Educating for Wholeness in the Intersections

At the Bringing Theory to Practice conference “The Whole Student: Intersectionality and Well-Being,” held in Chicago in May 2017, Leeva C. Chung and Laura I. Rendón delivered a “keyduet” on the subject represented in this interview. The keyduet mirrored the conference topic, offering a harmony of different, intersecting perspectives, backgrounds, and areas of scholarship. Chung is an expert in intercultural communication and represents a modern approach to the topic. Rendón is a thought leader in pedagogic frameworks whose research has advanced connections between students’ intellectual, social, emotional, and spiritual development.

What does intersectionality mean to you personally? 

El Dividido (2004) by Liliana Wilson.
(Image courtesy of Liliana Wilson)

Rendón: Intersectionality explains what happens when an individual with multiple, intersecting social identities (e.g., race/ethnicity, indigeneity, ancestry, gender, class, sexuality, geography, age, disability/ability, immigration status, religion, political affiliation, and worldview) interacts with overlapping systems of power and privilege in society (Crenshaw 1991; Moraga and Anzaldúa 1981).

From an intersectional perspective, social injustices are never the result of a single factor or identity. For example, a Latina lesbian from a low-income background may experience discrimination and violence not simply because she is a woman but also because of her ethnicity, sexuality, and class status. Social, political, and economic structures privilege certain social identities at the expense of others. An intersectional analysis of social issues—including educational achievement, immigration, health care, employment opportunities, violence (particularly against people of color), and sexual assault—can lead to a more nuanced awareness of how social identity markers intersect to expose individuals to multiple threats of discrimination. Ultimately, these understandings can assist in developing policies to remove obstacles, create opportunities, and affirm equity.

It is also important to understand intersectionality in relation to consciousness—how individuals come to terms with their own multiple, intersecting identities. They may choose one identity over the other, or they may embrace all their identities to attain wholeness and liberation. The latter choice rejects binaries (e.g., gay/straight, man/woman), allowing individuals to operate in a pluralistic, inclusive mode. Some indigenous perspectives are said to be “pluriversal,” moving beyond either/or thinking to embrace all viewpoints even if they seem contradictory (Andreotti, Ahenakew, and Cooper 2012). Similarly, Gloria Anzaldúa (1987) posits a “mestiza consciousness” that allows for hybridity, contradiction, resistance, and liberation (Hurtado and Sinha 2016).

As a theory, intersectionality can help us understand the human condition and social issues. Intersectionality can be considered a “theory in the flesh” (Moraga 2015) that is not solely academic but also reflects lived experiences of feeling what it means to be “the other,” to live with contradictions, and to struggle with invisibility and marginalization. Intersectionality can also be employed as a methodological framework to conduct a sophisticated analysis of a societal issue. Intersectionality avoids essentializing people, or reducing them to a basic set of attributes. As a political tool, intersectionality asks us to consider: by what political, social, and economic conditions can an individual holding diverse social identities be advantaged or disadvantaged?

Mujer Dividida (2001) by Liliana Wilson.
(Image courtesy of Liliana Wilson)

Chung: Intersectionality is a sign of the times. We have transcended boundaries and borders, and our identities are multifaceted, complex, and intersected. We struggle with and against these identities, whether they are imposed by the larger society or acquired through interaction with others in our cultural groups.

Living in the intersection has created a dialectical tension. Dialectical tensions come from two opposing and interconnected forces that exist at the same time (Baxter and Montgomery 1996), like the yin/yang principle in which two contrasting elements coexist as inseparable and complementary units. For ethnic identity, the dialectical tension between group belonging and individual needs may create challenges for an individual—in terms of seeking belonging and avoiding rejection and/or marginality—but dialectical tensions can be managed with flexibility, patience, and adaptability.

The complexity of belonging to multiple identities reminds me of a Bach polyphonic harmony, where two independent, seemingly contrasting parts of music sound completely unrelated but come together to create a beautiful harmony. Intersectionality is not a problematic but a counterpoint. Identities that appear to clash instead create a new balance within an individual. Choosing one identity does not negate the others; it just means the other identities are waiting to be explored.

Describe your experiences living in one or more intersections.

