How Black Educators Navigate Intersectional Identities in the Classroom

Research Commentary | Diversity and Equity

How Black Educators Navigate Intersectional Identities in the Classroom

Seph was a participant in our Voices of Change research project on Black women's classroom experiences. We learned how a non-binary teacher negotiates multiple identities and how this struggle manifests for Black women educators.

By Seph Young and Mi Aniefuna     Feb 15, 2024

How Black Educators Navigate Intersectional Identities in the Classroom

This article is part of the guide: Exploring the Classroom Experiences of Black Women Educators.

In the fall of 2023, EdSurge Research invited Black women educators to engage in a community-based, participatory research project and tell their own stories about their classroom experiences. All first-person accounts in this article belong to Seph Young and the participants of this study, with research support from Mi Aniefuna. You can find out more about this research project in the first article of this series here.

After transitioning from teaching adolescents to educating adults, I’m challenged to understand people in the context of their identities and workplaces, especially when that context is unclear to me and those I educate. I do this while combating a flattening double consciousness, wrestling with who I am and others’ racialized and gendered perceptions of me. I do this as a Black non-binary person with multiple chronic illnesses, who is read as an able-bodied Black woman.

W.E.B. Du Bois originally named the experience of double consciousness in his first book, “Souls of Black Folk.” Double-consciousness is the simultaneous experience of being Black as one sees oneself while inescapably seeing oneself through the white gaze. It gives language for the dissonance of the repeated realization of a fractured personhood and how we persistently reassemble ourselves.

Understanding double consciousness helps me reconcile what pushed me out of a mainstream education. It helps me, as a consultant, build organizations’ capacity for equity-centered change. Each of our unique combinations of identities may occupy varying perspectives and positionalities; even when we do share identities, we may not identically experience or understand them. It can feel lonely and isolating balancing this fractured personhood. However, building community with Black women educators as a participant in the EdSurge Research and Abolitionist Teaching Network healing circle, showed me how the intersections also collide for other Black women educators.

This article examines several themes that surfaced during the group sessions that are connected to my reflections on intersectional identity negotiations. We examine the influence of the intersections of race, gender, sexual orientation, disability and migration on these Black women educators’ experiences based on the seen and unseen elements of the participants in this study. We relate my experiences and other participants’ perspectives to the endurance of double consciousness and intersectionality, and we end with questions for future inquiry and suggestions for supporting Black women’s wholeness in the education ecosystem.

Seeing Oneself in the Intersections

Double consciousness feels like being viewed, rather than seen. The participants in the healing circles explained how they divorce the distorted white gaze and see their whole selves to combat being othered from two primary perspectives: embracing their location within the African diaspora and finding comfort in and celebrating their dichotomous identities.

The African Diaspora Lives in Education

About 30 percent of our participants reported having at least one parent or grandparent from the Caribbean or the African continent. Consequently, each of these participants has the unique experience of having roots in countries that have been colonized and historically oppressed by European settlers. While their island or sub-Saharan roots are central to their identities, they are identified as Black women. Nonetheless, they explain how they straddle two worlds.

For example, one of our participants, a micro-school founder and educator with ten years of experience, illustrates what has informed her perspective as a Congolese-American:

As you can tell, I'm not from here, but I am. I'm really proud to have come. I'm almost 60 years old, so it's taken me almost 50 years to come to the term Congolese American and not African-American because I am from Africa, but I'm from the Congo, ... it's nice to have the connection to my father's people, and we are still connected, but it has not been easy to straddle two worlds. I came here as an immigrant, but I sound like I'm from here. People just assume that I'm just plain old African-American, but they don't realize that I don't have the cultural connection that they do because I grew up in an African household, in a Congolese household and with a white mother and surrounded by a white family.

Another participant, a newer teacher in New England, shares how she finds harmony in her identities:

I feel like, for me, it has been confusing at times, especially when it was perceived as conflicting to hold these multiple identities at the same time. But I think that learning to own it and learning to be proud of all aspects of myself has been really healing, especially as I get older. And just finding the beauty and joy at these intersections has been very, very important. One of those intersections that I find extreme joy in is being Black and Muslim. I find being around other Black Muslims very healing, and safe, and we're able to practice our faith in a way that feels authentic and feels beautiful together. So that's one of the ways that I wanted to share, finding that joy at that intersection.

This flattening of Blackness across the diaspora is common, but these insights offer important nuances we should consider in education.

Owning All of Their Identities

Despite assumptions that Black women are monolithic, these educators discuss how they intentionally celebrate the fullness of who they are. Another participant, a fifth-year middle grades science teacher in Virginia explained how she’s reconciled the dichotomy of her intersecting identities. Specifically, she explained how she’s found peace in “the gray areas”:

For someone who's at times a black-and-white thinker, I embody the duality that I struggle with. I am Blackish with a white mother and a Black father. I exist in a queer space and I usually choose to identify as bisexual. I'm moving past a very disjointed time in my life and finally coming into myself and who I believe that I'm meant to be. I'm finally finding myself in the gray areas that I often struggle to conceptualize. My whole life I have been too much, too white, too Black, too loud, too timid, too queer, too straight. Thankfully, I'm finally getting to a point where I've stopped defining myself by other people's standards. I'm more than enough.

