Embracing intersectionality to interrogate and action equality, diversity and inclusion in teaching and learning

Anuj Kapilashrami, Professor in Global Health Policy & Equity at the University of Essex, shares her research on advancing EDI by tackling intersecting exclusions and oppressions.

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The education sector is both a reflection of the unequal society we inhabit as well as the foundation for the world we aspire to see. The pursuit of education must therefore confront the injustices that impede our endeavours to achieve a fairer world.”

Towards transformative praxis in higher education

Amid highly politicised debates on equality and diversity, and growing calls for decolonising the academy, the UK higher education sector may be witnessing a historic moment that holds promise for shaking up the long-held legacies of institutional injustices.

The developments of 2020, including the killings of George Floyd, opened the floodgates for a tide of anger against racial injustice. Spurred by the ensuing protests and struck by the fallacy of popular refrains like ‘We’re all in this together’ in facing the burden of Covid-19, critical questions were asked. The outrage challenged the systemic and structural basis of violence and discrimination and the tacit acceptance of the status quo evidence in the inaction from the government. Despite the UK government’s blatant denial of racism in the recent report of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, these developments have brought concerns around EDI centre-stage in UK HE, establishing the imperative for making education more inclusive.

Calls for equality are not new to the education sector. Longstanding feminist efforts and advocacy for gender equality highlighted the institutional, social, and structural barriers faced by women in HEIs (eg short-term contracts, pay gap, career progression, among others). These efforts culminated into the establishment of the Athena SWAN Gender Equality charter in the UK in 2005. Most recent inclusions of the principle of intersectionality and Advance HE’s Race Equality Charter echo the current thinking on gender equality that goes beyond the gender binary and examines the complex and compounding discrimination that differently situated women experience on the basis of their social location.

The lived experience of a black female student (or indeed by a staff member of colour) is not merely the sum of sexism and racism. Her gendered experience of education is racialised, shaped by her nationality, and immigrant status (new migrant or diaspora, first or second-generation, asylum status), socio-economic status, and is distinct from her White female counterpart and from her Black male counterpart. 

In a nutshell, discrimination is not merely additive, but intersectional or ‘mutually reinforcing’[1]. Although widely recognised, this understanding is yet to percolate into the institutional responses to address inequality and discrimination within the larger ambit of EDI initiatives. Contemporary initiatives continue to be grounded in the ‘protected characteristics’ identified by the UK’s Equality Act 2010. While a first step in recognising the multiple levels at which discrimination and inequalities are experienced, this approach promotes an isolated understanding of these characteristics; failing to appreciate the systemic basis and interacting nature of these discriminations, and how these co-create systems of disadvantage and exclusions that undermine attainment of education and other development goals.

What does intersectionality bring to EDI?

Intersectionality offers a promising departure from the above approach. It refers to the understanding that social inequalities are not experienced as unitary exclusive phenomenon of race, class, age, gender, sexuality, ability, and other aspects of social position but as mutually constituting or ‘reciprocally constructed phenomenon’[2]. It rejects the idea of defining human experience on the basis of singular identity or category of difference and assuming the primary importance of one category[3].

Several conversations on racism that I’ve partaken in have criticised the essentialism and universalisation of student experience associated with the student’s skin colour or nationality (eg assumptions made around their educational needs, language proficiency, deprivation etc.). Defining their experience solely on their skin colour ignores the diverse realities and embodied experiences of an individual’s socio-political, economic, and cultural lives. By re-focussing attention to these facets, intersectionality brings a transformative approach to education.

Despite the popularity of intersectional thinking in HE, operationalising it to transform EDI policy and practice in organisations is not straightforward, and fraught with critical challenges and difficult conversations.

The intersectionality-informed EDI framework

Addressing this gap, the intersectionality-informed EDI framework was developed as a roadmap to embed ‘inclusivity’ into all aspects of the teaching and learning cycle; from design and review of curricula and assessments, through to delivery in classrooms and practice, in evaluation and feedback. The framework also attends to the wider institutional reforms necessary to move away from individualising responsibility, and towards systemic change and institutional accountability that can foster a health learning environment.  The framework is distinct from other EDI frameworks in its adoption of an intersectionality lens in addressing racism alongside other intersecting forms of discrimination rooted in different aspects of one’s social position (especially gender, class, race and ethnicity, sexuality), which operate to exclude or privilege some groups over others and produce unequal outcomes and unfair experiences.

The framework was borne out of the confluence of two parallel processes/streams of personal learning. First, critical reflections and learnings derived from the embodied experiences of privilege and discrimination that came with my own positionality – an Indian labelled as ‘BAME’ teaching in leading HEIs in England (and previously Scotland), who spent her former years in India deeply conscious of her upper caste, educational and class privilege that translated into solid education, and opportunities to work in the development sector on women’s rights and health policy. These opportunities co-existed with the gender-based oppressions I confronted growing up and working in the field.