Rendón: I am a border woman, born in Laredo, Texas, where the Rio Grande connects and divides Mexico and the United States. My first language was Spanish, and I began to speak English in first grade. My mother, Clementina Linares, was born in Mexico and became a US citizen in the 1950s. She spoke little English, yet experienced some privileges based on her reddish-brown hair, green eyes, and white skin. But even the whiteness of her physical appearance could not lift her oppressed status. She was the victim of unwanted sexual advances, she suffered from poverty, and she was a single mother with little family support. Like my mother, my two sisters could pass for white, but my brown skin and dark hair clearly identified me as a Chicana. My father, Leopoldo Rendón, was a tractor operator, born in Texas to a working-class family.

When I was about four years old, my parents separated. My sisters and I lived with my mother, who took low-level jobs such as waiting tables on the night shift, working as a seamstress, cleaning motel rooms, and picking crops. I remember not having enough to eat and having holes in my shoes. I once fell and passed out with a concussion but was not taken to the hospital. How could we afford that luxury?

My life transformed when I went to college and ultimately earned a PhD. I literally went from the barrio to the academy, and my new identity became that of a highly educated, middle-class scholar.

Clearly, my identity defies essentialism. I speak English and Spanish. I know what it is like to live in poverty and to be well-off financially. Despite my privileged status as an academic, I have experienced the public humiliation of being racially profiled at the Indianapolis airport, where a federal agent mistook me for a Hispanic woman carrying drugs. I have been asked if I really belong in the first-class line at the airport and told, in an amazed voice, that I speak English very well. In our current political context, I am aware that I can be stopped by an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent and asked for my documentation even though I have always been a US citizen. These chilling, racially charged encounters sting. Power and privilege can affect me at any time, positively or negatively, depending on context.

Chung: I can’t talk about intersectional identity without discussing the time when I realized I lived the intersection.

Like most teens, I thought I knew it all at seventeen. Ethnically Chinese (Cantonese), I was born in the United States, and my worldview was shaped by my experiences living in San Francisco’s Chinatown, sandwiched between Nob Hill and “Italian town” (North Beach). Although my high school consisted of primarily black and Asian students, I felt more comfortable hanging around with white kids. I was very assimilated, despite having parents who were not born in the United States. I felt very American.

During my senior year, we had a unit in my civics class on how to debate controversial laws. I was paired with my good friend, who was white, and the debate became heated during the three rounds. By the end of the debate, my friend was very angry with me and my comments. When I sat down, I heard her say, “Well, if you don’t like it here and you have a problem with the rules of our country, you need to go back to where you came from!” I was stunned. I was born in America. My friends were mostly white. What more did I have to do? At that moment, I realized I was the “other.” I could dye my hair, wear trendy clothes, and speak the language, but this friend—and others, too—would never accept me as fully American. I never spoke to her again.

I went to college and minored in ethnic studies. I took classes that helped me reconcile the internal battle of my identity. I learned Mandarin and the history of Asian Americans. I took a semester off and went to China to “find myself.” I came back and worked in a Chinese restaurant for two years. I learned that although some people will never perceive me as fully Chinese or American, I am normal. I work on my identity every day, challenging myself to represent and express both voices.

What can your discipline(s) offer to the discussion of intersectionality in higher education? 

Chung: My academic discipline is communication studies, with roots in ethnic studies. Intersectionality constitutes a process of constant negotiation that occurs through communication. We negotiate and renegotiate our individual identities among in-group and out-group members.

Many theories can inform our discussion of intersectionality, such as identity transformation (Cross 1991) and identity negotiation (Ting-Toomey 2005). Social psychologist Marilynn Brewer’s (2010) social identity complexity theory is particularly helpful. Brewer’s theory outlines four patterns:

  1. The intersection pattern refers to a compound identity in which two (or more) social membership categories (e.g., female, Syrian, professor) can be crossed to form a compound, singular social identity. Individuals with compound, singular identities feel most connected with others who share compound identity experiences.
  2. The dominance pattern demonstrates how an individual adopts one dominant social identity (e.g., professor) and subordinates or embeds the others (e.g., female and Syrian).
  3. Compartmentalization is the way an individual adopts one social identity category as the primary basis of identification in one setting and shifts to another in a different context (e.g., being a supportive sister at home).
  4. Through a merger, individuals become aware of their crosscutting social identity memberships and recognize multiple groups that share some aspects of their complex social identity.

Higher education needs to address how students navigate their identities through the intersections and what issues arise with inclusion and multiple-group inclusivity.

