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May 1, 2019
Vol. 76
No. 8

Supporting Students' Intersecting Identities

By recognizing layers of privilege and oppression, schools can become more affirming.

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When Quinn arrived at school one morning, she was sent to the office by security for violating the dress code, causing her to miss school breakfast and arrive late to her math class. The girls behind her, also wearing short skirts, were not disciplined. Quinn's grandmother had just gotten her granddaughter new clothes to affirm her gender identity. Quinn (a pseudonym) was my student at the time, a 15-year-old black transgender girl who one day hoped to work for NASA.
Like her classmates, Quinn navigated a variety of challenges when she walked through the doors of her school: peer pressure, academic demands, and the overall stress associated with the teenage years. That's a lot for a young person to handle, but Quinn also faced significant additional barriers to her emotional, social, and academic success. Unlike her white cisgender peers, Quinn's identity put her at risk for bullying, verbal harassment, physical violence, and disproportionate discipline. Quinn had plans for the future, just like other high schoolers, but lacking support and respect for her intersecting identities, she was not sure if going to college was realistic.
As a high school teacher in Minnesota, I encountered many students like Quinn. A mix of systemic and structural forces played a role in determining my students' futures based on their intersecting identities, whether those identities were privileged or marginalized. I did my best to be a safe and encouraging adult for the vulnerable youth in my care, but like many educators, I often saw only one of my student's identities. In Quinn's case, I saw her racial identity first and thought that was enough—but it wasn't. The intersection of Quinn's racial and gender identities exposed her to unique discriminatory situations that had a ripple effect in all areas of her life.
Now, as director of the Welcoming Schools program for the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, I recognize the importance of helping educators acknowledge all their students' intersecting identities in order to support their whole selves, so that they can ease into learning each day. Adolescents and teenagers, in particular, need adults who understand the relationship of individual identities to power—or lack thereof—so they can help these youth make meaning of and navigate the specific challenges they face.

Understanding Intersectionality

The term intersectionality was originally coined by law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw in an effort to explain the oppression of black women. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as:
The interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.
Essentially, the theory states that the overlap of an individual's social identities impacts the way he or she moves—and is regarded—in the world. People with more privileged identities (such as the white cisgender girls who entered the school behind Quinn) are perceived positively, while those with marginalized identities encounter discrimination. No identity exists on its own, nor are identities mutually exclusive. It is the unique combination of identities that creates a very specific type of oppression or privilege. Because school is a microcosm of society at large, the framework of intersectionality also applies to students' experiences at school.
We know that students face unique challenges based on aspects of their identities, such as race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, socioeconomic status, immigration status, and ability. However, viewing students through a single lens provides a limited picture of their lived experiences. In Quinn's case, in a single day, she may have experienced bullying related to her gender identity as well as unreasonable discipline related to her race and vice versa. It is critical to see our students' intersectional identities, particularly where marginalized identities converge (race with ability, sexual orientation with immigration status, faith with family structure, and so on). Teens who have multiple marginalized identities often experience discrimination, social isolation, rejection, and bullying, all of which negatively impact their ability to succeed in school, as well as their overall well-being.
We see this play out in the experiences of LGBTQ youth of color, who must grapple with both racism and homophobia or transphobia. According to the Human Rights Campaign (2018), four in five LGBTQ youth of color have personally experienced racism. Discrimination based on race can further complicate their ability to manage their LGBTQ identities. The Gay-Straight Alliance Network (2015) found that LGBTQ youth of color face persistent harassment and bias-based bullying from peers and school staff, increased surveillance and policing, harsher discipline measures, and victim blaming ("You chose to wear a dress, so you were asking for it"). They are also at higher risk for school pushout and homelessness and are disproportionately represented in the juvenile justice system.

Addressing Intersectional Identities at School

Clearly, teens need the support of caring adults in their schools to mitigate the adverse effects to their health, well-being, and academic achievement that result from systemic bias around their intersecting identities. They deserve inclusive school climates that honor and value all aspects of their identities and adults who are prepared to meet their unique needs and reduce barriers to learning caused by biased school policies and practices. How can school leaders, then, create such environments?

