By Twyla Frid Lotenberg, Jayden Seamans, Zoie Bhalloo, Maeya Jones, Anthony Lam, students, and Aaron Anthony and Kimberley Jung, teachers
We would like to acknowledge that we are fortunate to have collaborated, studied, shared, and written as we are gathered on the unceded, ancestral territories of the Coast Salish Peoples, specifically, the Squamish Nation on which West Vancouver schools reside.
Everyone, take your seats. It is time to learn. Whether you are an expert on all things diversity, equity, and inclusion, or if it is the first time you have ever seen the word intersectionality, you need to hear this.
Intersectionality, a term coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw over 30 years ago, outlines how people’s social identities overlap, resulting in compounding inequities and privileges. As such, not all marginalized peoples experience marginalization in the same way. This article is not a comprehensive account, but it covers some experiences and perspectives of what it means to be different and bold members of Rockridge Secondary’s Youth Alliance for Intersectional Justice Club.
The Intersectional Justice Club follows the values of the Youth Alliance for Intersectional Justice (YAIJ) non-profit organization, started by Carolyn Tinglin and her son, Jantz Richards. The non-profit is a Black, youth-led collective that works to amplify the voices of Black and Indigenous youth at the intersections of race and ability through community-based projects and research.
The club and non-profit organization allow students and teachers to work together to create safe spaces where all members of our community can find connection and belonging with other marginalized people and allies.
Jayden Seamans: I am mixed race, neurodivergent, and a pansexual woman, so what does this mean?
As a person who is mixed race, half Black and half white, I feel really lonely. The tensions that form within each of those communities can make me feel left out. I am treated differently within the Black community because of my lighter skin, but I still face racism in white spaces. I am also in multiple communities when it comes to sexuality and gender identity, since I am pansexual and use she/they pronouns. Additionally, I am neurodivergent. The intersections of my identities have caused people to have low expectations of me. All of these parts of my identity mean that I have few spaces where I feel a sense of belonging. One of the few spaces where I have a sense of belonging is in the Advisory Committee for the Youth Alliance for Intersectional Justice non-profit organization, because there are other Black neurodivergent youth there.
Anthony Lam: I am Asian and an ally, so what does this mean?
As an Asian, I have always lived with a set of racial assumptions and stereotypes perpetuated by media and the communities around me, isolating me from the dominant groups. Living with this has made it tougher for me to succeed, to fit in with my predominantly white community, and to show people who I truly am.
My experiences as a person of colour inspired me to be an ally. Being an ally is recognizing your own identity and the unearned privileges you have been given. Allyship also requires recognizing all social injustices, using this awareness to gain a better understanding of what it means to be marginalized members of a community, and supporting social justice.
Twyla Frid Lotenberg: I am mixed race, neuro-divergent, and a woman, so what does this mean?
I have always been different. I was the kid who couldn’t read and write. The kid who doesn’t look like everyone else and who doesn’t understand how other kids relate to the world. These differences have been a steady undercurrent in my life, and it is a direct consequence of marginalized social identities thrust on me. These are social constructs with life-altering implications. The coalition of identities projected onto me shaped both my sense of self and how I interact with the world around me. In response, I strive to be empathetic and compassionate, because I know how it feels for people to make unfounded assumptions about who and what you are based on only a few components of your identity. Additionally, I have experienced how it feels to be consistently underestimated and undermined because of a diagnosis that actually expands my cognitive ability while limiting my fluency to decode and encode written language. Yet people assume it makes me incompetent and destined for failure. “What are you?” is a question I am all too familiar with. My response: I am Twyla Bella Frid Lotenberg, and I am here to make a difference.
Maeya Jones: I am an ally and a woman,
so what does this mean?
As a woman, I have been treated unfairly, sexualized, and diminished. This experience of discrimination has helped me to realize that while my gender puts me in a position of disadvantage, other parts of my identity put me in a position of privilege. I did nothing to obtain the advantages that I have, they were given to me by a society shaped by systematic bias and inequality. This perspective has inspired me to be an ally to those who do not experience such advantages. Being an ally means having awareness of the dynamics of my identity in relation to another person’s and recognizing the ways in which privilege and power may be unbalanced. As an ally, I continually listen, learn, and work to deepen my understanding of the experiences of marginalized people.
Zoie Bhalloo: I am a woman of colour and an ally, so what does this mean?
As a woman of colour, I have become highly aware of the biases and microaggressions that exist in our society. As a young girl, I always felt that I was looked at differently. Feeling a sense of isolation, I lacked the capacity and confidence to advocate for myself. At times my identity became a confusing subject, internally I felt uneasy when discussing it. Living in a highly privileged environment surrounded by predominantly white students and teachers, I found it at times hard to comfortably and openly appreciate my background, so often it was easier to bury it and avoid the subject, hoping to blend in. By surrounding myself with others that I feel close to and teachers who understand me, I have gained the confidence to speak up for myself and what I believe is just. A support system, whether that is inside or outside of your household, is so important as it helps you to celebrate your differences.
