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Intersectionality: What is it and Why it’s a Crucial Lens in Restorative Practice Work

Intersectionality:  The complex and cumulative way in which the effects of multiple forms of discrimination combine, overlap or intersect, especially in the experiences of marginalized people.- Kimberle Crenshaw


Intersectionality: the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage- Oxford Dictionary


Intersectionality: What is it and Why it’s a Crucial Lens in Restorative Practice Work

There is an old children’s song “Them Bones” that goes “the ankle bone’s connected to the shin bone; the shin bone’s connected to the leg bone; the leg bone’s connected to the hip bone” and so on.  Through songs and other instructions, from an early age we begin to understand that our physical body is connected, that what happens in one part of our body, impacts and affects the entire self.


Intersectionality, as defined by Crenshaw above, works in much the same way. Discrimination and oppression are all connected to one another. Thus, if we choose to focus only on one form of oppression in our deeply interwoven social fabric we cannot be truly successful in enacting real change. All forms of oppression impact, shape and affect each of us according to the advantages and disadvantages imposed on us by societal constructs. Both privilege and marginalization are shaped by the combination of each of our specific identities. 


The myriad serious issues facing us as a country and society today, from climate crisis to police brutality and mass incarceration to gender and sexual violence to racial inequity and mass incarceration are not separate and disconnected. They all stem from shared roots like racism, classism, anti-LGBTQ bias, privilege etc.  Understanding our history and the often devastating impacts of these dysfunctional systems allows us to begin to recognize intersectionality in all aspects of our society and in our interpersonal interactions. Intersectionality allows us a framework to think about discrimination in all its dimensions. 


As you hear about issues others face, learn about the work that is currently being done around these topics. Listen and defer to those who live with these intersectional identities each day. As you do, you will likely deepen your understanding of your own identity and the subjects you care about most.” YW Boston Blog


Examining restorative practices work in schools through the focus of intersectionality is essential to creating deep systems change as it encourages us, for example, to examine all of the systems working against the success of many BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) and multiracial students and for the success of white students, who are part of what is often termed “dominant culture.” Numerous studies of discipline in schools makes clear that a Latinx high school girl is much more likely to be discriminated against or punitively punished than a white girl who, while facing gender discrimination, doesn’t have the added layer of race-based discrimination. A transgender white boy is more at risk of discrimination, bullying and hate-crimes than a cisgender white boy.  As a specific example, BIPOC children are much more likely to be disciplined for ill-defined behavioral infractions such as “being disrespectful” while white children are disciplined for more concrete breaking of rules like swearing or smoking.  


When we recognize the overlapping identity markers such as race, gender identity, age, class, and socioeconomic status, we begin to identify imbalances perpetuated by layers of discrimination. For example, teachers and administrators continue to disproportionately refer BIPOC students to RP.  Thus, we are merely switching the method of behavioral intervention, not addressing the inequity inherent in the intervention.  Our awareness of intersectionality can help illuminate how privilege and bias can negatively impact BIPOC students, even through “good” practices like restorative practice. Working with integrity in restorative practice requires that we use the lens of intersectionality to come to a deeper understanding of why and how students behave as well as why and how they are treated, based on their identities. 


Consider how this could play out in a restorative conference.. A male student of immigrant status with limited English proficiency who identifies as gay and a cisgender white female are referred to RJ for getting in a fight in the hallway, instigated by the male.  With an intersectional lens, the teacher can recognize that these two students have most likely had very different educational experiences based on their identities. An RP conference with intersectional awareness would consider the different perspectives and experiences of both of these students and how these may have brought them into conflict in the first place.


We all need to be aware of how intersecting oppressions affect students. Intersectional and equity-oriented educators and facilitators need to recognize and understand both their own multiple identities and those of their students. Our work is to consider the practices and policies at play in our systems – in this case, our schools – and to disrupt any and all inequitable policies and actions which affect students’ access to meaningful participation in our educational system, in general, and Restorative Practices, specifically. 

For more tips on how to face and understand intersectionality, check out these recommended resources:

Ten Tips for Putting Intersectionality from The Opportunity Agenda

Teaching Tolerance

Kimberle Crenshaw Ted Talk