Rendón: The curriculum of my field (higher education administration) needs to incorporate the scholarship of intersectionality, including the following aspects:

  1. Being aware that diverse social markers intersect to shape students’ identities and social behaviors. Students live complex lives that defy a single-focus identity; for example, students may identify as undocuqueer, Koregentinian, or Blaxican. These students resemble Malaysian Australian rapper, slam poet, and author Omar Musa, who represents “in-betweeners”—those with mixed identities who cannot be easily categorized. How do in-betweeners negotiate their social identities? What does it feel like to occupy liminal spaces? How do systems of power and privilege insert themselves into the lives of these individuals? An intersectional perspective promises a more spacious view of identity, its nuances, and its associated advantages and disadvantages.
  2. Recognizing that intersecting systems of power (e.g., media, education, and the economy) can shape views of and practices related to students of color from low-income communities. Higher education research often uses deficit-based perspectives to refer to students who are first generation, of color, and/or from low-income backgrounds. For example, there is an entrenched notion that most blacks and Latinos are lazy learners of marginal ability from low-income communities that do not value education. This pathological view of students of color is very powerful and manifests in media, education policies and practices, and academic research, even though many of these students move past obstacles and complete their college educations (Rendón, Nora, and Kanagala 2014). Frequently absent is an analysis of how structural impediments such as poverty, poor health care, and educational disparities limit opportunities for people of color from low-income communities.
  3. Understanding how systems of knowledge can intersect to provide a sharpened, more expansive view of an issue. Intersectionality is aligned with a cognitive justice intellectual framework (de Sousa Santos 2007) that is multivoiced, promotes the legitimacy of multiple forms of knowledge, and rejects the notion that only Western ways of knowing are valid. Recognizing varied social identities is as important as understanding how diverse forms of knowledge are connected to issues and ways of life (Visvanathan, n.d.). Cognitive justice acknowledges the interrelationship of knowledge and literary expression. For example, personal voice, poetry, research data, and social media can coexist to create and inform knowledge. Intersectionality theory can inform and is informed by diverse disciplines including law, sociology, psychology, political science, history, indigenous studies, Chicana studies, and African American studies, among others.

How do you understand your students’ experiences of intersectionality and the effect of those experiences on student well-being? 

Rendón: To foster students’ well-being, educators need to acknowledge and validate them (Rendón 1994) for all of who they are, including their complex identities. Regardless of background, all students seek to be visible, have a voice, and be treated with dignity. In particular, those students who are marginalized due to a devalued group membership need educators to work with an ethic of care (Noddings 1984), respect, and tolerance. Educators must also be attuned to the multidimensional, intersecting aspects of students’ identities.

Contrary to the argument that intersectionality is a poisonous ideology that pits social groups against one another (Linker 2017), a focus on intersectionality and well-being can advance equity and inclusion for all; validate and protect diverse social identities; allow for meaningful intergroup interactions; create community, solidarity, and inclusiveness; affirm our shared humanity; promote shared responsibility and collective action; enhance personal enlightenment and social activism; and result in better-informed policies and interventions to address social issues.

Chung: In my twenty years of teaching ethnic identity at a private Catholic institution, the discussion of intersectionality has moved from a theory to a way of life for students. For example, one former student tried hard to understand the complexity of his biracial ethnic identity (Croatian and Jamaican), religious identity (Jehovah’s Witness), and sexual orientation identity (gay). He represents a polyphonic harmony and Venn diagram—an individual who finds a sense of belonging as his identities come together, clash, and merge. And he is not alone. To promote well-being in higher education, educators need to support students as they struggle with and against these identities and engage in self-discovery.

Becoming an ally is the first step. Students who consciously live their intersectionality find a sense of security with others who have gone through similar identity struggles and collisions. The second step is identity validation. For many, the perception of oneself as “different” coupled with the inability to belong to all groups at all times creates stress and low self-esteem. Educators can express positive identity validation through messages that confirm and recognize students’ experiences as real—and above all, normal.

The process of self-discovery is never easy. However, as we work to support, embrace, and understand those who are different from us, their layered and complex identities can open our minds to the diverse richness of the human spirit.

If you could make one change on campus to better support student, educator, and community well-being, what would it be?

