Dissertation Abstracts

Teachers’ Perspectives on Race and Gender: Strategic Intersectionality and the Countervailing Effects of Privilege

Author: Stoll, Laurie C, lcstoll@uwlax.edu
Department: Sociology
University: Loyola University Chicago, USA
Supervisor: Dr. Judith Wittner
Year of completion: 2011
Language of dissertation: English

Keywords: race , gender , education , intersectionality
Areas of Research: Racism, Nationalism and Ethnic Relations , Education , Women in Society


As a policy prescription, education is often considered a panacea for racism and sexism, and teachers therefore conduits for social equality. This argument is predicated on several fundamental assumptions: (1) racism and sexism are primarily if not entirely individual-level problems; (2) the education system in the U.S. is structured for equality; (3) teachers and administrators are race- and gender-neutral; (4) racism and sexism are irrational; and (5) education necessarily mitigates ignorance. Yet, empirical evidence clearly demonstrates that racism and sexism are structural in nature; grave disparities exist within the institution of education in the U.S.; teachers and administrators are not only influenced by cultural assumptions regarding race and gender but often perpetuate these assumptions whether deliberate or not; dominant group members have a rational interest in maintaining social inequalities; and finally, that education may actually provide more effective strategies to mask racism and sexism as opposed to challenge them. Even so, education remains the most common answer to the question what can be done to address race- and gender-based prejudice. Multiculturalism is assumed to be the most common palliative for racism, while curricula that challenges traditional notions of gender is offered as a solution for enduring androcentrism, or more recently a return to single-sex public schooling. I argue that both approaches are ineffective means for addressing institutional racism and sexism. On the other hand, an increase in feminist, antiracist teachers who structure the learning environment in such a way that privilege, whether white, male, and/or heterosexual, is not only proscribed but fundamentally problematized holds far more promise for alleviating race and gender discrimination at both the individual and institutional level. This is a solution that can only be effective, however, if teachers are indeed sensitive to these types of privileges.
Strategic intersectionality suggests that persons who have marked identities, especially those who inhabit more than one, may under certain circumstances exhibit a “multiple identity advantage” that may situate them as particularly effective advocates for others who are disadvantaged. This institutional ethnography explores the underlying premises of strategic intersectionality and the countervailing effects of privilege through observations and in- depth interviews of teachers in a primarily white elementary school, a primarily Hispanic elementary school, and a primarily African American elementary school, all within the same school district north of Chicago. Despite a commitment to social justice by teachers, the school district, and the town itself, efforts to address issues of race, class, and gender inequality remain rooted in individual-level strategies with no critique of contemporary institutional discrimination. The result is often an attempt by teachers to construct racial and gender utopias in their classrooms where "problems" of race and gender do not exist, and any connections to structural inequalities go unexamined or are presented as historical facts.