Intersectional Harm and Racial Justice

Intersectional Harm

The concept of intersectional harm connects the concept of intersectionality, developed by Kimberlé Crenshaw (1991), with an analysis of population-level state violence (Spade 2013).

Intersectionality is an analytic framework that understands systems of oppression as co-constituted rather than discrete. For instance, an additive model of oppression would see racism and sexism as two forms of oppression that are enacted distinctly on a racialized and gendered subject. However, in an intersectional framework, racism and sexism are forms of oppression that can also be co-constituted in the form of racialized sexism and sexist racism. An analysis of intersectional harm, rather than focusing on diversity and/or individual forms of discrimination, identifies the institutional, administrative, state, and structural forms of violence that connect diversely situated people through systemic violence in the form of exploitation, marginalization, criminalization, exclusion, etc.

Understanding historic exclusions and systemic inequalities as forms of administrative violence can help identify common sources for different experiences (e.g. students facing financial precarity may experience harm in their capacity to complete their studies in ways that are different from, but might mirror, students with learning disabilities—such as through barriers to accessing safe and quiet space to study in). This approach interrogates how administrative structures and systems (such as educational policies, funding streams, departmental culture, campus security, and service provision) enact harm on a wide scale in ways that may be imperceptible to those in positions of power, including faculty, administrators, and management.

Applying Analysis of Intersectional Harm

Although critiques over the appropriation and institutionalization of intersectionality as a concept must be taken seriously (Nash 2019), when used in an applied context, such as through an analysis of intersectional harm, the concept can help illustrate how individual instances of discrimination or oppression are not simply isolated, but part of institutional systems, structures, and cultures. Identifying the source of administrative violence can help bring longer-lasting transformation beyond individual punitive measures.

For instance, an incident of racism or transphobia in the classroom is usually interpreted as a problem at the level of individuals implicated in the incident, with solutions that focus on the individual(s) involved. However, through a model of intersectional harm, we can see these individual cases as connected to wider university policies that fail to make departments and the institution accountable. For example, simply stating that a course or department is anti-racist and/or trans-inclusive does not mean that faculty, staff, and students have the skill or capacity to put anti-racism and trans-inclusivity into practice.

While traditional university responses to instances of discrimination focus on individual solutions, an intersectional approach to harm would interpret these incidents as illustrations of systemic and structural inequalities within institutions that can be addressed in ways that transform those systems and structures, such as through:

  1. Challenging the status quo within the institution;
  2. Creating cultural changes around teaching and interpersonal interaction within departments;
  3. Creating clear and transparent accountability mechanisms at all levels of the institution;
  4. Centring the voices and perspectives of those most marginalized at the university in guiding priorities for change; and
  5. Developing collaborative partnerships that benefit those with the least access to power and resources (e.g. students and communities outside the university).

At an individual level, thinking about intersectional harm can help depersonalize instances of discrimination and inequality in your own classroom through both self-reflection and identifying how a form of harm enacted in the classroom is connected to wider systems and structures. In addition to holding oneself and others individually accountable (see section: Navigating Difficult Pedagogical Dynamics), this approach can help connect individuals to collective processes for bringing about institutional change, such as by engaging your department in training, professional development, education, and policy work. This approach can also help build skills and tools to empower students, faculty, and staff to actively change learning and work conditions within departments and at educational institutions, such as through cultural change in the form of bystander intervention, collective accountability processes, and shifting cultural norms that are implicitly or explicitly exclusionary or discriminatory.

Racial Justice and Sexuality in Intersectional Classroom Learning

Critical scholarship in sexuality studies has examined the interconnected emergence of racial and sexual discourses through the development of scientific and medical models of racial taxonomy and sex dimorphism through the fields of medicine, psychology, anthropology, and the natural sciences (Gill-Peterson 2018; LaFleur 2018; Schuller 2018; Somerville 1994; Stoler 1995; TallBear 2013-2021). This area of sexuality scholarship aims to challenge modern discourses that see gender, race, and sexuality as discrete and natural categories. The emergence of scientific discourses around race and sex difference thus co-constitute models of population control and management starting in the 19th century through reproductive violence (e.g. eugenics policies, sterilization, coercive reproduction, and compulsory heterosexuality and monogamy), law and criminalization (e.g. miscegenation, buggery, sodomy, and indecency laws), and labour exploitation (e.g. racial segregation, indentured labour, undocumented labour, unpaid and low-waged care labour). Further, scholarship on the history of European colonialism and Indigenous sexualities has illustrated how the introduction of Western sex/gender ideologies—which included anti-sodomy and buggery laws, as well as marriage, property and inheritance laws—was used as part of the colonial project to both regulate colonial populations through civilizational assimilationist policies (i.e. marriage and patriarchal family structures), and eradicate Indigenous gender(s) and sexualities through criminalization, medicalization, and displacement.