Being part of the women’s movement and the growing health movement introduced me to critical reflective pedagogy and emancipatory politics, making inequalities and injustices a core focus of my subsequent research and teaching, and motivating me to engage with inequalities in higher education.

The second trigger was the rich and constructive conversations held in the School of Health & Social Care as we endeavoured to co-produce a progressive agenda and action plan to tackle racism. Spearheaded by students and colleagues who are passionate about race inequalities (and angry with the status quo), these meetings were a strong reminder of the inherent assumptions in current approaches to tackle discrimination. I was on occasions looked at as the ‘expert’ who could enrich these discussions by bringing my theoretical and empirical engagement with intersectionality to inform the evolving action-agenda. This compelled me to engage with the intersectionality paradigm in search of something more practical.

The framework is thus an attempt to develop a practical tool and guide that could support HEIs in creating a healthy enabling environment for students to learn, be conscious of their prejudices and (un)conscious biases, and translate this consciousness into emancipation of self, and others as agents of social change. It consists of three-parts:

  1. Six guiding principles adapted from the Intersectionality-based Policy Analysis framework[4]
  2. Three core objectives and associated probes that will guide development of inclusive practices at three levels: content design; classroom delivery; and the wider institutional environment and HE system 
  3. Operational framework that embeds the principles and objectives in the teaching and learning cycle. This is accompanied by ‘Power & Privilege walk’, an exercise we have frequently utilised in feminist training workshops, to get students and educators to reflect, in a nonconfrontational manner and without the compulsion of disclosure, on how power mediates our relations and shapes distinct privileges and oppressions.

The framework is not a panacea, and not intended as a substitute for ongoing efforts to decolonise, tackle racism or gender and sexuality related oppressions in higher education in the UK. Rather, it is an attempt to bolster these efforts by guiding the creation of a shared reflective space for learners that allows examination of and actioning concrete steps to tackle intersecting discrimination. The framework should be seen in conjunction with other guidelines and practices for inclusive teaching and supported with appropriate institutional reforms for accountable and responsible governance (eg effective anonymous reporting mechanisms and independent committees to investigate issues of racism, sexual harassment).

Adoption of an intersectional perspective is particularly useful in informing an HEIs work on racism as it allows a fuller grasp and appreciation of “context, politics, social divisions and outcomes vis-à-vis inclusive equalities”[5]. The perspective allows us to go beyond the victim-perpetrator dichotomy and labels (eg racist-non-racist; sexist; homophobic), which make important conversations on racial (in)equality in the workplace and classrooms difficult and increase resistance to change, to bring centre-stage the underlying forces that determine these inequalities.

Instead, the framework is an attempt to unpack and inform our thinking about equality. Its focus on raising consciousness of privileges and oppressions, and how these translate to power differences in our interactions, is not only a critical step in emancipation of self but also a political commitment to transformational change in education.

However, like most conceptual frameworks and guidance documents, its success lies in adequate resourcing, support for building capacities, and a paradigm shift in understanding the systemic nature of discrimination. Failing this, some of the proposed actions, especially those that challenge traditional ways of thinking, may cause discomfort, backlash and even be utilised to discipline people of colour, preventing us from righting the historic wrongs.

Professor Kapilashrami presented her ‘Intersectionality-informed framework for tackling racism and embedding inclusion and diversity on teaching and learning’ at an Athena Swan Good Practice event in 2020. Download the framework here

Anuj Kapilashrami is an Interdisciplinary social scientist trained in Sociology and Public health. She is Professor in Global Health Policy and Equity and Director of Global Engagement & Partnerships in the School of Health & Social Care at University of Essex. Her work lies at the intersections of health policy and development praxis, with particular interest in their interface with gender, human rights and social justice.

References

[1] Crenshaw, K. Mapping the margins: Intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color. Stan. L. Rev. 1990; 43, 1241.

[2] Collins PH. Intersectionality’s definitional dilemmas. Annual review of sociology. 2015 Aug 14; 41:1-20.

[3] Kapilashrami A, Hankivsky O. Intersectionality and why it matters to global health. The Lancet. 2018 Jun 30;391(10140):2589-91.

[4] Hankivsky O, Grace D, Hunting G, et al. An intersectionality-based policy analysis framework: critical reflections on a methodology for advancing equity. International journal for equity in health. 2014 Dec 1;13(1):119.

[5] Clark C, Matthew D, Burns V. Power, privilege and justice: intersectionality as human rights? The International Journal of Human Rights. 2018 Jan 2;22(1):108-26.

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