On Living in the Contradictions: Messy Reflections on Teaching Intersectional Feminism

I am currently teaching the most difficult inquiry I have ever embarked upon. I am putting the capital D in Dangerous right now, people.

I am teaching my juniors a unit on intersectional feminism.

My guiding questions are:

What is intersectional feminism?

How does it work as a lens to uncover oppression?

How might it help us develop empathy, and develop alternatives to domination?

I have been wanting to explore ideas of intersectionality for a long while with this group; I have had these same beautiful students since they were 9th graders, and my spidey sense told me that now, NOW, they were ready.

Actually, let me be clear: I sensed that the boys were ready. The girls, well, they’ve been ready. And this is where it gets Dangerous.

Let me back up. In many years of teaching about race, power, and privilege, I have encountered approximately zero resistance.  If I were teaching white students in a comfortable suburban school, I know this work would be much harder. I have taught exactly three white students in 23 years of the work. Teaching about race and racism — and class and capitalist structures —  has been imperative.  The students have lived knowledge of the mechanisms of white supremacy and institutional racism; I merely provide them with some academically-sanctioned language and theory. (I would like to write, later, about how I receive more credit for doing this anti-racist work (inexpertly and with boatloads of mistakes) than teachers of color receive, but that is a post for another

My students’ complete openness to addressing and discussing and inquiring into power and its intricacies throughout our reparations unit convinced me that it was time to introduce feminist thought.

So I’m doing it. We’re two and a half weeks in. We’ve built with Legos and blocks to represent our experiences of growing up gendered, racialized and classed, and we’ve identified how we’ve been expected to act and what we’d like to tell others about who we really are. We read bell hooks. We read Kimberly Crenshaw. We have listened to Chimamanda Adiche and Tony Parker. We’ve theorized using statistics and we’ve had measured and calm “Save the Last Word for Me” discussions.

I’ve tried to uncover with my students that this mysterious power structure that some call Hegemony, that some call The Man, [and that I’ve learned that DJ Khaled calls “they”(!)] is supported by the interconnected, criss-crossing oppression of white supremacy, of patriarchy, cisheteronormativity and class exploitation. That our collective liberation cannot neglect any of these axes of power, regardless of how messy and complex this may seem.

My girls — with no exceptions — are in it. They are alive. They are making connections and reading and writing with enthusiasm and with a sense of relief I am finding hard to articulate. There are countless collective head nods and eye rolls. The reflective writing they turn in to me is like a huge, collective, FINALLY:

I am really wondering why it wasn’t until junior year to learn this. Elementary school kids need to know this and I needed to know this when I was in 3rd grade.

This is like so obvious. Like, men are always over women, and I’m always like WHY? WHY? WHY? And we don’t talk about it. 

People, well, boys in this class make fun of me for saying I’m a feminist. I really think this unit will improve our culture. I am really glad we are doing this. 

And my boys, well, they are…passively resistant. We have a culture in our class where there is an immense amount of respect granted me, which most days is delightful, but can make sensing unease and disagreement with me hard. They are not openly rebelling. Rather, they are not engaged. They are saying things in their writing, though, that help me understand where they are:

I really don’t know how I am going to get through this feminism unit. It is just so hard for me to talk about. 

I am for women’s rights, but I am not a feminist. We don’t need feminism. Women have it way easier than men in our society. 

Feminism has been stuffed down guy’s throats. 

I really don’t like talking about this. 

When I read these responses, I paused. I thought: should I continue? Should I continue to put these young men of color — many of whom have a tenuous academic identity, and all of whom have and do feel the boot of oppression on their own necks  — in a position where they a) don’t like school, and b) uncomfortably recognize their male privilege?

During a study hall this past Friday afternoon, I sat with a group of five young men, and we started discussing rape culture. Boys were sharing stories about how they knew girls who “faked rape” because they regretted having sex with someone, and how they ruined a boy’s life because of it. The same conversation then morphed into every single boy there saying that they didn’t want daughters because they would be so afraid that a man would hurt her. So, in sum: girls fake rape, but they don’t want responsibility for a daughter because they will be raped.

What do I make of this?

I see promise here; a dancing of light across the floor.

I have been sitting in this messy puddle of contradictions and thinking: this might just be it. I am thinking of Roxane Gay and how she, as the archetypal Bad Feminist, concludes that we all live within contradiction. We are listening to her, and reading Gloria Anzaldua’s “To Live in the Borderlands Means You” next week, and I am interested in how the young men and the young women can make meaning of necessarily inhabiting multiple and intersecting social identities.

This work will not be a straight line. This should not be easy. This will be a struggle for all of us, and it will necessarily be Dangerous to our comfortable ways of thinking. It will be Dangerous to the boys’ sense of self in a society that both props up and degrades their masculinities, as well as to my sense of efficacy as a teacher who relies on buy-in from her students.  I am persisting with this until the middle of March. I will send updates from the messiness, and would welcome any dialogue about this.

**I am very indebted to @RusulAlrubail, @merchantkrystle, and @feministteacher, members of my PLN, for readings, ideas, and inspiration. 

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