In one of my creative writing classes last week, our professor invited students to discuss former history professor Jessica Krug, who deceived her students and colleagues of her race for most of her life. When it was our turn to ask questions, another student and I explained Krug’s mistaken hiring was rooted in the lack of racial diversity in academia and in the GW history department.
But these ideas were acknowledged and then quickly dismissed by the professor. Instead, he was far more interested in steering the discussion toward the “character-building” element of the Krug debacle. Assuming he was equating creating a fictional character to Krug creating varying types of Black and Caribbean personas, his comment conveniently glossed over the racial nuances of the Krug debacle.
But this kind of White-washed environment is common inside GW classrooms. Students are often subject to the professors’ narrow understanding of subject matter, rather than having the opportunity to discuss a more diverse set of interpretations. Instead of focusing on a single aspect of a topic or text, professors need to consciously discuss the intersection between their respective subjects and their complexities like racist ideas, sexuality and gender identity.
This professor’s selective interpretation of Krug hiding her race is analogous to most classroom discussions. In most of my past English classes, we discussed the literary worth of Shakespeare’s plays, but never how his ambiguous sexuality might have affected his work. We discussed Emily Dickinson as a shining example of a talented female writer in a male-dominated field, but we barely discussed how her White privilege gave her the opportunity to sit down and write while women of color rarely had the chance to do so.
The professor who coined the term “intersectionality,” Kimberlé Crenshaw, used the term to describe how race, class, gender and other characteristics overlap with one another. In an academic setting, acknowledging intersectionality would mean professors acknowledging different identities in their interpretation of the course material and encouraging their students to discuss these interpretations. This approach can be achieved across all disciplines.
In practice, intersectional discourse on course material would give students a holistic understanding of the subject at hand. This approach can be applied to all subjects, not just English or creative writing. For instance, in one of my history courses last year, we were discussing Mohandas Gandhi’s understanding of “swaraj,” or home rule in India. A narrow discussion of his writing would focus on his understanding of culture and why he believed that Indians – South Asians – were fit to rule over their own subcontinent instead of the British. An intersectional approach would include a discussion of the elitism and sexism that influenced his writing. This way, students would receive a better understanding of what views Gandhi actually held when it came to his ideas about which Indians should govern.
Had my creative writing professor welcomed a discussion on the racial aspects of the Krug scandal, we might have discussed what we can do in our classroom to add different voices to the currently monotonous voices of academia. Because we primarily read short stories written in the mid-twentieth century, we could have consciously created a space where we could seriously engage in the racial context that those stories were so heavily influenced by.
Classroom discussions are often bound by the professor’s interpretation of the material. Because of the overall lack of diversity in academia for generations now, these interpretations are looking at the material in a very narrow way. An intersectional approach will illuminate different aspects of the professor’s interpretation of the topic or text at hand, and will enrich students’ understanding of the subject matter.
Shreeya Aranake, a junior majoring in history, is a columnist.