Lead Professional Development

A good first step is to train school staff in what intersectionality is and how to use it as a lens to serve all students. To start, educators need the opportunity to explore the complexity of identity, privilege, and marginalization in their own lives. They must name and understand their own intersecting identities in order to better grasp the educational and social impact of identity on their students.
For example, when white educators examine their personal experiences with race, a pattern of internalized and unconscious biases toward people of color might surface. These biases, teachers may notice, have a detrimental impact on their students of color in the form of lower academic expectations or inequitable discipline practices. Likewise, looking at the ways in which they themselves have encountered privilege can help teachers recognize assumptions they make about their students' home lives, like that they are being raised by a mom and dad or that they come to school fed.
Effective professional development will guide teachers to think about the experiences their students have around their identities at the intersections, and how these experiences are affected by school policies and procedures. It is especially critical that educators examine differences that they may instinctively try to minimize, fail to recognize, or ignore because they don't know how to approach them. Teachers must be wary of mindsets that lessen important differences at the same time that they oversimplify and exaggerate sameness. When an educator says, "I don't see color," they may be well-intentioned, but this ethos is actually a dismissal of the experiences of the individual as well as the impact of the very real institution of racism.
When educators have been trained to use practices that are affirming and welcoming for students' whole selves, they are better able to gain the trust of students. Informed teachers who are visibly supportive of all student identities and have the language to talk about them (for example, by displaying "Safe Schools" signs and using correct personal pronouns) are adults that teens can and will talk to. A student suffering from depression (as many students with multiple marginalized identities do) may be more likely to open up to a teacher with an understanding of intersectionality and thus get the help they need.
At the same time, it is essential that students with intersecting identities have school staff they can go to whose experiences mirror their own. Students need more educators who look like them, love like them, and live like them, and schools must keep diversity (specifically, teachers of color and out LGBTQ teachers) in mind when hiring staff.

Examine Policies and Practices

Principals can support this work by reinforcing equity-based norms and values in their buildings, as well as coaching teachers to use an intersectional lens in classroom practice. An essential piece to this is enacting policies and practices that are inclusive of all identities. Anti-harassment policies, for instance, should specifically enumerate sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression, in addition to other categories of protection. Schools must consistently monitor the degree to which these policies are upheld and ensure that staff are interrupting and intervening when identity-based harassment occurs.
Dress code policies are another problematic area to explore. Research finds that girls and students of color are much more likely to face inequitable dress code violations (National Women's Law Center, 2018). In a recent case of such discrimination, a black New Jersey high school student was forced by a white referee to cut off his dreadlocks or forfeit his wrestling match. The best solution for schools and districts is to implement a dress code not dependent upon gender or race, such as the one adopted by Portland Public Schools. The Portland policy, for instance, allows hats, hoodies, and other headwear to be worn as long as the student's face is visible. Oregon National Organization for Women (2016) recommends a policy that requires all students to cover certain body parts, with enumerated "must wear" and "may wear" categories that follow this basic principle. Such dress codes are equitable so long as they are enforced equally for all students.

Open Up Facilities

My organization, the Human Rights Campaign, believes that all students should be allowed to use the facilities in which they feel comfortable and recognized. This includes having access to the bathrooms and locker rooms that correspond with their gender identity. The recent withdrawal of federal guidance to protect transgender students under Title IX does not prevent schools from proactively accommodating their needs, which prioritizes the safety and well-being of all students. All-gender, single-occupancy facilities, too, can be helpful for non-binary and genderfluid students and should be available to anyone (many teens, regardless of gender identity, prefer single-stall bathrooms for privacy). The use of all-gender facilities, however, should never be required for any student.
Schools can provide other affirming spaces for students, as well. For example, they can honor religious diversity by making space for Muslim students to respond to the call of prayer. Or they can recognize neurodiversity by providing quiet places for students on the autism spectrum or with other sensory processing disorders to escape the barrage of visual and auditory stimuli that often characterize secondary schools. Providing affirming spaces goes a long way toward bolstering students' feelings of safety and belonging, which are absolutely necessary for learning to occur.

