Pull up a seat, and let’s talk about Social Justice/Intersectional Identities.
In the world of higher education, the terms social justice and intersectionality have become hot topics. What exactly do these terms mean in helping to create a more inclusive campus community for our students? Let me first begin by stating I am a Cis-hereto Black male, first-generation student. Having just completed my degree in Student Affairs at a Hispanic Serving Institution that for the most seem more like a PWI having “a seat at the table” for some students seems a somewhat impossible task.
Through my journey as a graduate student and an upcoming new professional, it is imperative that I not take these terms lightly. Higher education institutions are becoming more diverse, and it is our job as professionals to make students coming from marginalized identities feel welcomed. However, we seem to be missing the mark. If you read any higher education news source, you will see an array of incidents surrounding social justice and intersectionality. My professor once stated in my Multicultural class that, “Social justice is a humanist philosophy about equality, that subscribes to the idea that in order for there to be true human advancement, access to resources, opportunities and development must be equitable, fair and just." Students want to be heard; no human being should ever have to make a case for their worth. As professionals in this field, we need to understand that social justice and intersectional issues occur globally, nationally, regionally, locally, and within groups. These issues are a result of the unequal rights of individuals who have different qualities, traits, and identities. I would be remiss if not also to mention unequal wealth and resource distribution, which support this de facto segregation. No longer are the days of In Loco Parentis. It is not enough for an institution to promote diversity and inclusion if they are not striving for equity. Let me address these two concepts further.
The word Social Justice is a rather broad term. In its early days, the term targeted poverty and the need for an equal distribution of resources. Today, the word has acquired a more comprehensive and more detailed definition that accounts for specific modes of ethical treatment. I have seen many higher education administrators use these terms as a means to justify their poor actions stating diversity, inclusion, and access. However, social diversity is different from social justice. Social diversity recognizes the differences among social groups based on race and ethnicity, gender and sexuality, class, religion, ability or disability, and age (Adams et al., 2018). On the other end, social justice requires not only the recognition of social group differences but also an understanding of how social differences are connected to social group inequality (Adams et al., 2018).
To assist students coming from marginalized backgrounds we must first stop looking at them as broken students but individuals with intersecting parts. There is a need for us in higher education to have a respectful acknowledgment of differences. The issue here is that we are in a society that values privilege over equity. For institutions of higher learning to achieve social justice, individuals must agree to put themselves in another's shoes participating in a social system that has no privilege, favorites, or judgments against anyone social or class status.
Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality in the late 1980s in the context of feminism. Crenshaw argued that being a black woman could not be understood without understanding the concepts of being both black and a woman independently but with intersecting parts that supplement each other. This is part of individuals every single day. You cannot begin to think of yourself as just one thing. This is why it is important not to see our students as only students.
Intersectionality is as much a part of oneself as breathing. In my experience, this term has been used so loosely. People seem to understand the idea but fail to understand the importance. Intersectionality is about identity, and everyone unbelievably wants to have a personality. It is the reason why LGBTQIA+ students, students of color, and undocumented students continued to stand up and fight. So the question I have kept asking myself is how we can use intersectionality to understand intersectional identities? In her article “The Complexity of Identity: who am I?” Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum describes that in our society, we are seen by others, and the image projected onto us reflects how we are perceived in society. She goes on to state that our identity is created by factors that are related to us, as well as external components within society but once we resist societal pressures we can begin to embrace our identities and free ourselves.
For professionals to understand student's intersectional identities, we must allow them to speak, have a seat at the table, and break free of these societal pressures. As mentioned, the challenge facing our colleges and universities today is building more inclusive and fair campus communities. We cannot begin to become more equitable and inclusive if we do not include. There can no longer be this one-at-a-time approach. Colleges and universities must continue to expand classes, programs, and activities that are inclusive to all but exclude none. Most importantly, we must allow students from marginalized backgrounds to have a voice without ridicule understanding that everyone has an identity and wants to be identified.
In understanding social justice and intersectional identities it importance to hear an array of voices. I would like to “pull up a seat” for my friend and colleague, Kendra Wesson, to share her experiences on social justice and intersectional identity:
In my experience serving as a Student Conduct Office, I encounter both social justice and intersectional identities within my own identities and helping students. A concept that is becoming more prevalent and used is that of intersectionality. I want to focus on the "inter" part of the word. I am a woman and African-American. To several of the students, I work with this could come as both a fear and a relief. Understanding my identities helps me to better work with students being a sounding board of change and development. Recognizing the importance of this also helps reaffirm one's own intersectional identities. At times, it can be difficult being a black woman managing my various identities knowing that people tend to concentrate on just one. Sadly, those struggles come not only from students but as well as co-workers. The constant strain of individuals, some who are marginalized, not understanding the basis of intersectionality is tiresome both physically and mentally. I continue to do my best surrounding myself with a strong village and putting myself in areas of self-growth.
Social justice, on the other hand, is another topic. To understand the dichotomy of social justice fully, one must continue to gain knowledge. Social justice is shown in various ways in my office. As I investigate violations of the code of student conduct, I am always reminded of what role social justice plays. In the many interactions, students may have with the police, peers, staff, and faculty I have to be conscientious. I believe I am a voice for students educating them not only about campus policies but also on resources that at many times they do not even know about. Social justice is a tool that should be used to inform further. Personally, social justice keeps me grounded and allows me to do the work of retaining and educating students. It is difficult working with staff when social justice and intersectionality are not practiced among professionals. I believe this is a disservice to the students. It is vital that professionals get training on these topics and practice outside of the professional setting. It helps to get involved in mentoring, organizations, and conferences to expand one's development and growth.
Both Kendra and I understand that Social Justice and Intersectionality can be used as a tool to further the educational advancement of students and some professionals who do not have a seat at the table. As we continue our work in the profession let us ask one question, "How are you willing to continue talks about social justice and intersectionality with a focus on equity?" Let us continue to do work creating more brave spaces allowing students to have a seat at the table on these crucial topics.
Adams, M., Blumenfeld, W. J., Catalano, C. J., DeJong, K., Hackman, H. W., Hopkins, L. E., … Zuniga, X. (2018). Readings for diversity and social justice. New York: Routledge.
Sean Hembrick is a recent graduate of the Texas State University M.Ed. in Student Affairs in Higher Education program. This July he starts his new position as the Assistant Director of Intercultural Development at Lafayette College in Easton, PA. Sean also holds an M.F.A. in Creative Writing and loves to read, write, and travel.
Kendra Wesson is a graduate of the University of South Alabama M.Ed. in Educational Leadership for Higher Education Administration program. Currently, Kendra Wesson serves as a Student Conduct Office in the Dean of Students Office at Texas State University. In her spare time, Kendra enjoys watching movies, reading, and hanging out with friends and family.