ARTICLE

Intersectional Identities: Do Educators Empower or Oppress?

In addressing intersecting identities, educators can contribute to students’ empowerment—or oppression. One TT intern reflects on her experiences as a black, female, Muslim student.

“Don't bring your Muslim crap here.” My “friend” said this to me. I was 16 years old, and she was taking me to her church. It was 2015, and in our post-9/11, divisive climate, I was desensitized to the othering of my faith: I had grown up in white, Catholic spaces. 

As a black, female Muslim, I have been caught in this battle of choosing which identity is acceptable to present in certain contexts. Here, I am only black. Over there, I am just a woman. And over there, I am solely Muslim. 

As educators, you can either empower or oppress students by the way you choose to teach and see them. Your intentional decisions to incorporate some communities and identities into the classroom while leaving others out show which side you choose. 

The absence of education that incorporated various identities—and my subsequent, subconscious acceptance of others’ mistreatment of my intersectionality—shows me that the educators in my life chose to oppress.

 

Choosing to Empower or Oppress

My educators played antagonistic contributors in my battle of identity trade-offs because they never acknowledged my intersecting identities. When I was growing up, my teachers did not recognize or address the reality of the “double burden” that black women face for being black and female. I never learned about black, female, Muslim historical figures. Instead, my educators celebrated Christopher Columbus but somehow neglected his murderous, enslaving tendencies. Even more disturbing, my high school’s mascot was the “Crusader”—an homage to the medieval wars against Muslims. 

The only representation of intersectionality I received was the shallow exploration of Harriet Tubman

The combination of the school environment and these lessons told me my identities did not matter.

To be black and Muslim is to be ignored. I first learned that in the classroom.

Constantly asking me to identify across difference while my classmates were able to study people who shared their identities, these educators repressed my intellectual curiosity. 

As a current college student, I have spent the majority of my time occupying educational spaces supposedly intended to empower. But due to the U.S. education system’s disregard for Islam, these spaces have demonized my faith. They’ve presented Muslims only as terrorists and extremists. U.S. textbooks disproportionately overlook Islam or grossly oversimplify the religion, its followers and beliefs. 

And when it comes to exploring intersectional Muslim identities? Forget it. As a black, female Muslim, my experiences outside and within the Muslim community are disregarded. I cannot count the number of times a Muslim who fits the template of what a Muslim “should” look like (i.e., Middle Eastern or South Asian) has asked me if I converted. As if I could not have been born into the religion just like they were. As if black Muslims do not currently make up a third of the American Muslim population. This is a direct impact of the lack of education around the variety of identities within Islam. 

To be black and Muslim is to be ignored. I first learned that in the classroom. 

As a student, I see education as a tool for liberation. But sometimes these expectations do not parallel reality, especially my intersectional reality. I wish I had a teacher growing up who empowered me by meeting me where I am—as a black, female Muslim—and considering my identities. The effects of the educators who did not live with me today. 

I still live with the shame of not fully understanding the history of black Muslims. I know more about the history of white Christians than I know about my own community. I still live with the constant need to prove my devotedness in spaces that do not see black Muslims as “real” Muslims. I continue to subconsciously accept being ignored. 

Educators must recognize their students’ identities to avoid this. Christina Torres, who teaches seventh- and ninth-grade English, told Teaching Tolerance, “When I don’t consider intersectionality, I run the risk of oppressing my kids. When we stop seeing our kids as whole people—as nuanced people, with context to gender and race and class—we stop seeing them as real people.” This includes religion, too. 

To my past educators who ignored my identities, aren’t I a whole person?

 

What Students Need

When I was growing up, my teachers made me feel less than. I will never forget the day I was scolded by a faculty member because I missed school to observe a Muslim holiday. Would I have been lambasted if I was a Christian girl who had missed school to observe Good Friday? What if I had missed school for Yom Kippur? We have placed a responsibility on educators to make space for some religious identities by closing public schools, government offices and businesses for holidays like Christmas and Yom Kippur. The same cannot be said for Muslim holidays, with very few exceptions. 

Students like me need educators and schools that structurally support their identities. Muslim or not, black or not, your students will benefit from educators who approach their work with an intersectional lens. 

You cannot call yourself an educator if you refuse to address all parts of your students’ identities. Acknowledging the intersections of who they are matters to your classroom and schools because it affirms your marginalized students and creates critical thinking within their peers. A crucial part of your job is to create learning environments and lessons that are accessible and relevant to all your students. But if you are limiting your coverage of race, gender, class and religion—or avoiding those topics and their intersections altogether—you are falling short. You cannot create accessibility and relevance while simultaneously endorsing and engaging in exclusivity. 

Educators have the power to impact the way students develop into thinkers who honor intersectionality from an early age. 

You can teach elementary-level books like Mark Gonzales’ Yo Soy Muslim: A Father’s Letter to His Daughter, which addresses being both Latinx and Muslim. You can encourage students to think about how the book taught them something new or validated their identities. 

You can challenge students’ misconceptions—just like Fakhra Shah, a Muslim educator, who encouraged a student to explain what he meant by saying she does not “look Muslim.” She helped her student by challenging his erroneous beliefs. 

Do not get me wrong: I am grateful for my educators who have taught me the salience of the pursuit of education. I just wish I learned more about myself as a whole person and had seen my identities and communities reflected in my education the same way some of my peers had. 

You can either empower or oppress your students. There is no such thing as neutrality when it comes to students and their lives. 

Asenuga is a senior at Duke University and a Teaching Tolerance intern.