In my years teaching intersectionality, social justice, and diversity in universities, I’ve seen the challenges of introducing such complex and messy subjects to my students. I’ve fallen into countless pitfalls, seeing group discussions trigger marginalized students and descend into tears.
Over time, I experimented with different ways to introduce intersectional feminism constructively and sensitively in the classroom. In this post, I want to share with you a foundational activity that has been very effective when introducing students to intersectionality for the first time.
Intersectional feminism is an intellectual and political movement that identifies and challenges the ways interlocking systems of gender, sexual, racial, colonial, class, and dis/ability oppression impact social life.
If you’d like to learn more about intersectional feminism, please take a look at my detailed explainer for this theory and movement.
Critical to educating for social justice is to set expectations for your students that you will be having difficult discussions and to establish a principled space with them from the outset of the school term. Before I share my intersectionality activity, I’ll cover these prerequisite conditions that will help prepare your students for a lesson on intersectional feminism.
At the end of the post, you’ll have the option to sign up for my newsletter and receive a copy of my lecture slides with all the principles, activity templates, and extra disclaimers to adapt and use in your classes.
Principled Space, Not Safe Space
The very first week of every school term is where I establish the rules of engagement and set firm expectations with my students about my subject.
I always record the content as a video and upload it to our learning content system where students can replay and review as many times as they need.
Among the many policies and procedures I outline, I tell students that we have a collective responsibility to establish a principled space in our classroom. This is a “ground-clearing practice that sets a leveled foundation upon which to build our work and relations” in the classroom.
The principled space was originally developed by artist and activist, Hanalei Ramos. We’ve applied this practice in our collective, Building the Anti-Racist Classroom (BARC), at the start of every workshop. The idea behind the principled space recognizes that it’s not ever truly possible to guarantee a ‘safe space’ and thus in its place, we can at least commit to adhering to a set of agreed principles.
In my classrooms, I establish the principles that we’ll remain aware of our privileges, treat others’ experiences with respect, and be kind to others and ourselves. I explicitly state that we will not allow interests that are violent, oppressive, or deny the integrity of others.
Please visit our BARC resource for a more detailed list of principles.
In my first lecture, I also set the expectation to students that they should be prepared to learn, be challenged, and grow. That means they should be ready to encounter new ideas and have difficult discussions about them.
The classroom, with all its limitations, remains a location of possibility. In that field of possibility we have the opportunity to labor for freedom, to demand of ourselves and our comrades, an openness of mind and heart that allows us to face reality even as we collectively imagine ways to move beyond boundaries, to transgress. This is education as the practice of freedom.bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress
I share with them my teaching philosophy and the underlying ethos of the subject through this quote by bell hooks. I talk to students about my passion for critical pedagogy and why I think learning ideas like intersectional feminism matters to help them make a positive impact on the world.
When we approach the lecture on intersectionality theory, I include a disclaimer at the start of the lecture. I warn students that the lecture will grapple with sensitive issues around gender, sexuality, race, colonialism, class, and dis/ability.
I remind them that the purpose of the lecture is to develop a critical consciousness about social issues. Especially for undergraduate college students who may not be used to having these kinds of political discussions at home, I acknowledge that the lecture could be very uncomfortable.
I invite them to honor any feelings of anxiety, discomfort, guilt, and anger that may surface, and embrace them as signs of learning and growth, rather than believe it means the topic is ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’.
Introducing Intersectional Feminism: An Activity
Pre-Class Reading and Watching
Depending on the level of the class and the centrality of intersectionality to the subject, I set a combination of the following pre-class preparatory readings and videos:
- 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, 1989(1), 139–167.
It’s great to start with the source material so I recommend setting Kimberlé Crenshaw’s original journal article from 1989 where she first advances intersectionality theory.
- You can also ask your students to watch Kimberlé Crenshaw’s TED talk from 2016 where she explains why and how intersectionality matters in our social life:
- Combahee River Collective. (1983). A Black feminist statement. In C. Moraga & G. E. Anzaldúa (Eds.), This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (2nd ed., pp. 210–218). Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press.
