Why Elementary Teachers Need to Be Intersectional Feminists

I am not the best at this kind of thing, that I will state off the bat. I am trying to be better. Please do not be afraid to confront me.

Feminism is simply the idea that people of different sexes are equal. Intersectionality is an overlapping, or intersecting, of social identities, creating a whole person (or community) different from its components. Someone’s experience is shaped by many things, such as:

  • race
  • gender
  • social class
  • nationality
  • sexual orientation
  • religion
  • age
  • mental disability
  • physical disability
  • mental illness
  • physical illness
  • incarceration
  • immigrant status

And probably more that I am not aware of yet.

So, my experience as a white woman has definitely shaped me. There have been times in my life where my gender has made me feel like a target, where I felt vulnerable or even scared. But, there have been other times when I have consciously used my white femininity as a shield in ways that I don’t think a black, Latina, or Asian female could have. So on one hand, I am part of a historically oppressed group, but on the other, I am also a member of a historically privileged group. This is completely by accident of birth, and not something I can change about myself; the least I can do is acknowledge it.


Having privilege has allowed me to “not see” some of the things that other people go through. It’s not that I’m completely blind, it’s just that I take for granted how different others experiences are. For example, I am a white person who was raised in a large Christian family. People demonstrated curiosity or confusion towards us sometimes, but I wouldn’t characterize that as negative. It didn’t occur to me until high school or college that my family would probably be perceived and treated very differently if you changed just one variable about us. What if we’d been a large black family? Or a large Muslim family? I can only imagine some of the things people might say, only because I have heard some of the things people say about black people and Muslims. What I can’t imagine is how it must feel to live through that every single day of my life.

My career — specifically, where I work now — has challenged me to be more observant of others’ lived experiences, especially in regards to children.

Children occupy a strange place in our society and culture. They are disenfranchised: they have no right to vote, and minimal other rights compared to adults. They are often ignored, forgotten, even dehumanized by many of the moving parts in our various systems. When they come up in discussions, we always want to do what’s best for them, but seldom consult them ourselves. There are reasons for that, sure, but I think it’s wrong for us to talk about them and over them with little talking with them (with genuine, actual listening).

My students are living a different experience than I am, day in and day out. Part of that is generational context; just thinking about the differences in technology makes my head spin. But it comes from other areas, as well. I have students who speak a different language at home than they do at school. I have students who live with a disability, or have family members with disabilities. I have students who are different races and nationalities. The teachers in my district used to be among some of the lowest paid teachers in the county, and yet our salaries as teachers were above the median income for families in our city. I have students who are affected by the incarceration of a parent, which is sometimes an extended or repeated experience. Some of my students challenge ideas about gender. I have had former students come out outside of the classroom, identifying as LGBTQ.

I am no good to my students if I cannot see past myself and empathize with their lives, however different from mine they might be. Children do not choose the circumstances of their birth, the color of their skin, the language they first learn, how much money their parents make, and on and on and on. There is so much out of their control. It is unfair for me to force them to pivot to me. And I have to accept that, while I am an authority in the context of my classroom, I am not the authority. There are things I do not know and will get wrong, and it is my responsibility to educate myself and do better. I have the maturity and the experience and the duty and obligation to pivot myself to students.

In the bridge of the song “Cold War,” Janelle Monáe sings, “Bring wings to the weak and bring grace to the strong.” As a teacher, I am a strong person in the educational setting; I have authority, and I have responsibility. I need the grace to supporrt my students through their challenges, wherever those challenges come from. I also need grace to accept and act on the criticism I need to be a better person. More importantly, I need to bring wings to my students, children. I need to empower them by sharing knowledge, developing their skills, and building them up. Once they have their wings, they will be able to fly on their own.

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