Estimated reading time: 12 minutes, 11 seconds

Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Republishing: My Journey to UnderstandingIntersectionality


Estimated reading time: 12 minutes, 11 seconds

Parisa Mehran wrote a post on intersectionality, then on Twitter she encouraged me to write my own for WOCinELT. This was published orignally on WOCinELT on Dec 24, 2019. I am republishing it here now in case folks missed the original.


The views expressed in blogposts are the author(s)’s own and do not necessarily reflect WOC in ELT’s stance.

I want to share some moments in my journey to understanding intersectionality, from my initial confusions about critical pedagogy, to moments of clarity afforded by Elizabeth Ellsworth’s writing and then bell hooks, to my own term semi-privileged, to how I use it in my classes, to how I made a mistake in a Digital Pedagogy Lab workshop once, to discovering Patricia Collins’ Axes of Oppression and Nancy Fraser’s three-pronged understanding of social justice, and finally to Parisa Mehran’s post on WOCinELT.

The Frustrating Abstractness of Critical Pedagogy 

I came across critical pedagogy by coincidence. I was doing my PhD research on critical thinking and  kept stumbling upon this other term critical pedagogy and it intrigued me. I kept reading more and more about it, finding myself agreeing so much with it, but I also reached a level of frustration where it felt too abstract to know how to apply this stuff in my classes, and I also talked with my supervisor, Jon Nixon, about how to find all the “isms” because all this talk of racism, sexism, classism, was not cutting it for every situation. He told me that this was OK, that not all the power differences fit into one clear “ism” and he also introduced me to Edward Said and postcolonialism. Now this felt like a breath of fresh air (btw I had heard Edward Said speak at one of my university’s commencement ceremonies and his speech touched me even back then when I didn’t know how much of a big deal he was). 

Critical Pedagogy in Practice: Ellsworth & hooks

But then the thing that really helped me understand critical pedagogy in practice and introduced me to intersectionality was an article recommended to me by another professor, Chris Winter. In my upgrade viva (about 1.5 years into my part-time 7 year PhD journey) she recommended to me the article Why Doesn’t This Feel Empowering by Elizabeth Ellsworth. That article is one I struggled to read the first time but I have read it many many times since then, because it takes critical pedagogy from the abstract to the practical, and highlights the intersectionality of the white female professor in class (where being a professor gives her power in a classroom context, but being a female means she is disadvantaged outside the classroom) trying to teach about race and racism to diverse students, who, with their intersectional identities, have more and less power depending on the context. This article was honest about complexity in ways I felt neither Freire nor Giroux were in the books I had read at the time, and it enabled me to imagine critical pedagogy in the classroom. At the time, I didn’t understand this as intersectionality, but as a research methodology called feminist poststructuralist critique, and I decided to follow it from then on, and I have used her approach a few times (see this article using Ellsworth’s title and applied to web-based cross cultural dialogue; and this one about my own failures in teaching with critical pedagogy at first).

The next author to really inspire me was bell hooks and the way her writing about critical pedagogy was accessible, and her very unique take as a black woman, that combination of being black and a woman and NOT choosing one or the other but BOTH. I also remember lots of moments of enlightenment from bell hooks‘ writing, such as how the idea of “liberating the oppressor” which Freire mentions, can actually apply in the relationships of women with men who oppress them because gender oppression in society cannot be fixed by empowering women alone (see hooks’ The Will to Change).


Throughout all of this, I don’t remember when I was introduced to the term intersectionality or how it eventually stuck with me. But I know that I had started using a term “semi-privileged” which is closely related to intersectionality but recognizes the particular situation where some elements of one’s identity can make one privileged in certain contexts but some not. It’s also a recognition of how something like the internet is only potentially empowering to the semi-privileged and not to the least privileged of us.

Throughout all of this, I never read Kimberlé Crenshaw on intersectionality (I did eventually and then I started assigning it in class).

Side Point: My Intersectionality

I came up with that term semi-privileged to refer to myself in academia. I’m an academic, privileged social class, Western educated throughout my life, fluent in English, and this all gives me privilege in my country. However, I am a woman, with all the disadvantages society bestows up on me for being one, and I am Egyptian, so even though I am privileged within my country, I am not privileged within the global academic landscape. In particular, it is difficult for me to go to conferences, which are really important for developing social capital. And so I am privileged enough to be digitally literate and comfortable with social media, and so Twitter (where I now live, basically) and Virtually Connecting(which I co-founded) have afforded me ways to develop my social capital while sitting in my living room at home!

I work at the American University in Cairo, a private American-style institution, so it’s a privileged space with mostly privileged students. But we all have our hybridity and intersectionality. For example, the more Westernized you are, the more influenced you are by cultural imperialism and the more disturbing it is to think about your postcolonial self and circumstances. I work at an American institution where I am a second class citizen because I am not American. I have to teach in English and (most of) my students and I are completely aware that we are actually more fluent in English than Arabic, we are aware of our hybridity and how we are neither fully Arab Egyptians. But we also talk about how, for example, wearing a headscarf in the streets is useful to blend into the culture but on campus may not be seen as much of a privilege because of how people might interpret your reasons for wearing it, but never really ask you to your face. We also talk about the ways Christians are marginalized in Egypt these days, but how on campus they are mostly not, and how if they lived in the West they would not be. We talk about how Muslim men are the majority in our society but when they travel abroad they are likely to get detained in airports for inexplicable reasons because of their identity but not anything in particular they have done. So yeah. Intersectionality is something we talk about and live with a lot. Students particularly appreciate the modified privilege walk role play activity we do which demonstrates that.

