Understanding Intersectionality

Taking time to listen, to consider someone else’s perspective through the lens of their life experience, and to offer true support – these were a few of the goals at the heart of this year’s annual Diversity Symposium, which opened on March 1 in the Kaye Theatre. History Department Head Cal Hitzrot and senior Mary Odusami set the tone for the weekend by exchanging thoughts about what it means to be an ally and how to become a better one, starting with recognizing your own privilege and reaching out to others with an open, empathetic mind.

To better understand how intersectionality – or, the combination of race, gender, and privilege –influences and informs personal identity – the School welcomed Dr. Rodney Glasgow to lead a panel discussion focusing on how race and gender play a role in privilege. Currently the head of the middle school and chief diversity officer at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School, Dr. Glasgow is a noted speaker, facilitator, trainer, and activist in the areas of diversity, equity, and social justice. As one of the founding members and now chair of the National Association of Independent School’s annual Student Diversity Leadership Conference, Dr. Glasgow brought with him three veteran conference facilitators: Lorraine Martinez Hanley, Diane Nichols, and Priyanka Rupani.

Through sharing personal experiences and discussing national news stories, Dr. Glasgow and his colleagues gave specific examples illustrating how intersectionality affects people and situations every day. As Dr. Glasgow recounted, his calm refusal one evening to pay for menu items that he did not order at a restaurant quickly became a police matter. In contrast, showing outright anger and contempt in a Congressional hearing did not hinder the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. “If I had that demeanor in a court room,” Dr. Glasgow observed, “it would not have gone that way.” For women, as other panelists pointed out, a strong expression of feeling is often dismissed as being “too emotional.” As Ms. Martinez Hanley said, “When does my passion become ‘emotion’?”

The following morning, students worked in small groups – organized by grade level and guided by one of the four guest facilitators – to examine their own identities and assess their relative privilege. Through a series of activities and questions, they considered not only the factors of race and gender but also socioeconomic status, religion, and other “cultural identifiers” that inform privilege, weighing the importance and impact of these dynamics in their lives. Just as significantly, they shared their insights with each other.

With greater self-awareness and appreciation for intersectionality, students and faculty reconvened in the Kaye Theatre for a final meeting. After a morning of reflecting and working together, they emerged better prepared to strengthen Middlesex and their home communities with deeper empathy, improved communication skills, and renewed commitment to social justice.