Intersectionality and School Psychology: Implications for Practice

By Sherrie L. Proctor, Brittney Williams, Tracey Scherr, & Kathrynne Li

The term intersectionality was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in relation to how antidiscrimination laws did not protect Black women given that those laws treated race and gender as mutually exclusive categories of experience and analysis (Cooper, 2016; Crenshaw, 1989). Crenshaw (1989) challenged the use of a single-axis framework (i.e., one that considers single, rather than multiple categories of identity) as a basis for rendering legal decisions in employment discrimination cases involving Black women because such a framework did not account for the multiple ways Black women experienced discrimination. Crenshaw (1989) argued that individuals, especially those with multiple minoritized (which refers to a person being forced into a group that is mistreated, faces prejudices, or is discriminated against because of situations outside of one's personal control) identities, should be viewed through a lens that takes into account how their identities intersect to influence their experience of the world, particularly experiences that lead to discrimination. Intersectionality, therefore, refers to the simultaneous experience of social categories such as race, gender, socioeconomic status, and sexual orientation and the ways in which these categories interact to create systems of oppression, domination, and discrimination.

This article was written in reference to the recently released National Association of School Psychologists (2017) infographic, Understanding Intersectionality. The article explores how intersectionality can be used as a lens to aid in school psychologists' understanding of their own intersecting identities as well as those of the students they serve, particularly in relation to how the intersection of identities interact with privilege or oppression. The article briefly reviews research on Black girls' disproportionate representation in school-based discipline to illustrate how the intersection of gender and race can interact with school-based disciplinary systems, resulting in inequitable outcomes for Black girls. The article concludes with recommendations for how school psychologists can use intersectionality as a practice lens to encourage social justice for those students whose chances of experiencing marginalization and discrimination are increased based on their identities.

Intersectionality and Social Justice: Understanding the Role of Privilege and Oppression

Intersectionality can serve as a powerful practice lens that focuses school psychologists on students' intersecting identities and how these intersections contribute to students' experiences of discrimination and oppression. This lens directs school psychologists to take into account students' multiple identities when considering how their academic and social worlds are constructed. For example, a male student of immigrant status who is learning how to speak English and identifies as gay may have different school experiences than his peers who do not share the same identities. His immigrant status, limited English proficiency, and sexual orientation can place him at higher risk of discrimination or oppression due to others' (e.g., administrators, teachers, peers) personal biases and preconceived notions about aspects of his identity (NASP, 2017).

Because the concept of intersectionality is concerned with creating more equitable and socially just outcomes for those with minoritized identities, it is important for school psychologists to not only understand the intersecting identities that place students at higher risk for discrimination and oppression, but to also understand how students' intersecting identities relate to systems of privilege. This is important because, often, privileges for one group are directly linked to disadvantages or oppressions for other groups (NASP, 2016). The use of intersectionality is social justice work that aims to interrogate and challenge inequality and exclusion (Case, 2016). This aim mirrors Speight and Vera's (2009) assertion that social justice includes the examination and transformation of the processes that initially contributed to unequal outcomes and marginalization of certain groups. To ensure that the concept of intersectionality serves as a mechanism for social justice, school psychologists must have an understanding of privilege and oppression because, as noted, school psychologists must understand how students' intersecting identities interact with systems that serve to privilege some while oppressing others. Additionally, when school psychologists understand and acknowledge the privileges they hold themselves, they can leverage those privileges to advocate for the diverse students and families they serve.

Privilege. Privilege refers to unearned access to resources and social power that are only available to some as a result of their advantaged social group membership (Adams, Bell, & Griffin, 2007). There are many types of privilege (e.g., ability, Christian, socioeconomic, male, heterosexual). Recently, there has been much discussion of White privilege (see NASP, 2016). This type of privilege is relevant to address in school psychology given that the majority of school psychologists identify racially as White (Walcott, Charvat, McNamara, & Hyson, 2016). Many White school psychologists may reject the idea that they benefit from unearned advantages in American society (Shriberg, 2016). This may result from the assumption that White privilege means that a White person has not worked hard to obtain success. However, one can experience unearned benefits of being White while also working hard to achieve success. White students, for example, can work hard to make honor roll, while still benefitting from unearned access to resources and social power such as attending schools where most teachers look and speak like them; being instructed in curricula that reflect their culture, history, and background; and being exposed to national heroes who share their racial background (Holladay, 2000). From a systemic perspective, many White students also benefit from White privilege in terms of attending schools with more experienced teachers, having access to more Advanced Placement (AP) courses and higher quality instructional materials, as well as better facilities compared to Black and Latinx (Latinx is a term inclusive of gender diversity among individuals with Latin American heritage) students (U.S. Department of Education, 2015). Indeed, ample evidence illustrates Black and Latinx students do not benefit from many of the privileges White students access daily (Ford, Wright, Washington, & Henfield, 2016; Proctor, 2016). In fact, many Black and Latinx students experience oppressions which are intensified when one accounts for how their race intersects with other identities they hold such as socioeconomic status, gender, and sexual orientation (Koswic, Greytak, Giga, Villenas, & Danischewski, 2016; NASP, 2017; Singh, 2017).

