The topic of this year’s Elaine Lipschutz biennial lecture, given by Dr. Leigh Patel of Boston College was, “Intersectionality in Education: Are we ready?” The Elaine Lipschutz lecture on multicultural issues takes place in honor of namesake Professor Emeritus Lipschutz once every two years and includes speakers who make current contributions to the field of education.
Elaine Lipschutz was one of the co-founders of Vassar’s Education Department in 1972 and taught full-time at Vassar until 1992. Before joining the Vassar faculty part-time in 1966, Lipschutz was a teacher at a public school in the nearby Arlington district. She first started work at Vassar as part of the “5 College Project,” which was a program created to develop a framework for the education of teachers in small liberal arts colleges.
Dayle Rebelein of the Education department described Professor Lipschutz’s teaching style as a unique combination of theory and practice which pushed her students to excel, several of whom now teach all over the country
She has also been a source of support to the community by making consistent contributions over the years. Previous speakers at this lecture have included Betty Reardon (2009), Neal H. Shultz (2007), William Ayers (2005) and Carl A. Grant (2003).
From the minute she took the mic, this year’s speaker, Dr. Leigh Patel, had the audience in UpC captivated by her easygoing humor and engaging discussion of “intersectionality” and “constructs” in education. She was introduced by Professor Maria Hantzopoulos of the Education Department as a “consistent voice in educational policy making and policy analysis over the years”.
Patel has a background in sociology and currently researches and teaches about education as a site of social reproduction and potential transformation. As described by Rebelein, “Dr. Patel is an interdisciplinary researcher, educator and writer. Her work addresses the narratives that facilitate societal structures. She is an Associate Professor of Education at Boston College and works extensively with societally marginalized youth and teacher activists.”
Prior to working in the academy, Patel was a journalist, a teacher and a state-level policymaker. Across all of these experiences, her focus has been on the ways in which education structures opportunities in society and the stories that are told about those opportunities. Her daily work has been with youth whom these structures marginalize.
Patel began her lecture by explaining the term “intersectionality”—borrowing from the definition by Professor Kimberle Crenshaw of Columbia Law School—as the specific locations at which “vectors of oppression” intersect. In other words, it refers to the intersection of different categories and social constructs, in this case pertaining to the field of education.
She used the analogy of several toys hanging from a ring above a baby’s crib to describe intersectionality and how constructs interact by being distant, yet connected.
She went on to establish her thesis, which is that schools are a place where categorization of individuals is common, and thus academia is susceptible to recreating structures of oppression. By this, she meant that most teaching is done by dividing children into categories based on their ability or their background.
She recounted her experience in elementary school in the 1970s and 1980s, during which fellow teachers would categorize the children in the class into good readers, average readers and not-so-good readers in order to teach them at the level best suited for them. In her view, this categorization—which very much still exists— needs to be broken down in order to create a liberal learning environment.
Highly contested issues prevailing in schools around the country, such as dress codes and codes of conduct, were touched upon when she displayed a picture of an African-American mother’s tweet about how her daughter’s natural hair was considered outside of her school’s code of conduct. According to Patel, this constitutes a contemporary example of intersectional oppression. Patel asked, can we really consider natural hair growth unacceptable according to any code? Drawing from this example, Patel made the observation that “Schools are often places of harm for marginalized communities.”
Another example she used was one that many Vassar students have themselves reported experiencing, which often goes as follows:
Person: “Where are you from?”
You: “I’m from (insert place)”.
Person: “No but where are you from from?”
This kind of behavior is what Patel classifies as categorical oppression. A straightforward question such as “Where are you from?” can be interpreted on so many different levels, including: Where do you belong? Why are you here? According to Patel, these questions represent our attempt at categorizing people into convenient slots according to race, gender and economic background.
In response to these hypothetical questions, Patel said, “I am a South Asian, upper-middle class, cisgender female—tells you something about me and nothing about me.” We simply use these categories to tick off boxes, and they represent social constructs. If they are social constructs, are they real? The answer is yes, social constructs are real and according to Patel can have, “devastatingly real material consequences.”
Further analyzing this common question we are faced with all the time, “Where are you from?,” Patel pointed out that this question reflects the importance of hierarchical order in the modern day nation state. She went on to discuss transnationality, which she defines as a cultural movement across nation state borders rather than a physical one, and continued to describe how nation state building helps map intersectionality in society.
Patel moved on to explain some historical examples of intersectional oppression. To support her next point, she displayed a quote by Thomas Jefferson relating to the justification of slavery in a supposedly free society. The quote weighed equality in a free society against the economic construct of “racist capitalism.”
This contradiction in the words of a founding father sheds light on the contradictions in constructs which Patel focuses on. These contradictions are also shown by a study of one of Patel’s favorite scholars, Dorothy Roberts, which she cited in her lecture.
Patel also referred to the “One Drop Rule,” a social construct which holds that even a single drop of African-American blood makes a person African-American, and is used to justify existing social order. She elaborated on this: “We over-rely on certain constructs which don’t let us understand differences between those constructs.” She said that instead of asking “What’s contributing to poverty?” and trying to fix the social order that causes poverty, we as a society try to “fix” people living in poverty or people of color. This is where intersectional analysis comes in; it allows one to differentiate rigid constructs and encourages us to pushback against preexisting social constructs.
Patel reinforced that even though education is currently subject to categorical and intersectional oppression, there are organizations advocating change in this field. One such organization brought to our attention by Patel is the Baltimore Algebra Project.
Their primary goal is to provide quality education, proper healthcare and adequate employment to Baltimore youth, and they said that “Education is a tool for liberation.”
She expressed her view that education has potential for opportunity and liberation by ending the lecture with what she referred to as a “Moment of Otherwise,” an experience reflecting change or liberalism. By doing so she brought to the audience’s attention the possibility for major and meaningful change in this field that lies ahead.
The lecture was followed by a question and answer session in which students challenged Patel with solution-oriented questions: How do we introduce narratives of resistance into standardized curriculums? How do educational systems reduce the gap between teachers and outside school youth groups advocating liberalism such as the Baltimore Algebra Project? How do we introduce radicalization into natural science classrooms?
Patel responded by speaking about the kinds of things teachers must know about children in order to teach effectively rather than categorizing them based on background or ethnicity. She also touched upon the issue that science can be seen as a cultural practice and a physics classroom would be the ideal place to discuss relativity even in terms of bringing about changes in education.
Students and faculty were both full of praises for Patel and the lecture. Associate Dean of the College for Campus Life and Diversity Ed Pittman said that “[The lecture] was provocative, in a sense of explaining how education propagates the very oppression it seeks to remove” and that he was struck by the way in which people in the field of education need to reimagine their practices. He shared similar views with Professor Hantzopoulos in that they both thought the students resonated with the material discussed. Professor Hantzopoulos also said that she appreciated the lecture, especially its optimistic ending.
As for Patel, when asked about the experience of lecturing at Vassar, she simply replied by saying, “Wonderful. Such enthusiasm, such energy. Even though it is such a hard time in education, it’s not going to stay that way. These are the teachers who are going to reimagine it for us.”