Jakita Thomas, Neha Kumar, Alexandra To, Quincy Brown, Yolanda Rankin
In the previous issue of ACM Interactions, I engaged four thought leaders in the field of HCI—Quincy Brown, Neha Kumar, Jakita Thomas, and Alexandra To—in an intimate conversation about how they first discovered intersectionality. In this issue, we continue the second part of the conversation. Here, each scholar talks about how intersectionality informs the work that they do.
— Yolanda Rankin
Yolanda Rankin: When I first started talking about doing this kind of work, someone said to me, "That's not computer science." The reality for me as a Black woman is that I deal with this stuff every day, and I'm in the field of computing. So yes, we need to talk about intersectionality in the context of computing.
Jakita Thomas: When we had the first blackcomputeHER.org meeting, we were having a conversation about trying to navigate some of these spaces. Tiffani Williams, who I call the Mary McLeod Bethune of blackcomputeHER.org, asked why we were encouraging Black girls and women to go into this field. It was a moment where we questioned: Why would we encourage anyone to come into this field and experience this type of foolery? I began to think about how we could change and transform these spaces because it's not okay that we've endured in spite of gendered racism and structural oppression. Nobody should have to endure it at all.
Quincy Brown: I've fallen in love with a phrase that I heard from someone, about falling in love with your passion, not your project. I've had to rely on that quite often, especially at times when I've changed jobs. You start a project that you just love because it's born out of your passion, and then it's time for you to go somewhere else and you're like, "Ah, do I leave my work?" It's hard. I've literally suffered from separation anxiety over my work. Lately, I've been a little more intentional about not doing that to a certain degree, since I work outside of the academy. Every couple of years, I've been employed somewhere else, and I've had projects that I absolutely loved. However, staying in environments that were toxic for me just because I loved the project would have been disastrous. I think about how I can do work that involves my passion without letting my commitment to a project keep me in places that are terrible for me. It's even more basic than that. How about a boss who doesn't yell at me? Through the years I've had a couple of those, and then it's time to go. Some of these environments are just toxic; they're just terrible. Some people are lovely, but they've also got some really wicked sides to them.
YR: Quincy, you just shared an example of the kind of violence that occurs within the field of computing. Patricia Hill Collins introduces the concept of saturated sites of violence as "bundled-together practices, social institutions, representations, and patterns of everyday social interaction that appear and reappear across seemingly separate systems of oppression" . Saturated sites of violence represent interconnected systems of power that converge in epistemic violence and reveal the inner workings of power within and across oppressive systems (e.g., race, gender, class, etc.). So let's unpack this notion of violence in HCI.
JT: I have gone on my own personal journey, catalyzed by my mother's passing. Losing my mother made things very clear to me about what is really important. There is a balance between having a profession or a career and making a change in society. For me, making a change is more important than a successful professional career. I'm equipped with the skills to do this research. I don't have to be associated with any particular type of entity to do it, and that kind of liberated me in a lot of ways to be able to say what needs to be said or do what needs to be done without concern about the violence that might ensue. Not physical violence per se, but professional violence in the form of verbal attacks. I've had to ask somebody to meet me outside after a talk, but they didn't come. They didn't show up. For me, at least, it was about getting clear about what the most important things are for me as a human being and as a person, and then accepting whatever comes with the rest of it, because nobody can stop me from doing this work.
YR: Alexandra, you talk about racial injustice in your research. How do you leverage intersectionality to make these sites of violence explicit?
Alexandra To: That's a really good question. I think about violence at a couple of different levels in the work. My most recent work looks at interpersonal racism, at a very practical level. I'm entering into a space with my research participants where they're speaking about violence, whether it's physical, epistemic, mental, or emotional. Over the past two years, I have been stewarding stories about violence, strength, and healing. It's really difficult. It's overwhelming. When I write or talk about this work with my colleagues, especially colleagues who aren't familiar with these topics, I encounter this unfortunate discursive standard in academic spaces: "I will value your work through interrogating it, and if you can stand up to this interrogation, then your work is worthwhile." And I'm reminded of a conversation I had maybe a year and a half ago with a colleague. This person of color said, "I don't think that racism is real. I think that race is just a proxy for socioeconomic status." And I'm like, "There's a lot packed into this—a lot of assumptions you're making." I just had to sit there and walk this person through why that was inappropriate and racist. This is not just an academic exercise. It's really dehumanizing for me as a person. You're not just attacking my research or the theoretical frameworks I use. This hurts me. This is about me and also the people I care about and people in my community, and my own personal histories. To not be able to see racism is a huge form of violence. With the recent conversation around Black Lives Matter, I was tagged in an email thread with folks who wanted to uplift this work. My response was, "I'm really glad that you all are excited about this. If you want specific resources from me, I can share some things, but I'm not going to join a conversation with you about this, because I have been having these conversations with y'all, and they have been violent. I have been subjected to this devil's advocate nonsense that's just a form of violence. I'm not going to do that." And then the person who had that conversation with me emailed me back to say that our conversation had been paradigm-shifting and that I dramatically changed how that person thought. And I was thinking, You never told me that. You didn't come up to me later and say I changed your mind. I'm glad for that person's individual growth, but I walked away and had to take a three-hour nap after that conversation. I got nothing done the rest of that day. It was exhausting. I'm thinking about the occurrence of violence in this process of learning and growth. The question to ask yourself is: Who are you inflicting violence on as you go through your own personal journey of growth?
