Understanding intersectionality is critical to advancing educational equity for all

Aug 14, 2017 | Read

People have multiple identities and group memberships with which they identify and find meaning. Think about your own identities, such as your profession, race or ethnicity, sex, gender identity, socioeconomic status, whether you follow a particular religion or faith tradition, whether you have a dis/ability* or are non-disabled, your home language, sexual orientation, and where you live or grew up. All of these characteristics—some of which you chose and some of which you did not—shape how you experience everyday life. These identities often determine the extent to which you are afforded privileges that make navigating social systems and institutions (i.e. school, housing, financial, medical, legal, and law enforcement), accessing resources, and exerting personal power or agency within these systems relatively easy or difficult. If your identities place you in various non-dominant communities that are often marginalized in our society, then you likely have to contend with multiple systems of oppression such as racism, sexism, and ableism. These interconnecting systems of oppression have compounding impacts and can cause harm.

As with racism, sexism, classism and ableism—to name a few—exist when institutional and personal policies, structures, practices, and beliefs produce barriers to accessing power and resources based on specific identity markers, which create systems of oppression that marginalize individuals and groups. Intersectionality, a concept defined by Kimberle Crenshaw (1989), describes the social, economic, and political ways in which identity-based systems of oppression connect, overlap, and influence one another. In my own lived experiences as a Black woman with a dis/ability, I often deal with compounded micro- and macro-aggressions relating to my gender, race, and dis/ability.

When we examine the impact of intersectionality in schools, the data are quite revealing. Here are a few findings related to treatment of marginalized students in American schools 

Class and race: Students of color in schools located in dis-invested communities are less likely to receive coursework that is targeted to grade-appropriate standards, reflects higher-level cognitive demand, and is meaningfully engaging and relevant.

Sex and race: A study conducted by Crenshaw, Ocen, and Nanda (2015) examining the experiences of girls in school found that two percent of White girls were subjected to exclusionary suspensions compared to 12 percent of Black girls. The literature suggests that girls of color face higher rates of suspension and expulsion for subjective behavioral infractions. The study revealed that teachers sometimes exercised disciplinary measures against Black girls to encourage them to adopt more “acceptable” qualities of femininity, often related to looks and demeanor—standards that appear to reflect a White, middle-class idea of femininity.

 Gender identity, sexual orientation, and race or national origin: Students of color who identify as LGBTQ+ experienced higher frequencies of victimization than White LGBTQ students, based on their race/ethnicity, as well as their sexual orientation or gender non-conformity. (GLSEN, 2015).

Race or national origin, class, and dis/ability: Research cites factors such as race, ethnicity or national origin, language, and poverty play a role in disproportionate representation in special education, as well as in specific special education categories, placement in more restrictive learning environments, and in exclusionary and punitive disciplinary actions. (Annamma, Connor, & Ferri, 2016).

Educators committed to ensuring educational equity and social justice need to be cognizant of intersectionality and aware of the intersecting oppressions experienced by many of the students they serve.

About a year or so ago, I was co-facilitating a professional learning experience for a group of 50 special educators. The presentation focused on discussing instructional practices for improving the reading achievement of students receiving special education services. My co-facilitators and I shared information about an instructional framework that combined culturally sustaining practices and principles of Universal Design for Learning for improving literacy (Waitoller & King Thorius, 2016). During the session, one of the participants asked, “Why are we learning about culturally sustaining practices, when this professional development is about students with dis/abilities?”

What this educator failed to recognize is the relevance of implementing practices that are responsive and relevant to students’ cultural backgrounds, conflating culture with race. He did not understand that as members of a marginalized community, students with dis/abilities may have shared experiences with other marginalized communities. Not recognizing people with disabilities as a socio-political group, whose voices and perspectives are often underrepresented in curricula and decision-making in our school systems, this educator did not comprehend the importance of including instructional material that represent alternative points of view, experiences, and approaches to problem-solving, characteristics of culturally responsive and sustaining practices, for the instruction of students with dis/abilities.

