In 1989, Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” in a paper describing the overlap of discrimination black women face from both their racial and gender identities. Twenty-six years later, the word was added to the Oxford English Dictionary and later to the Merriam Webster Dictionary in 2017.
Despite its recent official introduction to the English language, intersectionality has been frequently used to describe the combination of social categorizations that may affect one’s place in society. Faculty members at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln participated in a panel discussion about intersectionality in art and life on Dec. 5 in the Sheldon Auditorium in Lincoln.
Panelists included professor of history and ethnic studies Jeannette Jones, English and ethnic studies professor Amelia Montes, College of Law Interim Dean Anna Shavers and DaWon Baker, the Nebraska Athletic Department Diversity and Inclusion director in Life Skills and Enrichment.
In a 2016 TED Talk, Crenshaw used art to better describe the term, with two roads intersecting with one another and a silhouette of a woman standing in the middle. One road was labeled “sexism” and the other “racism.”
As a black woman who came from a working-class family, Jones resonated with the image Crenshaw introduced during the talk.
“There are all these different layers, and it’s trying to figure out how that makes me who I am but also how that helps me move through the world or prevents me from moving to certain places,” Jones said. “I think part of what actually attracted me to my field of study was trying to make sense of that.”
According to Montes, intersectionality has played a role in academia at UNL. This semester she taught an upper-division ethnic studies and English literature course titled Chicanx Literature. However, in years past the course was known as Chicana and Chicano Literature. The ‘x’ replaced the female- and male- signified endings to the words Chicana and Chicano.
“The ‘x’ is a prominent letter in the Aztec Nahuatl language. To choose the ‘x’ then privileges the indigenous aspects of Mexican peoples in their history. The ‘x’ is also a gender-neutral sign, thereby invoking and including the LGBTQ community within this name,” she said. “In this way, we read Chicanx literature to make sure to bring all these aspects of identity to the discussion.”
Aside from changes to course titles, the concept of intersectionality has also been incorporated in the Nebraska Athletic Department. Baker, a 2015 University of Missouri graduate, found intersectionality at the core of his work at Nebraska when he joined in 2018.
The Nebraska Athletic Department posts videos on its social media accounts telling the stories of athletes or department staff members of varying social identities. The objective behind the videos is to appeal to recruits, Baker said, as it introduces them to people who share similar experiences.
“It’s just hearing those stories and really trying to get to the root of how these intersecting identities are really piled on top of each other. They bring us all together because we’re all a part of athletics but we’re not looking deeply enough at individual experiences,” he said. “That’s what I try to use to make sure that we get the full, complete picture of what it means to be a Nebraska athlete or a staff member for Nebraska Athletics.”
According to Montez, intersectionality not only correlates with athletic recruitment but with university admissions overall. She said if students with intersecting identities feel unwelcome on campus, the likeliness of them transferring to another school increases.
“The challenge is retention because you can get as many people of color on your campus as possible, and in one or two years, they will leave if the tone is not set. It’s not only to welcome them but to understand them. That’s where intersectionality comes in,” she said. “It’s not only the job of recruitment, it’s also the job of training and having faculty, and I’m not talking about faculty of color, I’m talking about faculty who are not of color, to understand and become an ally in the true sense of the word so that they are welcoming.”
For intersectionality to fully be understood at UNL, Jones said faculty workshops should be provided to help professors teach classes through an intersectional lens.
“I think we need some training, and I think that starts with the colleges and university. I think the university should value that,” she said. “Students should come from every class feeling like they were invested in themselves and reflected in that classroom.”