of color, transgender women, women with disabilities, and lesbian and bisexual women were writing about intersectionality well before the 1990s and outside the United States (Kurtis & Adams, 2017). The term itself captures the need to understand a person in context, meaning we cannot parse apart a person’s identities (race, gender, sexual orientation) to simplify our analysis of their experiences within systems of privilege and oppression (e.g. legal, educational, and healthcare). A central tent of intersectionality is a commitment to social justice through identifying intersections where people are rendered invisible, such as the reproductive choice movement which focuses on abortion while largely ignoring reproductive justice denied to poor women, women of color, women with disabilities, lesbians, bisexual women, and transgender women. Therefore, intersectionality is not about who people are (race, gender, sexuality); it is about how things work (Cho, Crenshaw, & McCall, 2013). Social/personality psychologist Elizabeth Cole (2009) offers three strategies for psychologists to consider when researching people, although they are also useful for thinking about how we frame our psychology courses: 1) Who is included within this category? 2) what role does inequality play? and 3) where are the similarities? Cole’s questions require attending to diversity within social categories (e.g. race within gender), hierarchies of privilege and power, and potential for coalitions and collaboration. On paper, these recommendations offer the potential to transform how we research and teach; however, creative approaches are needed to implement them into practice.
Implicit in Cole’s recommendations are core values held by community psychologists such as social justice for all individuals, empowering marginalized individuals and communities, embracing and promoting diversity, and understanding human behavior in context, all of which require the examination of social systems that perpetuate unearned privilege and power through oppressive practices. Notably, teaching about privilege and oppression is difficult because we cannot necessarily “see” how systems might privilege us (e.g. media, education, law, culture); likewise, it is difficult to “see” how these same systems oppress others, which may manifest in our teaching practices. Therefore, as community psychologists we must be mindful of how our (partially informed) worldviews inform our teaching and research. Through the use of intersectionality in any psychology classroom, we can practice intersectional cultural humility while teaching and learning with/from our students.
Toward these goals, I developed the intersectionality project for a master’s level course titled “The Psychology of Gender, Race and Sexuality” (GRS) which focuses on complex intersections of gender, race, sexuality, class, and as noted in the syllabus, “other dimensions of difference within systems of oppression and privilege” (for detailed instructions see Rios, Bowling and Harris, 2017). I have used variations of the intersectionality project in undergraduate courses, and it is amenable across types of psychology courses at both the undergraduate and graduate level. Key lessons include understanding that 1) people have multiple social identities, some of which contain more/less access to power/privilege; 2) people’s lived experiences change at these intersections; 3) privilege maintains systems of inequality; 4) there will be key intersections where students feel uncomfortable (e.g. White men feeling defensive of their privilege; women of color denying privileged statuses); and 5) we can use our privilege to empower ourselves and others. The course is service-learning oriented with a real-life activism component.
As a large group, the class selects one social issue to address, such as sexual violence. In smaller groups of 3-4, students choose groups of people to research (e.g., white women, undocumented Latinas, men). Students sometimes choose “singular identity” groups (e.g. men), but through their research they learn that at certain intersections the social issue is experienced differently (e.g. white heterosexual men vs. white gay men). Next, in the same small groups, students choose a type of intervention which may take the form of coordinating with a community organization, or the creation of products such as brochures for an organization or a social media outlet.
The final assignment for the course is small group presentations where students present an overview of their “intersection” (e.g., African American women), their activism, and connections made between their activism and course material. Groups present their work to the larger class to illuminate differences and similarities of experiences at a particular intersection (e.g., White women compared to African American women), key lessons they learned during the process, and their previously held assumptions about the equality of laws, social/cultural practices, institutions, or groups of people. For example, while researching the effects of the #MeToo movement, students discovered that affluent, attractive, white women were more likely to get media coverage and justice compared to all other groups of women. Additionally, sexual violence against men is largely unacknowledged, with only the most privileged men taken seriously (e.g. Terry Crews). Finally, perpetrators of violence face different consequences depending on how much power and privilege they hold at the intersection of race and gender (e.g. Donald Trump versus Bill Cosby). In sum, students learn through their use of intersectionality as an analytic tool how social issues and institutions are experienced differently depending on a person’s social identities, and the role of power and privilege in those outcomes.
Although the project is challenging, students are quite moved by their expanded understanding of psychological theory, intersectionality, and how these apply to inequality. Student course evaluations often include comments about how their beliefs about social institutions were challenged (e.g. marriage, education, legal system), feeling empowered to take action because of skills/tools/knowledge gained, coming to terms with privileged statuses and using that privilege for the greater good, and generally acknowledgement that they grew not only as students but as people. Overall, students reflect on their own privilege, gain a more complex understanding of social institutions, understand their standpoint is partial and incomplete, and gain empathy for groups they perceive to be different from themselves. Ideally, these are values we hope to embody as community psychologists, and what we hope to encourage in our students. I am continuously moved by the capacity of my students for working toward a more just world for all people, and I am grateful to them for their reminders to practice intersectional cultural humility in the classroom and community.
American Psychological Association. (2013). APA guidelines for the undergraduate psychology major: Version 2.0. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/ed/precollege/undergrad/index.aspx
Case, K. (2017). Intersectional Pedagogy: Complicating Identity and Social Justice. New York, NY. Routledge.
Cho, S., Crenshaw, K.W., & McCall, L. (2013). Toward a field of intersectionality studies: Theory, Applications, and Praxis. Signs, 38(4), 785-810. https://doi.org/10.1086/669608
Cole, E. R. (2009). Intersectionality and research in psychology. American Psychologist, 64(3), 170-180. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0014564
Crenshaw, K. Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color. Stanford Law Review, 43(6), 1241-1299. doi: 10.2307/1229039
Kurtiş, T., & Adams, G. (2017). Decolonial intersectionality: Implications for theory, research, and pedagogy. In K. Case (Ed.), Intersectionality pedagogy: Complicating identity and social justice (pp. 46-59). New York: Routledge.
Moradi, B. & Granzka, P.R. (2017). Using intersectionality responsibly: Toward critical epistemology, structural analysis, and social justice activism. Journal of Counseling Psychology 64(5), 500-513. doi: 10.1037/cou0000203
Ortega, R.M. & Faller, K.C. (2011). Training child welfare workers from an intersectional cultural humility perspective: A paradigm shift. Child Welfare, 90(5), 27-49. doi:
Rios, D., Bowling, M., & Harris, J. (2016). Decentering student “uniqueness” in lessons about intersectionality. In K. Case (Ed.), Intersectional pedagogy: Complicating identity and social justice, (pp. 194-213). New York, NY. Routledge.
Sliwa, J. (2016). APA brief affirms benefits of racial and ethnic diversity on campus: Psychological research demonstrates value of diversity in higher education. Monitor on Psychology, 47(1), 11.