The classic manifesto by the Combahee River Collective, which can be found in This Bridge Called My Back, is also a short, accessible, and stirring read for many students, which helps them to appreciate just how long intersectional feminist ideas have been around.
- Jennifer C. Nash (2016). Feminist originalism: Intersectionality and the politics of reading. Feminist Theory, 17(1), 3–20.
If your students are more advanced, I recommend setting them this article from Jennifer Nash, which outlines some of the criticisms of intersectionality theory. I suggest this is more suitable for doctoral-level students.
- Finally, if intersectionality is completely new for your students and you don’t want to overwhelm them with a 10,000-word philosophical academic article, you may set them my 3,000-word blog post, ‘What is Intersectional Feminism?’ to have a more accessible overview.
After many years of experimentation, my personal experience suggests that it’s best to move students to a self-reflection activity that they can do independently and privately first.
I like to set up this activity online, requiring students to complete it as a preparatory exercise before moving to group discussions in class. I ask them to allow approximately 30 minutes to complete:
One of the most powerful, influential theories that have helped us to rethink power and identities in recent years is intersectionality theory. Earlier this week, we explored the dimensions of power and examined how they inform work and society.
The purpose of this exercise is to provide an opportunity for you to reflect on the invisibility of power, privilege, and oppression. Applying intersectionality theory to an analysis of your experiences, you will be able to understand how your own intersecting privileges and oppressions have an impact on your identity and your relations with others.
Watch the video below to learn more about how privilege and oppression, through an intersectional perspective, overlap and reinforce each other, then answer the question after.
I love this video created by Teaching Tolerance as it breaks down intersectionality in such a simple and digestible way. It’s designed for elementary school students, but both my undergraduate and postgraduate students appreciate its clarity. I’ve used more ‘serious’ academic videos about intersectionality theory in the past but they did leave some students even more confused.
I then insert a text form where students can type a reflective response and journal entry to this prompt:
Thinking about your intersectional identities, how do you experience both privilege and oppression?
I don’t assess or provide feedback on their responses, but I do skim through them to ensure students are engaging with the readings and videos.
Lecture on Interlocking Systems of Power
Having reflected on their own privileges and oppressions, I tie the analysis of intersectional identities in with wider Black feminist theories around the interlocking systems of power.
For my subjects, I like to use bell hooks’ theory of the imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. I spend 10–15 minutes in the lecture outlining this concept and make a point of giving students concrete examples of how each system of power manifest in our subject topic (e.g., work, society, history, literature, etc.).
hooks’ concept of the imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy describes the four systems of power that characterize Euroamerican dominator culture.
I like to give students an example of how exactly these systems of power intersect, where seemingly positive progress on one axis may actually maintain the oppression on the other axes.
My favorite example to use is the celebration of female CEOs in our postfeminist culture. The growing power of highly privileged cisgender, straight, able-bodied, middle to upper class, white women is heralded as the end of patriarchy, but in fact often reinforces imperialism, white supremacy, and capitalism.
In-Class Group Activity
When students meet together in the tutorial, they apply what they learned through their independent reflection and the lecture to a group activity on intersectionality.
I prepare 5–6 mini-cases relevant to our subject topic. As I teach business management, the fictive cases I’ve used are about the overt and covert forms of discrimination in the workplace. Here is one sample case to give you a sense of what they look like:
Stella is a middle manager at an Australian bank. As a Black woman who migrated from Zimbabwe, she has always stood out at her company. Stella looks through her company’s new diversity report and is troubled to find that a photograph of her features four times in the 6-page document. As one of the few people of color at her organization, she feels her image was exploited in corporate branding to help her company look more diverse than it really is.