Not a Good Moment: What I Didn’t Know

I was teaching a track with Kate Bowles at the Digital Pedagogy Lab in 2017 and someone asked about intersectionality. There were several black women in the room. I remember answering the question and mentioning Ellsworth, then asking one of the black female participants to talk about Crenshaw. I now feel horrible about this. I should have started by inviting one of the black women to discuss Crenshaw. I remember stumbling over Crenshaw’s name, because I was guilty of not having read her. I should not have painted myself as an authority on the term, when I wasn’t. I so wasn’t. Sure, I lived with intersectionality, but the expert was the one who coined it, Crenshaw, and she was talking specifically about the intersectionality of being a black woman in America. 

More of What I Didn’t Know

Other things I learned recently which helped shape my views of intersectionality and social justice are the work of Patricia Collins (I learned of this through the work of Sasha Costanza-Chock on Design Justice), and Nancy Fraser (I learned of this via the work of Cheryl Hodgkinson-Williams on applying it to Research on OER for Development). Patricia Collins is the one who identifies the Axes of Oppression (aka matrix of domination) including white supremacy, capitalism, heteropatriarchy and settler colonialism. This work is apparently what Crenshaw later expanded into her work on intersectionality. I do think the axes of oppression misses things like ableism and prioritizes settler colonialism over cultural imperialism, but I think it opened room for looking at all the different dimensions of oppression and their intersections.

Nancy Fraser’s work is also really important in seeing a multidimensional view of social justice. Fraser identifies social justice along three dimensions: economics, culture and politics. She also differentiates between surface reform (which she calls affirmative) and structural reform (which she calls transformative).

Fraser’s work is important to see in light of axes of oppression and intersectionality, as we can look at a particular context and see what kinds of injustice and oppression are occurring, and how these might be addressed. It becomes clear why certain reforms do not go far enough, or can instead actually cause more harm than good, because they use single-axis interpretations of problems (e.g. economic) and attempt to reform them without accounting for others. One example I’m reading about now is from Serene Khader’s work on decolonizing universalism, and how Western notions of feminism have misinterpreted the oppression of women in non-Western cultures through their modernist Western idealist lens, and in doing so, ignored differences in context and culture, eventually doing more harm than good. I guess the important parts missing in these actions are viewing the multiple axes beyond gender oppression, but also focusing only on the liberation of women, or removal of sexual oppression, without looking at the entire society in which women exist, and what other kinds of oppression and injustice need to be addressed and prioritized. 

And this is where Nancy Fraser’s work is really important where she talks about the importance of participatory parity – that the women we aim to empower should themselves participate fully in decision-making on what their priorities should be, what solutions they want, how they want to implement them, and how to evaluate the success or lack thereof. Any external person parachuting in with solutions would risk being colonizing or indoctrinating. As Serene Khader writes “Sometimes solutions solve problems. Sometimes they go in search of them. And sometimes they deflect attention from what the problems really are.” And ignoring multiple axes of oppression, ignoring intersectionality, leads to deflecting attention from what the real problems are.

Importantly, though, we need to recognize what we know from capability theory: first, that one’s surrounding environment can limit someone’s capacity to practice what they are capable of (e.g. you can give a woman a particular skill to work, but if their town does not employ women at all, how will they benefit from it – see the work of Nussbaumon “Combined Capability”). Second, we must recognize that marginalized people, when given agency and choice, may not be able, at first, to make good choices because of the hegemony of the dominant worldview narrowing their vision on what is possible for them (see Walker and Unterhalter).

Even More of What I Didn’t Know

And then came Parisa’s post yesterday, where she critiques an article by a white man trying to appropriate intersectionality. 

In Parisa’s post, she reminds us that Crenshaw insists that “intersectionality is a lens through which you can see where *power* comes and collides, where it interlocks and intersects“ (source: Click here) and I realized that sometimes, in the midst of discussing intersectional identities, power is not something I speak about explicitly. And I need to do that, because as Parisa writes “not all intersections of identity are equal” and just to recognize everyone’s multiplicity and hybridity without highlighting which people are “furthest from justice” is to miss the original intentions of Crenshaw in developing the term intersectionality. And I intend to never make that mistake again, but I know I will keep making mistakes and keep on growing.

Another Side Point

An American white male colleague recently asked me if I see myself as a person of color. And I told him it depends on context. I am technically Caucasian and considered on the fair side in my society, but I am not treated as white in a Western context. Sometimes when I wear a wool cap instead of a headscarf I can pass for Spanish, Mexican, Turkish, but with a headscarf and with my nationality I was a minority when I lived in the US and UK, and I used to *regularly* get stopped for so-called *random* checks at airports. But I get invited to keynote conferences and I am extremely welcomed by my academic peers at events. My friends give up alcohol for a night to be able to go out with me and my family on conference evenings. And I bask in all of this even when I can easily tell I am one of a handful of headscarved women, handful of Muslims, in a large conference. But I’m a privileged minority, I’m semi-privileged. My privilege or lack thereof is highly contextual. And I will only now speak of it as intersectional when I make the power dimension of it explicit.

Dr. Maha Bali

Maha Bali is Associate Professor of Practice at the Center for Learning and Teaching at the American University in Cairo. She has a PhD in Education from the University of Sheffield, UK. She is co-founder of and co-facilitator of Equity Unbound. She blogs at and tweets @bali_maha

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