Also, a third-year elementary ESOL teacher mentioned what context clues she observes to determine when to disclose all of her identities:

[My current] school was the only school that I did not mention that I was a lesbian because it was my safe school. It's like there's so many schools, especially in Atlanta, which you would think would be different because there's so many black gay people who live here. All on their posters, they talk about inclusion and the importance. Then when I say, "Okay, well what are we going to do to actually support gay kids?"

Several participants shared reflections on their experiences finding harmony in their seemingly fractured intersecting identities while negotiating which parts of themselves they share or withhold. They demonstrate how celebrating their intersectional identities allowed them to reclaim their internal monologues, allowing them to show up whole for their students.

In the forthcoming section, I share how my experiences are connected to my fellow participants in the healing circles, and how I juggle my intersecting identities in various educational environments.

Internal Paradigm Shift

My own self-rejection was a reflection of the multiple exclusions I experience daily. When I worked for others, acquiescence sometimes felt more manageable than anger and hurt. I didn’t realize how much harm I was absorbing until I hit the wall — and the wall hit back. In retrospect, this hypervigilance made me miss opportunities for connection and support. Although I had a clear awareness of the denials, aggressions and dismissals my students, co-workers, colleagues and clients were facing, it took time for me to fully grasp that my complex identities were included in my work, for better or for worse.

I made a choice to see my full humanity — my race, gender and chronic illnesses. My illnesses were invisible in my early career, but a new one became devastatingly visible just as I gained stability and recognition in my field. I’m a Black non-binary person who most people read and treat as a Black woman. I experience a strange, displacing cycle of misogynoir and transphobia at the same time, many times from the women whom I am being mistaken for - reducing my personhood to a limbo only I am aware of, although we are facing different versions of the same violence.

I had already managed chronic illness, but my managers’ response to my sudden, violent onset of epilepsy made coordinating student services programs inaccessible for me. My department simultaneously professed concern while ignoring my needs and rights under the American Disabilities Act. The same people who once called me necessary, skilled, kind and excellent conveyed their unwillingness to accommodate my needs so I could continue doing what I loved. When my manager, another Afro-Caribbean woman whose work I admired prior to becoming her employee, put a document on my desk detailing exclusive rules after my new diagnosis, I quit on the spot. Though my acute initial illness subsided immediately, the loss of my job, home and health at this time kept me unstable and intermittently exacerbated the seizures. It took four more years to get it fully under control.

It will take even longer for me to regain my memory, language, confidence, and ability to work at any sustainable rate. It’s something I still struggle with, and I don’t know if I will ever fully regain my pre-illness speed, retention, attention or elocution. It is a deep grief, to have lost selves I cannot even remember. In the meantime, I’ve found an equally deep joy to prioritize. Feeling more whole, I can offer more to those I am showing up for, while also showing up for myself.

Intersectional Double Consciousness

Contemporary concepts explain what double consciousness might feel like when multiple marginalized identities collide in one person’s lived reality. Almost a century after Du Bois wrote about double consciousness, in 1982, Audre Lorde asserted that we do not live ‘single-issue lives,’ and Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term ‘intersectionality’ in 1989. This has become a well-known framework for conceptualizing how oppression and discrimination affect Black women with multiple marginalized identities, and this explains my experiences navigating my identities when I was teaching. Ultimately, I could no longer negotiate parts of myself to remain in the classroom, because my life and health depended on my wholeness.

Although my experiences related to my race, gender, and disabilities have been a source of contention and misunderstanding in the spaces I occupy, including with other Black folks, the reflections from the other participants in this research project show common themes in our experiences. We all agree that in some ways, we’ve had to negotiate parts of ourselves in our classrooms and with our colleagues and supervisors. But in an effort to resist the negative consequences of double consciousness, we’ve engaged in survival strategies to celebrate our identities introspectively and in community.

This research shows how these Black women educators reclaim agency to combat being othered. Each of the participants expressed ways they negotiate, celebrate and occupy fragmented intersectional identities, describing a contemporary iteration of what Du Bois, Lorde and Crenshaw theorized in their respective eras of Black activism and scholarship.

Many of us whose perceived identities don’t always reflect all of who we are, and we may withhold versions of ourselves for safety or peace. When we aren’t supported as our full selves, our students and the entire school community suffer. When is it safe to just be? How do we maintain awareness of those moments for peace without succumbing to the consequences of hypervigilance?

Educators are already spread thin negotiating time, resources and energy on teaching and learning. Adding one’s personal identity to these eternal negotiations is exhausting and preventable. These educators’ stories teach us ways we can see their fullness so they can show up authentically as their whole selves.

For a selected list of peer-reviewed articles, research and data studies referenced in this story, click here.

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