Alternatively, you can find real-world examples to use as cases. James Damore was fired from Google in 2017 after circulating a memo claiming that women had “higher levels of neuroticism” which made them unsuited for high-stress jobs in engineering. This article in The Guardian about the incident can serve as a real-world case for the activity, but you’ll need to allow more time in class for students to read, process, and potentially do additional research about their case.
I’ll print out a copy of each case to distribute to the student groups.
Students should be split into discussion groups of 4–5. If the subject has been running for a few weeks, this is a good opportunity where you can ask students at the start of class to sit with people they haven’t had the chance to work with yet.
Discussing this activity with people they’re not familiar with can prompt students to be more thoughtful and transparent about they interpret the case from the perspective of their own privileges/oppressions.
Each group will randomly receive one of the cases. They should also be given poster paper and markers to write down their analysis of the case.
Ask students to apply Mari Matsuda’s practice of ‘asking the other question’:
When I see something that looks racist, I ask, “Where is the patriarchy in this?” When I see something that looks sexist, I ask, “Where is the heterosexism in this?” When I see something that looks homophobic, I ask, “Where are the class interests in this?” Working in coalition forces us to look for both the obvious and non-obvious relationships of domination, helping us to realize that no form of subordination ever stands alone.
For example, in the first case above about Stella, the ‘obvious’ issue is racism, but students should be able to consider how patriarchy, imperialism, and capitalism plays a role. The Guardian article that explores Damore’s autism would offer an opportunity for students to discuss the intersecting dynamics of sexism, ableism, and capitalism.
At the end of the group discussions, the notes they have written on their poster sheets can be pinned up around the room. Allow each group to share their case with the rest of the class and present the highlights of their analysis. The class should be encouraged to offer additional observations and considerations.
Final Reflective Activity
At the end of the semester, I bring the consideration of interlocking systems of power back to the students’ identities and prompts them to cut a path for action:
Write a journal entry of how your work and/or life have been shaped by the imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy (or its permutations across cultures), and the effects this had on you, the organization, and society at large.
How might you exercise your privilege/s towards subverting or transforming any aspect of the imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy in your present circumstance?
Intersectional feminism is a thought-provoking and rewarding theory to teach. It gives students a framework and vocabulary to identify their intersecting privileges and oppressions. Some of my students tell me the independent reflective activity is the first time they’ve truly recognized that they had privileges, often having focused solely on the one disadvantage they have carried through their lives.
A vital element of this activity plan is that it doesn’t start and end intersectionality at identities. Without linking identities to systems of power, some students could easily walk away from the subject with the notion that intersectionality is simply a navel-gazing exercise.
The group activity in-class (including its two variants using fictive or real-world cases) and the final end-of-semester self-reflection are ways to encourage students to link their identities with society. These activities also empower students to see their privileges as both a vehicle and a responsibility to enact change within the imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.
I have collated slides from my classes that you may use to run this activity on intersectional feminism. It includes the actual slides I use to set expectations with students at the start of the semester, the lecture on hooks’ concept of the imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, and the slides you can adapt for the in-class group activity.
My teaching philosophy follows an approach known as critical pedagogy — a learner-centered approach that aims to empower students towards positive social impact.
Central to critical pedagogy is the concept of praxis, which refers to the connection between theory and practice. I’m committed to rigorous research-led subject content that grounds learning in students’ lived experiences and everyday practice. My overarching aim is to inspire my students to become critically reflexive lifelong learners who aspire to social transformation.
One of the foundational thinkers and educators of critical pedagogy is Paulo Freire. His classic book from 1970, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (translated by M. Bergman Ramos), is a vital resource for socially conscious educators.
The most influential set of books on my role as an educator is bell hooks’ ‘trilogy’:
- Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom (1994)
- Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope (2003)
- Teaching Critical Thinking: Practical Wisdom (2009)
These three important books articulate a transformative vision for education as the practice of freedom.
For primary and secondary education, Teaching Tolerance has a wealth of lessons on social justice for younger students.
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Featured image by Christina Morillo