Oppression. Oppression is defined as a system that maintains advantage and disadvantage based on social group memberships and operates, intentionally and unintentionally, on individual, institutional, and cultural levels (Adams et al., 2007). Attitudes and actions that reflect prejudice against a group are examples of how oppression manifests at the individual level. Policies, laws, rules, norms, and customs that disadvantage some groups, while advantaging other groups, serve as mechanisms of oppression at the institutional level. At the cultural level, norms, roles, rituals, language, and behaviors that reflect and reinforce the belief that one group is superior to another represent oppression (Adams et al., 2007). Importantly, one can hold multiple, intersecting identities that lead to privilege in some instances, and oppression in other instances. For example, a White cisgender (term for people whose gender identity matches the sex that they were assigned at birth) female student who has physical and cognitive disAbilities can experience the privileges associated with having White skin in America, as well as oppressions that can result from being female and having multiple disAbilities. To connect with students' intersectional identities, it is important for school psychologists to understand their own intersecting identities and how those identities can lead to their own experiences of privilege or oppression. The following discussion aims to move school psychologists toward understanding how becoming aware, acknowledging, and understanding their own intersecting identities can impact service delivery to diverse students.

Intersectionality and School Psychologists

The increasingly diverse U.S. school-age population, contrasted against the predominantly White and female demographics of school psychologists, necessitates a need for attention to intersectionality in school psychology (Proctor, Kyle, Fefer, & Lau, 2017). This need includes school psychologists' understanding of themselves and the students they serve as intersectional beings. To be more specific, the most recent NASP demographic data reported that 83% of school psychologists surveyed were female, 87% White, and 86% spoke English only (Walcott et al., 2016). These demographics are in contrast to almost 50% of U.S. public school students who are identified as being members of racial or ethnic "minority" groups (National Center for Education Statistics [NCES], 2017). Furthermore, approximately 9.4% of students are identified as English language learners (NCES, 2017).

Due to the demographics of the profession compared to U.S. public school students, most school psychologists work with students from backgrounds different from their own (Proctor, Simpson, Levin, & Hackimer, 2014). This is not inherently problematic if they possess the multicultural competency to serve all students. Unfortunately, studies have suggested that school psychologists may lack the skills needed to competently serve diverse student populations (Scherr, 2011). Fortunately, scholars have identified the skills school psychologists need to develop multicultural competency. A first step is self-awareness (Carroll, 2009; NASP, 2016; Proctor & Meyers, 2015). In terms of intersectionality, it is important for school psychologists to become aware of identities that serve to privilege them. Although recognizing one's own privilege can be uncomfortable, it is necessary for multiculturally competent school psychology practice that promotes social justice for all students. In a recent article related to understanding race and privilege, NASP (2016) noted that "privilege is problematic (a) when it skews our personal interactions and judgments and (b) when it contributes to or blinds us to systemic barriers for those who do not possess a certain privilege, thereby creating or perpetuating inequity" (p. 24). Take for example a school psychologist who identifies as White, female, and lesbian. If this school psychologist has not worked to recognize her privilege as a White person in the United States, she may struggle to recognize how educational and social systems perpetuate bias, discrimination, and inequities that can affect the diverse students and families she serves.

Using an intersectional lens, it is likely that the aforementioned school psychologist has also experienced some oppressions based on her sexual orientation, including being on the receiving end of prejudice and discrimination. If the school psychologist can recognize how her sexual orientation, as one aspect of her identity, links to experiences of oppression, then she may be more likely to understand and empathize with the students she serves who also have oppressive and marginalizing experiences based on one or more of their intersecting identities. School psychologists' awareness, acknowledgement, and understanding of their own intersecting identities represent first steps to facilitating understanding of their students' intersecting identities. These first steps can lead to further exploration of how systems of privilege and oppression impact diverse student populations.

