• Intersectionality is a term that was coined in 1989 by law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw that explains how systems of privilege and oppression overlap and the complexity of living at the intersections of those systems. Let’s take a look at what intersectional history is, how it contributes to social change, how to build young historians who help to change our understanding of history, and some strategies for teaching intersectional history.

    What is intersectional history and why is it important?

    Intersectional history is the study of the past through the lens of social and political discrimination in organizations and systems over time and how they overlap and intersect in multiple, complex ways with gender, race, class, or sexual identity. For example, if we were to examine the history of industry, we would see a wage gap between men and women, due to law (or absence of law), societal attitudes and expectations, targeted oppression, organizational power and more. In addition to all these factors, we would find that most women of color were historically more affected by this wage gap because of their race and, in many cases, socioeconomic status. This intersection of gender, race, education, and income in relationship to industrial power, privilege, and control reveals a much more comprehensive and realistic view of why a wage gap existed historically, why it still exists, and how it has impacted some women and their families more than others. Teaching history from an intersectional perspective matters. It allows for a more holistic and truthful study of our past. Understanding and teaching this history is instrumental to dismantling existing oppression and encouraging social change. Any history that does not take intersectionality into account is limited and exclusionary.

    This chart based on statistics from the National Women’s Law Center (and verified by other sources) shows the disparity of wage from information collected in 2018. Charts do not tell an entire story, however. If we are to examine this issue with an intersectional lens, a chart like this would be a jumping off point or provocation to further research.

    Why is it important for students to learn how to be historians? And what is Historiography?

    The word “historiography” refers to the study of the methods, techniques, approach to sources and evidence, and research that historians use to develop the story of history. Studying history like a historian exposes students to the concept that the way history has been researched and written has and can change over time. By mentoring a new generation of historians who are cognizant that the way history is told can impact society, we can continue to contribute to an evolving body of work that is more inclusive and truthful which, in turn, has academic and social impact.

    The Southern States notoriously sought to write their own version of history after the Civil War, erecting monuments and altering school textbooks in attempt to influence historiography and education. Some of these alterations are still being challenged by historians and the public even today.

    How can studying intersectional history contribute to social change?

    The study of intersectional history can offer diverse voices and perspectives, especially those not traditionally included in euro-centric or white-washed history, painting a much more authentic and holistic view of events, ideas, and people. Artist and author Maya Gonzalez, says “children should not long for their own image” and she’s right. We all need to see reflections of ourselves in history and we also need to see the reflections of others. This combination of self-reflection and exposure to a broader range of experiences is the first step towards building empathy, compassion, and community.

    The study of intersectional history promotes social equity and community engagement. In particular, it connects us and makes us a part of our neighborhoods, which have their own social and cultural histories. Engaging in the commitment to re-telling and preserving the local past creates a commitment to the people who live around us and encourages us to look for and promote ways in which we can be more equitable in our daily lives.

    The study of intersectional history can also inform ways of reparation and restitution for both historical and current acts of violence, genocide, and injustice. When we can identify and acknowledge the connections between power and oppression, control and cruelty, we gain more knowledge and skills that we can use to protect those who are marginalized or in danger and we can take responsibility with actions that show, not just verbalize, our commitment to atone for past wrongdoing.

    Finally, by studying intersectional history, we can see the ways in which industry and economy have been built on platforms of bigotry and oppression. We can influence social entrepreneurship, technology, and innovation to adapt and accommodate a much broader range of needs that take into account equity and justice, as well as cultural relevance and preference.

    When studying history/social studies, should people primarily focus on current events, or use a standard, chronological approach?

    This is something a lot of people feel conflicted or confused about. Students should absolutely examine current events from a multidisciplinary point of view; that is, how is what is happening right now related to history, science, etc.? The immediate relevance, and sometimes call to action, is important to young people who need to feel informed and empowered. But we shouldn’t discount studying history in a more traditional, chronological way. There are many ways to study history: thematically, topically, regionally- but every student should study world history, and the history of their country, at least once chronologically. Not only does this method offer perspective and context, but students are much more able to see patterns and cycles when they look at history from beginning to now.

    It is always important, however, to connect past and current events in an intersectional way to whatever time period you are examining so students can see the relevance and value of studying history. For example, students need the context of the Black experience in the United States over the last 400 years to understand the Black Lives Matter movement today. They need the history of North American indigenous people and how each of the over 500 distinctive tribes have been treated by the U.S. government over centuries in order to comprehend the current protests and calls for action in regards to missing indigenous women or water and land rights. Students should study the history of deforestation issues, such as those of the Roman Empire or the Industrial Revolution, when tackling solutions to the current problem of deforestation in places like Brazil or the larger global climate crisis. History matters to now.

    What are some other strategies for studying intersectional history?

    Solid research and study of intersectional history starts with sources. We shift the narrative by focusing on primary sources (documents, artifacts, etc. that were made during the time period we are studying) and secondary sources (books, films, etc. that analyze or interpret a topic, often using primary sources) that are credible and diverse. When they are looking at a source, students should ask questions like:

    When, why, and where was this source created?

    Who was this source created for?

    What historical events could have influenced its creation or its meaning?

    What perspectives are included?

    Who does this narrative benefit?

    Whose voices are missing? How might they tell this story?

    What connections can be made to our current time period?

    What can we learn from this?

    Why is it important to know this?

    What information do I need to find next?

    Students should also look at the topics, events, and people they are studying with an intersectional lens. Looking at how power and oppression influenced decisions and actions in history reveals that history doesn’t just happen randomly. When they are studying a specific time period, students should ask questions like:

    Who benefitted from the events in this time period?

    Who had the most power in this time period and why?

    From the labor of whom did those in power benefit?

    Who benefitted the least from the events in this time period?

    Who had the least amount of power in this time period and why?

    How did race, gender, class, or sexual identity affect those in power? Those who were oppressed? Those involved in major events? The everyday life of ordinary people?

    Have I collected the perspective of every possible voice in this time period? What do these narratives have in common? Where do they conflict?

    Where can I see these stories in current events?

    Finally, students should learn to write about history and develop history-focused projects based on intersectionality. With credible, diverse sources, research, analysis, and critique using an intersectional lens will result in papers and projects that reflect a student’s comprehensive understanding of the past. This awareness of complexity and reality not only changes the way they see history and its impact on the present, but influences their contribution to social engagement and change.

    History matters. The way we tell our collective history matters. By committing to a more inclusive, intersectional, truthful perspective, we show that the voices of the past, in particular those that have been previously silenced, matter.

    This article was originally published in the July 2020 issue of SEA magazine and website.