Addressing the Intersectional-Identity Phenomenon Through School Counseling
Guest Post by Sweety Patel
What is intersectional identity? Some time ago, I had applied for the leadership position in my alternative education program, but I did not get the position even though I believed I had all the key qualifications. I eventually realized that my being Asian-Indian and a woman may have played a role in my not securing the position. This experience is an example of what the theory of intersectional identity is. Intersectionality consists of the numerous social characteristics people possess and how this adds to historical and institutionalized systems of disadvantage.
As a school counselor in Jersey City, N.J., I have come across intersectionality throughout my work. The American School Counselor Association has a stance on equity stating that "...school counselors are mindful of school and community perceptions of the treatment of underrepresented groups." I work in a very diverse urban environment, and many of my students have several facets that make up who they are, like race, gender, sexuality, and socioeconomics. The identities can stand against them when it comes to success in the mainstream. To get to the root of many of their academic, personal, and social issues, it is important that students are counseled to recognize that discrimination exists in society. It is urgent for school counselors to provide the students with the appropriate support, tools, and strategies to deal with the discriminations that are linked to their intersectional identities.
In the beginning of my career, I often thought that all students can succeed regardless of their individual identities. I felt I was being positive. Over the past 13 years, I came to the awakening that the distinct traits that each student possesses are interconnected. So, a student who comes from a historically racially oppressed background, such as African-American or Hispanic, could also be female, from a low socioeconomic status, part of the LGBTQ community, and/or have a disability, and this could open the student up to more oppression. All of these factors play into who the student is and can cause privileges to be withheld and prejudice to be imposed. By identifying, comprehending, and acknowledging intersectionality, I can better service my students.
The hopes I had for my students as a school counselor were good hopes, but they needed a reality check. I had disengaged myself from the authenticity of each student. Only when I started to remember that every single element of each student's identity means something did I begin to come to terms with the negative, yet honest, facets of their experiences.
I currently work at a second-chance program. Many of my students have fallen behind in their credits and are trying to get back on track to graduate with their home-school cohorts. In addition, I am also the school counselor for the district's U-CAN program, formerly called "Zero Tolerance," which is the alternate, interim educational setting for students, grades 4-12, with extended suspensions. Many of my students have a negative image built for them even before they enter our doors. As a school counselor, I try to expose my students to all the possibilities that exist in the world for them and teach them that they have the potential to strengthen their skill sets and succeed in the greater society. An important way to assist in building their confidence is by giving the students concrete examples and tools. The faces of their identity can ultimately serve them and boost their self-esteem and worth.
Ensuring the power of success involves counseling the students to understand that if they are on the margin, the key is not to get to the center but to expand the margin. In my graduate program and professional development, school counselors are advised to "see the whole child," but it takes many stories and moments to see the whole child, with all the phases and sides intermingling with one another.
In conclusion, the American School Counselor Association believes that equitable treatment of students is promoted by "advocating for higher education for underrepresented groups," "using data to identify gaps in opportunity," and "creating an environment that encourages any student to feel comfortable to come forward with problems." These and many of the services of our profession must have the reality of intersectionality as part of its fabric. The intersectionality of students can eventually become a force for change for the individuals and the collective, once it is recognized and once actions to counterbalance injustice are created.
Sweety Patel has been a school counselor for the Jersey City public schools for the past t13 years. She has a bachelor of arts degree in psychology and international studies from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and a master of science degree in school counseling from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She is also a national certified counselor and the vice president of the Hudson County School Counselor Association, an executive board member of the New Jersey School Counselor Association, and a member of the American School Counselor Association.