Intersectionality in Schools: Black Girls and Discipline Disproportionality

Use of intersectionality as a practice lens can help school psychologists unpack the ways in which students' intersecting identities contribute to increased risk for discrimination and oppression that can lead to marginalizing educational experiences. As indicated in Understanding Intersectionality (NASP, 2017), one example of the impact of intersectionality in schools is the disproportionate representation of Black girls in school-based discipline. In Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced, and Underprotected, Crenshaw, Ocen, and Nanda (2015) highlighted the excessive disciplinary actions used with Black girls attending elementary and secondary schools in Boston and New York City. Findings suggested that, compared to girls of other races, Black girls face a higher risk of suspension and expulsion for subjective behavioral violations. Crenshaw et al. (2015) noted that Black girls may be subjected to harsher punishment because they are perceived as loud, unruly, or unmanageable. In many cases, implicit bias and stereotyping contribute to educators' perceptions that Black girls' behaviors are in opposition to institutional norms (Crenshaw et al., 2015). This results in systemic discrimination that leads to negative outcomes for Black girls, including underachievement, school dropout, and increased marginalization within the school setting via suspensions, expulsions, and involvement with the criminal justice system (Crenshaw et al., 2015).

The intersectional role that gender and race plays in the school experiences of Black girls is very important to acknowledge, particularly given evidence that systemic bias and disparities in school-based discipline practices and outcomes begin as early as preschool and continue throughout Black girls' educational experiences. For example, while Black girls represent only 20% of female preschool enrollment, they represent 54% of female preschool children who receive one or more out-of-school suspensions (U.S. Department of Education, 2016). Research also documents that Black girls in K–12 settings are overrepresented in exclusionary disciplinary punishments compared to their Hispanic and White female peers (Blake, Butler, Lewis, & Darensbourg, 2011; U.S. Department of Education, 2016). Similar to Crenshaw et al.'s (2015) findings, Blake and colleagues (2011) found that, unlike Hispanic and White girls, Black girls were most often punished for behaviors perceived to be in opposition to institutional standards of femininity. These types of discriminatory discipline practices led Black girls to feel that their schools were neither safe nor supportive learning environments (Crenshaw et al., 2015).

Using an intersectional lens, school psychologists can better understand Black girls and how the intersections of their race and gender inform disciplinary experiences along their educational pathways (Morris, 2012). This same intersectional lens can be used to examine inequitable, discriminatory, and unjust educational experiences in relation to diverse students regarding special education referral and placement practices (Sullivan & Proctor, 2016), referral and access to gifted education and AP classes (Ford et al., 2016), and academic achievement (Chavous, Rivas-Drake, Smalls, Griffin, & Cogburn, 2008). Indeed, use of intersectionality provides a lens to facilitate school psychologists' examination of systemic and structural forces that often contribute to the marginalization of students whose intersecting identities place them at greater risk for experiencing discrimination. Yet, to fully embrace the intent of intersectionality, it is not enough for school psychologists to just examine systems and structures that oppress some students, while privileging others. School psychologists must use their positionality and privileges to interrogate, challenge, and dismantle biased systems and structures (Proctor et al., 2017). The following discussion provides practice recommendations to aid school psychologists in using intersectionality to effect social justice for diverse student populations.

Implications for Practice

Know thyself. As indicated, self-awareness is the first step required to facilitate use of an intersectional practice lens. Carroll (2009) noted that awareness has four components: (a) awareness of self and one's own personal values and beliefs; (b) awareness of others and their multiple identities; (c) awareness of systemic issues such as privilege; and (d) awareness of the implications that professional decisions have on students today, tomorrow, and in the future. In terms of intersectionality, school psychologists should develop awareness of their own intersecting identities and how these identities may have privileged or oppressed them in their personal and professional lives. This is important because school psychologists who are not aware of their own intersecting identities and how those identities shape how they experience the world may have difficulty understanding how diverse students' identities can influence their educational and social experiences and outcomes. One activity that can facilitate school psychologists' awareness of their identities is the Identity Wheel Activity (Adams et al., 2007; Hernandez, 2017). Using a worksheet format, this activity requires participants to reflect on various identities they hold (e.g., race, sex, gender, religion, class, ability, sexual orientation, age) and identify which of those identities are most conscious. The worksheet includes a circle in which the size of the slice of the circle reflects participants' awareness of their membership in the corresponding social group. To help participants connect their various identities to experiences of oppression or privilege, participants are instructed to place a T (Targeted) or A (Advantaged) in each slice, signifying if that identity results in being advantaged or targeted (Hernandez, 2017).

