From Buzzword to Critical Pedagogy: Teaching Intersectionality and Promoting Social Justice in Psychology
From the Women’s March on Washington to the pages of American Psychologist and across social media platforms, it seems like the term “intersectionality” is everywhere. But what does it really mean, and how can intersectionality inform and enhance how we teach psychology? At its core, intersectionality is about recognizing the complex and often invisible connections between systems of inequality, such as racism, sexism, and heterosexism. For example, social psychologist Stephanie Shields (2008) suggested that virtually all operationalizations of intersectionality conceptualize social identities as mutually constituting, reinforcing, and naturalizing each other. Furthermore, intersectionality’s origins in Black feminist and women of color activism help us to both see and create connections between what happens in the psychology classroom, laboratory, therapy room, and the broader social world. My presentation at the National Institute for the Teaching of Psychology explored the history and meanings of intersectionality and introduced several practical strategies for teaching with an intersectional approach across the discipline.
Many psychologists are accustomed to constructing syllabi and teaching about multicultural issues in ways that isolate elements of identity—not unlike how we use variables to distinguish individuals in terms of race, gender, nationality, age, etc. However, as Crenshaw (1989) famously asserted, Black women may experience racism in ways that are both similar to and distinct from Black men; they may also experience sexism in ways that are both distinct from White women and similar to White women. So, when we teach about racism and sexism without considering their intersections, we may inadvertently erase Black women’s experiences or conflate them with those of Black men or White women. Intersectionality encourages us to think about diversity not solely in terms of identity but in terms of the constructs, such as stereotype threat, and social problems, such as implicit bias, that cut across social groups. Intersectionality also encourages us to embrace the SPSSI’s longstanding commitment to “giving psychology away,” so that the work we do with students in the classroom is oriented toward questions about how psychology can promote social justice.
But how can we reorganize syllabi to foreground intersectional perspectives without simply adding material to courses that are already presumably full of content? Echoing SPSSI President Elizabeth Cole’s (2009) widely cited three-part framework conducting intersectionality-informed research in psychology, I posited three questions that instructors can ask when attempting to take an intersectionality approach in the psychology classroom. The first is, “How can I address constructs and systems, not only identities?” which encourages instructors to then think about the structural and systemic dimensions of inequality in terms that avoid reductionist, variable-centered thinking (i.e., the kinds of approaches that seek to parse identities). The second is “How is power operating in this situation?” which demands attention to how constructs such as prejudice and discrimination are always rooted in historically situated, culturally contingent power relations. Finally, the question “What role(s) can psychologists play in addressing this social problem?” helps to shift the focus of psychological change from the individual and toward allies, advocates, and accomplices for social justice. The last question also underscores the degree to which psychologists should not—especially when claiming to take an intersectional approach—imagine psychology to be a detached, apolitical endeavor in which psychologists merely describe inequality, rather than seeking to address it through systemic social change on behalf of marginalized groups.
Patrick R. Grzanka, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Psychology and core faculty in the interdisciplinary program in Women, Gender, and Sexuality at The University of Tennessee, Knoxville. His research investigates the psychosocial dimensions of structural violence and inequality at the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality. His interdisciplinary scholarship has been supported by funding from the National Science Foundation and SPSSI. His work has appeared in diverse venues including Sexualities, Journal of Counseling Psychology, The Counseling Psychologist, Archives of Sexual Behavior, WSQ: Women’s Studies Quarterly, Sexuality Research and Social Policy, and Symbolic Interaction. The second edition of his first book, Intersectionality: Foundations and Frontiers, will be published by Routledge in January 2019. He is also an associate editor of the flagship Journal of Counseling Psychology.