Review Data and Discipline

If schools want to make a change in outcomes for marginalized students, they must closely examine their disciplinary data. Identifying common characteristics among those suspended or referred can clue in staff to patterns of inequities. Disaggregated data can show, for example, if students with disabilities who speak languages other than English receive discipline referrals at a higher rate than their peers. As part of this work, administrators can track who is doing the referring, as certain educators in the building may need more support in providing equitable classroom management.
Implementation of restorative justice practices can also help address issues of disproportionate discipline. In a restorative justice framework, educators and students build community based on shared values (including diversity). When someone violates the relationship, they must make amends in some way: by reflecting on their choices, engaging in a conference with the harmed party, and so on. Restorative justice practices can replace zero-tolerance policies that often take students with multiple marginalized identities out of the classroom.

Provide Wrap-Around Services

Schools must also be prepared to provide students with wrap-around services and referrals to community resources. Middle and high schools can help vulnerable students by providing access to counseling and psychological services as well as resources to help with food, clothing, housing security, and medical and dental services. Students' marginalized identities must be considered as these services are offered, especially ways in which access could be impeded. For example, a low-income student may need support in obtaining food for her family, but language could be a barrier to receiving such services.

Encourage Peer Groups

Access to peer groups can help at-risk students cope with similar challenges, such as the incarceration of parents, trauma, immigration status, and religious expression. One of these peer groups can be a Gay-Straight Alliance or Gender-Sexuality Alliance (GSA). By establishing and supporting a GSA, schools send LGBTQ youth the message that they are seen and supported. Such clubs have been found to limit negative experiences, reduce risky behaviors, and lower distress (Human Rights Campaign, 2018). However, any such group must be prepared to specifically address the intersectional needs of students who participate. For example, a GSA should recognize the socioeconomic and cultural diversity of its members by ensuring that transportation is not a barrier to participation and by promoting its events in all languages represented in the school. These groups need not take the form of an after-school club, either; counselor-led small groups or advisory programs can also strengthen peer relationships.

Broaden the Curriculum

Curricular changes need to be made at the school and district levels to support diverse student identities. Topics and themes that are inclusive of diverse perspectives and histories are beneficial for all students; they ensure that those with marginalized identities see themselves reflected and those with privileged identities gain an unbiased, accurate, and more thorough understanding of others. California has provided an excellent example with the passage of its FAIR Education Act, which requires classroom instruction about the contributions of a wide range of Americans, including Native Americans, LGBTQ people, and people with disabilities. Although classroom teachers may have less influence over district-level curricular decisions, they can certainly examine existing content with an intersectional lens and supplement with more inclusive materials.

Doing Better

We must be diligent about meeting the unique and complex needs of today's teens—teens like Quinn. Quinn needed at least one adult she could trust, a space where it was safe for her to be herself and "out" if she chose, and resources to help her navigate her experience via the many facets of her identity. Quinn's academic success at school hinged on the complexity of her identities being recognized, appreciated, supported, and respected. No teen should have to wait for the situation to get better because we, as leaders and educators, can do better.
References

Gay-Straight Alliance Network. (2015). LGBTQ youth of color: Discipline disparities, school push-out, and the school-to-prison pipeline. Retrieved from http://gsanetwork.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/LGBTQ_brief_FINAL.pdf

Human Rights Campaign. (2018). 2018 LGBTQ youth report. Washington, D.C.: Author.

National Women's Law Center. (2018). Dress coded: Black girls, bodies, and bias in D.C. schools. Washington, D.C.: Author.

Oregon National Organization of Women. (2016). Oregon NOW model student dress code. Retrieved from http://noworegon.org/issues/model-student-dress-code

End Notes

1 For more information, read HRC's free online resource "Schools in Transition: A Guide for Supporting Transgender Students in K–12 Schools."

Johanna Eager, a former high school teacher and administrator, is the director of HRC Foundation’s Welcoming Schools program.

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