Kimberley Jung: I am a teacher who is a woman of colour,
so what does this mean?
Being an Asian woman may position me to be a role model whether I choose to be or not, and creates pressure to advocate for students, especially when it comes to racial and gender inequity. I often see partial reflections of my own identity mirrored back at me through my students. I feel that when I communicate concerns regarding racial or gender injustices on behalf of students, colleagues have a difficult time differentiating my identities from the situation, and it becomes personal, because I cannot escape who I am when it comes to seeking to protect students from sexism or anti-Asian racism. Being a woman of colour for me is something that I visibly wear every day with no space to really breathe and just exist as a human being. Because of the myth of the model minority, I am left with little grace for mistakes and am expected to be silent and complacent. I have to actively work against the myth and break free from being a cog within the wheel of white supremacist structures that demand perfection and divide other marginalized groups from one another: it is a call to dismantle hierarchy and unite in allyship.
In the context of my English classroom, I find that every year I unpack more about how our perceptions of the spaces where we spend approximately 70% of our week revolve around hierarchical structures that were established centuries ago. Ever since colonization, the Canadian education system has been built upon and moulded around dominant social groups in society: able-bodied, neurotypical, Eurocentric, male, cisgendered, heterosexual, and middle to upper class. We see this play out in the content and curriculum as well as in our assessment practices and standardization. In fact, there are even historical implications that are not as visible, such as classroom management practices, behavioural responses, school decorum, dress codes, and discipline.
Whose history, knowledge systems, and narrative is prioritized and centred in learning? Does the validity of knowledge shared change in reception depending on the identities of teachers who share it? How are students understanding diversity, identity, and the world—and how are we preparing them to be educated and engaged in society? If we keep saying students are not ready, when will they be?
Aaron Anthony: I am a teacher who is a person of colour, so what does this mean?
As a person of colour, I know what it feels like to work through your identity as a racialized person in Canada. In turn, I realize that each of my students is going through a similar but often different process in regard to their own identity. James Baldwin once said, “You have to decide who you are and force the world to deal with you, not its idea of you.” This quote resonates with me because as a brown man I have had to work on my own identity while contending with the way I am perceived by others. As a youth in the 1980s and 1990s, I could not rely on the educational system for affirmation of my identity, nor could that system give me adequate historical context for my place in society.
Now that I am a teacher, I am exploring ways to make my practice more meaningful for the diverse children that I teach. In my specialty, secondary science, BIPOC contributions and perspectives are rarely included. Not only that, but it is important to critique the role that Western science has played in colonialism. Because scientific rationality was held up as evidence of European superiority over Indigenous Peoples, there is a strong connection between Western science and violent colonial oppression. When those colonial contexts are left out of analyses of science, the histories and perspectives of oppressed peoples are erased. Meanwhile, our students are struggling to see themselves in our education system. We must go beyond simply tolerating diversity. When they are provided a space, like YAIJ, where they can engage with their identities, my students are honest about their experiences. Even though I often feel like I might know where they are coming from, I try to reserve judgment until they tell me how they really feel. I would like to support my students as they develop positive identities.
Call to action
Students often experience marginalization for the first time at school and even more so, if they are Indigenous, Black, differently abled, neurodiverse, 2SLGBTQ+, non-binary, female, or with less access to socio-economic benefits. It’s important we throw away any and all preconceptions about students. Schools need to create safe spaces and acknowledge less visible forms of violence upon communities that are already facing discrimination. Ensuring students can see themselves in the content, curriculum, and assessment methods is a great way to begin. For neurodiverse students, implementing multiple modes to demonstrate learning can help build feelings of self-efficacy and belonging.
As we dive deeper, students also need to feel protected and supported in the structures and systems available for access in schools, whether that is in the contexts of mental health, physical health, behaviour, or education. Confronting systemic inequity can often be met with resistance and fragility. This stems from the idea that privileged individuals will somehow have something taken away from them or no longer benefit from the systems that work for them. In order to right as many wrongs as you can and to be an active ally, you have to move forward, and that begins by addressing the feelings of defensiveness and fragility. Systemic inequity is not about individuals, but a collective system.
As the bell rings and you rush to the next part of your day, we appeal to you to make one change, whether that be changing one aspect of one lesson to make it more accessible for a neurodivergent student, or something larger, like inspecting the biases within your lessons to disrupt ableism and white supremacy. It is attainable, it is doable. Class dismissed.