Diversify Thought: Teach Intersectionality

Zahra Thani argues that every philosophy class should combat exclusionary practices.

The liberal institution of the university is a place (many would say the place) where philosophy is done and accepted. But anybody can do philosophy. Whether it’s a personal blog, a conversation at a bar, or perhaps an internal dialogue, practicing philosophy has been done in many spaces, places, and periods. Arguably, there are good forums to do philosophy -- where philosophical discussion involves critical thinking skills and complex argument. I couldn’t tell you what the best forum for doing philosophy is. But, I am inclined to say that university classrooms could be a good forum for doing philosophy.

Due to a combination of my privilege and unwavering interest in the discipline, at times the university classroom provided a good space for philosophical inquiry for me. Some classrooms pushed me to think critically and to interrogate arguments.. As my interest in the discipline grew to become a major of study, I made choices to be taught by professors that I had already become acquainted with. I knew their classrooms were spaces where I felt comfortable. These professors fostered interesting conversations and discussions that went beyond the classroom.

Although some university classrooms might be a good space to do philosophy, doing philosophy in the professional, mainstream way (through the university) comes with a certain philosophy of philosophy. That is to say: the university works to validate philosophical thought through gatekeeping practices. The university determines the right way to do philosophical work. This is not always bad -- it’s probably good that there is some sort of standard for a sound argument. But other norms are harder for me to view as something that is helpful to advancing the discipline; an example of this is the term rationality. Most of all, I am skeptical of whether the university’s gatekeeping practices do more good than harm. The institution is rooted in white supremacy and as a result has many exclusionary practices. Historically and presently it shuts out marginalised groups -- those of low socioeconomic status, people of colour, trans people, etc ... Philosophy’s gatekeeping practices, which work as part of the university, also exclude marginalised groups.

In Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women Redefining Difference, Audre Lorde writes about the mythical norm. She argues that in America the mythical norm is “white, thin, male, young, heterosexual, Christian, and financially secure”. This archetype is what is sought by the university and philosophy. To me, this was evident in the first undergraduate philosophy classes I took. There were several classes where the only texts I read were texts written by white men. This is a problem in many disciplines, those who are outside of the mythical norm are underrepresented in other fields too. But the issue in philosophy is more than a lack of representation. Even when marginalised groups contribute to the field, gatekeeping practices work as barriers to knowledge contributions in a way that explicitly excludes marginalised groups. This is an old, persistent, and complicated ritual. Its oppression is nuanced due to its significant historical presence.

Understanding why intersectionality should be taught in every class merely begins with understanding that the discipline is exclusionary for those who are not cis white men. In Changing the Ideology and Culture of Philosophy: Not by Reason (Alone) Sally Haslanger wrote that “It is very hard to find a place in philosophy that isn’t actively hostile to women and minorities, or at least that assume that a successful philosopher should look and act like a (traditional, white) man.” Philosophy needs to do work to acknowledge the way that structures of oppression have worked to create and/or influence gatekeeping practices about what counts as philosophical knowledge.

A practical solution towards radical transformation is teaching intersectionality in every philosophy class. Teaching intersectionality provides a valuable framework for understanding arguments.

Coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, intersectionality is a critical theory of the phenomenon of a synthesis of interlocking oppressions. It is the way in which different forms of oppression co-constitute one another and interact with one another to produce unique forms of oppression where they act in tandem. Intersectionality theory utilises the frameworks that recognise intersecting forms of oppression and facilitates coalition building and practical engagement against unjust power structures. This definition of intersectionality is short and as a result limiting. Similar to the ways that philosophy excludes in complex ways -- intersectionality works in complex ways. It’s fundamental in the philosophy classroom to combat exclusionary practices.

So… what does it look like to teach intersectionality in every philosophy class and why is that one way to radically transform the discipline?

Teaching intersectionality in every class would mean presenting foundational readings on the concept, such as the Combahee River Collective Statement, presenting readings that demonstrate relevant aspects of intersectionality in connection with the topic of the class, and teaching canonical readings with a critical lens that acknowledges the context of the writing. The specific details of how this might look in a classroom are unique to the classroom and the teacher. However, let’s use an ethics class as an example. An author such as Kant is likely to be discussed and teaching intersectionality would involve raising this issue of Kant’s racist anthropology and interrogating whether it is relevant to his ethics. It also might interrogate what it means to centre certain debates. It could involve asking why deontology versus consequentialism is discussed but not theories of oppression? How intersectionality gets taught and its relevance to the course topic will vary depending on topic.

In fact, its relevance to specific courses might not always be evident. But that’s part of the problem. The apparently apolitical nature of various philosophical topics -- the sense that some topics simply have no connection to the social reality of structural oppression and varied social identity -- is a reflection of the overwhelming whiteness and maleness that has dominated the subject matter and obscured its connections with power. Traditional philosophy trains individuals to see philosophy as an abstract discipline that is not inherently bound up with structures of oppression -- transcending controversies and engaging with perennial aspects of existence. However, any perspective that does not reflect the dominant consciousness which can ignore the existence of oppressive systems, recognises that philosophy is related to structures of oppression -- even if it is related transcendently.

Recognising the existence of oppressive systems is another way that intersectionality must be taught in the classroom. As a critical theory, intersectionality is more than theoretical accuracy; it pushes for ideas and principles to be put into action to effect change. Intersectional praxis is not simple because it resists a simple unified theory of oppression, but teachers should presuppose the reality of intersecting systems of oppression in the classroom. It’s not up for debate whether, for example, misogynoir or transphobia exist. And it’s not up for debate that the existence of these systems should not be tolerated. Treating the existence of intersecting oppressions as an open question is to assume the situated perspective of the elite white man who has no direct experience with barriers and obstacles created by such oppression. Diversifying philosophy requires that the experience of oppression be taken seriously within the academic philosophical setting.

In the classroom, there are several ways intersectionality can be practiced, but teaching it is a good starting point. Teachers, researchers, and students can do a lot to create a more inclusive curriculum, classroom, reading list, department, conference, journal ... etc. Teachers can begin with diversifying their syllabi to include more marginalised groups. Journals can make a better effort to publish people of colour, departments can support and encourage undergraduate and graduate student groups such as Minorities and Philosophy. There are quick changes, but a commitment to learning and unlearning is a constant process.

Philosophy is best when there is diversity of thought, and teaching intersectionality in philosophy classrooms creates a space where students can engage in a Socratic dialogue with many ideas, arguments, and perspectives.


Zahra Thani received her BA from Boston University in 2020.