Teaching about this history can play an important role in helping students identify and understand the origins of racial and sexual violence, as well as identify larger systems and structures shaping gender and sexuality in the contemporary context, in addition to current forms of racial violence. The work of racial justice in sexuality studies, and vice versa, therefore connects discipline-specific research and scholarship in sexuality studies to analytic approaches on intersectional harm. Other fields can find similar ways of developing intersectional learning by investigating how forms of violence are co-constituted and co-implicated through historic processes. For instance, the co-constitute histories of ableism, eugenics, and reproductive control.

Racial Justice and Curriculum Violence

When teaching and learning about racial violence, images and stories of violence are often used as pedagogical tools, such as showing videos or images of police killings of Black people when learning about the movement for Black Lives, images of the bodies of refugees washed ashore during the Syrian refugee crisis, stories and coverage of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls and Two-Spirit people when learning about settler colonialism, historic images and films depicting slavery, war, and genocide, and even fictionalized scenes of torture or sexual violence in literature, film, media, and fine arts. While there may be important pedagogical and political reasons to show violent images and stories in the classroom, such as to serve historical and critical learning, the pedagogical value and use of these images have been debated. Because the circulation of violent imagery risks objectifying the victims of violence, the use of these images and stories in the classroom may also serve to reinforce and re-enact racial violence. This is what some scholars have called curriculum violence (Jones 2020).

Krista Lynes, Canadian Research Chair in Feminist Media Studies at Concordia, draws on Black scholarship to explain how the circulation of images of racial violence can have psychic costs on racialized viewers and risks reinforcing racism. Lynes argues that images of violence require a frame of engagement that prompts the viewer to act for change. This must be accompanied by acknowledging that these images are “traumatic and potentially potent if, and only if, those images are claimed by those whose vulnerability has been exposed.”

Krista Lynes’ video Can I Look at This: Watching Media of Racial Violence. Hosted on YouTube and made available through the Decolonial Perspectives and Practices Hub.

You can find more in Lynes’ video on the Anti-Racism Pedagogy Project page as part of the Decolonial Perspectives and Practices Hub.

Engaging with historic and popular texts that use “charged,” “politically incorrect,” and “violent” language has increasingly become a point of contention in education. Popular debates and even government intervention have emerged in response to demands from students (as well as faculty and staff) to avoid using (and sometimes stop assigning) texts that reinforce or replicate racial violence. The backlash against these demands has been polarizing and has focused on dismissing students for being “snowflakes” or part of a new “woke” culture war. From the faculty side, many faculty unions have expressed concern over the concept of academic freedom, with worries that student complaints will have labour implications on hiring practices, contingent faculty, or censorship of academic research and teaching. The unfortunate consequence has been to debate the right to use violent language, images, or texts rather than develop practical skills and strategies for how to engage with these texts and objects in responsible, respectful, and accountable ways.

There is often no room to include stories of resistance, contribution and triumph when the curriculum is preoccupied with having students simulate what literary and Black Studies scholar Christina Sharpe calls ‘the story that cannot be told.

Stephanie P. Jones
Assistant Professor at Grinnell College

Using Contentious and “Charged” Language in the Classroom

Faculty teaching courses that deal with racial violence should take time to consider and reflect on how differently situated students in the class might be impacted by the objects and texts examined in class. For students who have experienced racial violence and trauma, being in a classroom where learning about racism and racial violence happens with student peers who do not share these experiences can be especially challenging. For example, non-Indigenous students learning about residential schools for the first time may be distressed or upset by learning about this history and react with strong emotions in the classroom. While such experiences may strengthen empathy and learning for non-Indigenous students, they may have the reverse impact on Indigenous students by further entrenching the centring of non-Indigenous perspectives, experiences, and standpoints.

This does not mean that these topics should be avoided; rather, faculty should prepare to address multiple ways that students encounter this material, especially those who have experienced racial violence and trauma.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Better Practices in the Classroom by Natalie Kouri-Towe and Myloe Martel-Perry is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book