Chung: My one change would be for all faculty and students to commit to detoxing from technology for one week per semester so that we can restore our sense of self. Our reliance on and addiction to technology and social media have distracted us from the basics of attuning to our inner sense of being. As a result, students become overwhelmed by challenges on campus and struggle with depression and anxiety more than any other recent generation (Jayson 2013).

Our relationship with technology is complicated. On one hand, smartphones allow us to access information rapidly. On the other hand, in a Baylor University survey of 164 college undergraduates, women reported spending an average of ten hours a day on their cell phones while men reported spending nearly eight, with excessive use posing risks for academic performance (Roberts, Yaya, and Manolis 2014). A 2015 Bank of America survey of one thousand US adults found that nine out of ten younger millennials (ages eighteen to twenty-four) check their phones at least once an hour, if not “constantly,” and that younger millennials are more likely than any other age group to sleep with their phones on their beds. How does this affect our students, their well-being, and their lives?

Stella Ting-Toomey and I (2012) coined the term e.netizen to refer to individuals around the globe, from any age group, who are connected to each other across time and space via the internet, influencing aspects of their identity. This hybrid, intersecting identity is rooted in local identity (e.g., values, language, and culture) but is influenced to varying degrees by global identity, shaped by technology and mass consumption of pop culture. These e.netizens vary in degrees and levels of comfort with this intersectionality within their ethnic or racial groups and the internet community.

Our identities are becoming more fractured because of the internet’s influence. Who we are is a reflection of our interactions with others, and our sense of our own identity is vulnerable to the selfies and Snapchat images we see daily. Often, we may not be happy with our identities, choosing to compare ourselves with others. Developing a secure sense of who we are takes time and patience. Technology can transform our self-view in an instant.

Like it or not, technology is here to stay, but we need to make it work for us, not the other way around. Taking the first step to unplug is our conscious attempt to achieve personal well-being and transform our deeper sense of self.

Rendón: All college and university faculty, staff, and students need to develop what I call an “intersectional consciousness” by

  • adopting a pluralistic worldview that moves beyond binaries to embrace contradictory systems of meaning;
  • avoiding essentializing human beings;
  • becoming attuned to how societal structures and systems of power objectify and oppress those whose group memberships are devalued;
  • being aware of one’s own social identities and ability to change oppressive situations both for individual benefit and for the benefit of the collective;
  • embracing the paradox that the we is about the other—our struggles and pain are intertwined.

To foster an intersectional consciousness, we should develop new student competencies attuned to wholeness, well-being, and a spacious view of what it means to be human (Rendón 2009). The following competencies are highly important, yet they don’t get nearly as much attention as critical thinking, problem solving, and content mastery:

  • deep self-knowledge: recognition of all that we are, our intersecting identities, personal strengths, and areas where we need to make fundamental changes
  • empathy: the ability to step into the world of “the other” with respect and dignity
  • transdisciplinarity: the ability to employ diverse knowledge systems to analyze social issues critically
  • pluriversality: the ability to function from a pluralistic space, holding competing and contradictory systems of meaning in tension rather than engaging in either/or thinking
  • presence: the ability to be fully aware of the present moment
  • self-care, healing, and well-being: attention to physical and psychological health and overall well-being, focus on personal growth, development of compassion, work toward social justice, and liberation from self-limiting views

We also need a sentipensante pedagogy that activates both feeling and thinking processes (Rendón 2009) and that assists in developing these competencies. For example, pedagogic practices that foster reflection and deep learning include arts-based projects, meditative experiences, autoethnography, contemplative photography, films and documentaries, community-based theater, music, dance, and poetry. Also helpful are high-impact, deep learning experiences that engage students in (1) service learning with a reflective component, (2) capstone courses, and (3) learning communities (Kuh 2008). A Center for Intersectionality, Justice, Well-Being, and Personal Transformation could serve as an institutional hub with resources and activities for faculty, staff, and students.


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———. 2009. Sentipensante (Sensing/Thinking) Pedagogy: Educating for Wholeness, Social Justice, and Liberation. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

Rendón, Laura I., Amaury Nora, and Vijay Kanagala. 2014. Ventajas/Assets y Conocimientos/Knowledge: Leveraging Latin@ Strengths to Foster Student Success. San Antonio, TX: Center for Research and Policy in Education, The University of Texas at San Antonio.

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Leeva C. Chung is Professor of Communication Studies at the University of San Diego, and Laura I. Rendón is Professor Emerita of Higher Education Administration at the University of Texas–San Antonio.

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