The weight of intersectionality | Opinion | Halifax, Nova Scotia | THE COAST

The weight of intersectionality

What it’s like being a Black, female, immigrant graduate student in STEM

The weight of intersectionality
Danielle Gaitor is a native of Andros, Bahamas and a first year Master's student at Dalhousie University. Danielle is passionate about the educational advancement and empowerment of young women and girls from marginalized and underrepresented backgrounds. She is the curriculum developer for For My Sister, an international non-profit organization that mentors young women in the areas of education, service, leadership and personal development.

As a university student in Halifax, I walk into a classroom or research lab, looking around eagerly, hoping to see someone who looks like me. I gaze around anxiously, searching to find at least one person who can feel the weight that I'm carrying. I sigh in disappointment, realizing that yet again, I am alone. I feel like an imposter.

Imagine being an immigrant, Black, financially constrained, first-generation, female college student—in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). Now, imagine carrying the weight of intersectional disadvantage along with the expectation of success from my entire family, my island, my home country, The Bahamas. Sometimes, it all feels impossible. As I navigate this city with my unique identity, I wonder, "Does anyone feel me?"

This is what you call intersectionality, and it pains me that we are not talking more about it. Intersectionality occurs when social categorizations such as race, class, gender and nationality interlock to create systems of disadvantage or discrimination. With using the narrative of diversity and inclusion, there comes the responsibility to engage the privileged population, students and faculty included. It is hard to understand intersectionality and marginalization by association because it is a lived experience, but you can stand for change as an ally. I am fortunate to have allies who have recognized when I was being discriminated against and have stood with me in their own ways. To them, I say thank you.

In my personal experience, there were times when it was so obvious that I was being treated differently that I was often left to wonder, "Which part of my identity makes this person treat me that way? Is it the fact that I am Black? Is it the fact that I am a woman? Is it the fact that I am an immigrant and I have an accent?" The weight of these experiences unfortunately increases over time.

The weight of intersectionality
Melanie Massey

My academic matriculation involves competing with individuals who do not realize their advantage, and the security that comes with a greater sense of belonging. How can we say that we stand for diversity and inclusion when the majority of the student body and faculty are not educated about what it means and how to put it into practice? Thankfully, I no longer receive comments on my "perfect English" or questions about riding dolphins, or wearing coconut bras and grass skirts.

At the same time, significantly increasing international fees sends a message of anti-diversity and inclusion. To encourage diverse enrolment, there needs to be an environment where everyone can thrive and that too means fair fees. We are already disadvantaged. Do not tokenize us. Humanize us.

Additionally, faculty and administrative composition should reflect cultural competency and balanced representation. When I do not see "me" among the decision-makers, I can't help but wonder, "Is my voice being heard?" Representation matters.

Encouraging diversity and inclusion by accepting a person who identifies with a marginalized group into the institution does not eliminate how years of systemic discrimination shapes their experience. Recognize that never having to think about intersectionality or how it's affecting the lives of others is called privilege. But with privilege, you too have a platform to bring about change. Start by simply acknowledging your privilege. Then, take a look through my lens. Hear the voices of the marginalized and "intersectional-ized." We are more than just a diversity initiative. This is not to diminish the struggles of other social categorizations. This is not to negate the progress that has been made. This is an indictment, a call for change.

Will you stand with me?


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