Knowledge development and education. Similar to models for multicultural competency development (e.g., Carroll, 2009; Proctor & Meyers, 2015), knowledge acquisition is a second step to engaging an intersectional practice lens. This requires school psychologists to gain knowledge about the diverse populations they serve, giving special attention to how diverse students' intersecting identities can place them at greater risk for discrimination and marginalizing experiences. The NASP (2017) infographic, Understanding Intersectionality, offers excellent resources related to diverse student populations and intersectionality.

Once school psychologists have developed their own knowledge base related to diverse student populations and how intersectionality can affect social, emotional, academic, and behavioral outcomes, they should share this knowledge with colleagues, including teachers, administrators, and other educational stakeholders. Leading discussions about historical and current educational practices and policies that have worked to disadvantage and discriminate against marginalized groups is a starting point. One way to share knowledge about Black girls' disproportionate representation in school-based discipline is to organize a group reading of Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools by Monique Morris (2016) coupled with a viewing of Kimberlé Crenshaw's TED Talk about intersectionality. Introduction of these two resources can offer educators foundational knowledge related to disparate discipline practices using an intersectional lens. Once knowledge is obtained and staff are engaged in critically examining processes that maintain disparate discipline practices for Black girls, then school psychologists can lead systematic efforts to dismantle the biased policies, practices, and structures that maintain such unjust practices.

Encourage systems change. Changing systems that privilege some, while oppressing others, is essential to using an intersectional practice lens. School psychologists should advocate at the school, district, state, and national levels for laws, policies, and practices that support social justice for students who experience oppressions based on their intersecting identities (NASP, 2012). NASP offers a number of resources that support advocacy, knowledge building, and skills development related to diverse student populations (see Furthermore, school psychologists' skills in collaborative problem solving, data-based decision making, and research can be used to effect systems change. For instance, skills in data-based decision-making can be used to decrease Black girls' overrepresentation in exclusionary discipline practices. Rollenhagen, Goodman, and Barnes (2017) addressed school psychologists' participation in decreasing racial disparities in discipline, noting: the role of the school psychologists includes "facilitation or support of the process, data dialogue to ensure accuracy of data collection, proper analysis of data, and assistance with the creation of potential solutions or action plans to address the identified problem" (p. 10). Rollenhagen et al. (2017) provide an informative discussion about how a school psychologist worked in tandem with other educators to decrease discipline disparities for Black boys and girls in a K–7 grade school in the Midwest. Indeed, NASP (2012) advocated that a key role for school psychologists is to promote systems change by assisting administrators in evaluating practices, policies, and procedures that lead to potential disparities in access, participation, or outcomes for students based on demographic group membership.

Be a social justice advocate. NASP’s definition of social justice underscored that social justice is both a process and a goal that requires action to facilitate equity and fairness for all students (Barrett & A'Vant, 2017). School psychologists who embrace an intersectionality practice lens commit to understanding the educational processes, systems, structures, policies, and practices that put students, based on their intersecting identities, at increased risk for discrimination, prejudices, and oppression. Shriberg (2016) outlined steps for social justice advocates in the profession, including: (a) acknowledge White privilege, (b) listen and learn from others, (c) think, and (d) act. In relation to addressing discipline disproportionality, Shriberg (2016) noted the power of having skills to analyze school-based discipline data and understand the larger school discipline research. However, he noted that school psychologists must act on this knowledge to make a positive impact on outcomes for those students who are most affected by discipline disproportionality based on their intersecting identities. Although we have used the example of Black girls and discipline disproportionality throughout this article as an example of intersectionality in schools, Shriberg's (2016) proposed steps for social justice advocacy can be applied to issues that impact many student populations when using an intersectionality practice lens.


Speight and Vera (2009) noted that school psychologists can advance social justice by examining and challenging practices, policies, and institutional structures that contribute to inequity. Intersectionality provides a lens through which we can examine the processes, practices, policies, and structures that increase the risk of students experiencing disadvantage or discrimination because of their intersecting identities. However, to truly embrace intersectionality, school psychologists must be willing to engage in everyday actions that advocate for equity and fairness for all students, particularly those at risk for the most marginalization based on their identities.


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Sherrie L. Proctor, PhD, is an associate professor of school psychology at Queens College, City University of New York. Brittney Williams, MEd, is a third year doctoral student in the Temple University school psychology program. Tracey Scherr, PhD, NCSP, is a professor at University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. Kathrynne Li is a second year master’s student in the Queens College, City University of New York School Psychology Program. The following are acknowledged with appreciation as the primary authors of the NASP Understanding Intersectionality infographic: Tara Raines, PhD, Tracey Scherr, PhD, Elizabeth A'Vant, Charles Barrett, PhD, and Emily Klein.

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