Considering intersectionality requires equity-oriented educators to rethink interventions for redressing systemic inequities. Educators are called to re-examine and adjust practices that separate problems into discrete challenges facing specific, mutually exclusive groups and thus requiring distinct solutions. This way of thinking leads to solutions that operate in silos and can be ineffective and inadvertently perpetuate other inequities (African American Policy Forum). Equity work is grounded in an examination of how policies, practices, and structures operate with factors such as race, gender, sexual orientation, class, and dis/abilities to limit or leverage access to learning opportunities.

Demonstrating a recognition and appreciation of difference is an important step in creating supportive and inclusive learning environments. However, realizing educational equity for all students requires surfacing and redressing the structures, practices, and policies that contribute to inequitable treatment of individuals and groups in historically marginalized communities. As equity-focused educators, we must recognize and honor our own multiple identities and the multiple identities of our students, families, and co-workers. We must examine, call out, and disrupt inequitable policies and actions that operate to form multiple interconnecting systems of oppressions that affect students’ and families’ access, representation, and meaningful participation in quality learning opportunities, and the ability to enjoy positive educational outcomes.

*Dis/ability is used with a slash in this post to signal the social construction of ability and dis/ability—that is, society’s power to construct what is considered to be a disability around social expectations of normalcy and health.



Annamma, S.A., Connor, D.J., & Ferri, B.A. (2016). Dis/ability critical race studies (DisCrit): Theorizing at the intersections of race and dis/ability. In D.J. Connor, B.A. Ferri, & S.A. Annamma (Eds.), DisCrit: Disability studies and critical race theory in education (pp. 9-32). Teachers College Press: New York.

African American Policy Forum. (n.d.). A primer on intersectionality. Retrieved from http://static.squarespace.com/static/53f20d90e4b0b80451158d8c/53f399a5e4b029c2ffbe26cc/53f39c8e4b029c2ffbe2b28/1408473544947/59819079-Intersectionality-Primer.pdf?format=original

Crenshaw, K., Ocen, P., & Nanda, J. (2015). Black Girls Matter: Pushed out, overpoliced and underprotected. African American Policy Forum, Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Students. Retrieved from http://www.atlanticphilanthropies.org/app/uploads/2015/09/BlackGirlsMatter_Report.pdf

 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, 139-167.

GLSEN (2015). The 2015 National School Climate Survey Executive Summary. Retrieved from https://www.glsen.org/sites/default/files/GLSEN%202015%20National%20School%20Climate%20Survey%20%28NSCS%29%20-%20Executive%20Summary.pdf

 Waitoller, F. R., & King Thorius, K. A. (2016). Cross-pollinating culturally sustaining pedagogy and universal design for learning: Toward an inclusive pedagogy that accounts for dis/ability. Harvard Educational Review, 86(3), 366-389.


For further reading

 Duncan‐Andrade, J. (2007). Gangstas, wankstas, and ridas: Defining, developing, and supporting effective teachers in urban schools. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 20(6), 617–638.http://doi.org/10.1080/09518390701630767

 Gay, G. (2010). Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research, practice. New York: Teachers College Press.

 Ladson-Billings, G. (1995). Toward a theory of culturally relevant pedagogy. American Educational Research Journal, 32, 465–491.http://doi.org/10.2307/1163320

 Paris, D., & Alim, H. S. (2014). What are we seeking to sustain through Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy? A loving critique forward. Harvard Educational Review, 84(1), 85–100.

 Sleeter, C. E. 2005. Un-standardizing curriculum: Multicultural teaching in the standards-based classroom. New York: Teachers College Press

 Stovall, D. (2006). Urban Poetics: Poetry, social justice, and critical pedagogy in education. Urban Review 38(1), 63-80.


-Seena Skelton


Dr. Seena Skelton is the Director of Operations at the Region III Midwest and Plains Equity Assistance Center. They provide technical assistance, resources, professional learning opportunities, and conducts research related to equity, civil rights, and systemic school reform. Dr. Skelton has worked in the areas of systems change, school improvement, and educational equity for over 15 years.