To not be able to see racism is a huge form of violence.—ALEXANDRA TO
JT: You bring up a couple of things that really resonate with me. First, I know this is a conversation that happens within the Black community, and I'm sure it happens within other communities as well. The question is: How much do we leverage and focus our energy on schooling other people about what the real is? You have Google just like I do. Get to work. The second thing that came up for me as you were talking, Alexandra, was this notion of assumptions. I'm in a space where I'm questioning all the assumptions: Who said it had to be that way? Why is it that way? Who made it so? Why do we have to agree? Who does it benefit? Who does it hurt? How can we think about it differently? What if we work with a different set of assumptions? Unless we begin to really question some of these deep, deep assumptions that are baked into computing, it becomes very hard, one, for people to see that something is awry, and two, for people to figure out what to do about it. And it might be that the assumptions go as far back as Ada Lovelace and nobody we know was there when these assumptions were made. That's okay, too, but it doesn't prevent us or absolve us from doing the work that needs to be done to question these assumptions and figure out how we can work from a different, more equitable set of assumptions to create more-equitable spaces.
The last thing is that there was a young Ph.D. student at a conference who gave a talk about belonging in the field of computing. She focused specifically on Black women and how the literature talks about aspects of belonging that aren't always present for Black women in computing spaces. She proposed that we question this notion of "women of color," think differently about women of color, and use different language. A very well-respected statistician who is a white woman in the field of computer science education asked the student if she should sacrifice her statistical significance for a more accurate racial representation of women in computing—Black women, Latinas, Asian women, etc.—in her studies. Because the presenter was a Ph.D. student dealing with somebody well-respected in the field, a power dynamic came into play, and she started backpedaling about the significance of intersectionality. But it was the way in which somebody with more power questioned her. If I had been on that stage and the statistician asked me the same question, my answer would have been, "Yes. Next question." That led me on this journey of exploration and delving into different kinds of literature and bringing them together, but it also emboldened me. I was pissed off by the way that student was treated. Since then, I intentionally began to trouble this notion of women of color.
Neha Kumar: I was reading Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor's book How We Get Free, which offers a more detailed account of the Combahee River Collective (CRC) . Many parts of it resonated with me deeply, such as how they defined women of color. She writes that they "were not looking for photographs of people. Instead, [they] just wanted to know if you identified with the indigenous people of your respective nation or country." In the words of Barbara Smith, as quoted by Taylor, "We were third-world women. We considered ourselves to be third-world women. We saw ourselves in solidarity and in struggle with all third-world people around the globe. And we saw ourselves as being internally colonized." There are many shared struggles that continue to this day, often including the struggle to be seen and heard, and to be recognized and cited as legitimate voices in the pursuit of knowledge production. Just to read these firsthand accounts from the women who were part of the CRC, how they thought about themselves as third-world women, and how they included others in this definition, was really eye-opening.
YR: Neha, your research centers the experiences of women in the Global South. How has intersectionality helped you fight for social justice, especially in your research?
The question is: How much do we leverage and focus our energy on schooling other people about what the real is?—JAKITA THOMAS
NK: I've been thinking a lot about dignity lately, and the many facets of it, which end up being intersectional. Dignity has also been the focus of Martha Nussbaum, a feminist and philosopher, in laying out her capabilities approach to human development . She lists a set of capabilities that are essential to a person's well-being, ranging from bodily health to play, and several in between. Much of the work that I have done along with my students in the past decade or so has focused on these capabilities in the context of the lives of women in the Global South. These students make up the TanDEm lab at Georgia Tech, which I lead. TanDEm is an acronym that expands to Technology and Design toward Empowerment. But we need to ask, what does empowerment mean? Because we're talking about power changing hands in some way, who has this power to begin with, who is reconfiguring it, and what right do they have to be giving power in the first place? This comes up a lot with the work that we've done centering healthcare workers in rural and urban India, for example. These are typically women from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds, responsible for the last-mile delivery of care. There are so many questions around the validity of work because it doesn't look a certain way, the research site doesn't look a certain way, or the research questions don't look a certain way. It is actually a fight to highlight and emphasize over and over again the agency of these women, the things that they're doing, and the things they're capable of. Now the most troubling thing is the use of AI in global health, which is very much about sidelining the powers that these women have and focusing on how they can be better instrumentalized as underpaid workers.
YR: Intersectionality requires us to show the dignity, humanity, and resiliency of people who have been cast aside, disenfranchised, disavowed, erased, or silenced. We can't simply portray people as victims and leave them there. As scholars committed to social justice, we apply an intersectional lens to elevate those who have been oppressed to a place where they are empowered and can engage in acts of resistance. We apply an intersectional lens in an attempt to better understand how technology affects, or could affect, people's lived experiences and the ramifications of how technology design contributes to social inequities. Thank you for taking the time to share your experiences with me and the HCI community. That's a wrap.
Jakita O. Thomas is an associate professor of computer science and software engineering in the Samuel Ginn College of Engineering at Auburn University. She is also director of the CUltuRally and SOcially Relevant (CURSOR) computing lab. Thomas is a recipient of the National Science Foundation's Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award (2012–2019] as well as the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE, 2016). [email protected]
Neha Kumar is an associate professor at Georgia Tech, with a joint appointment in the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs and the School of Interactive Computing. Her work lies at the intersection of human-centered computing and global development. [email protected]
Alexandra To is an assistant professor at Northeastern University, jointly appointed in the Department of Art + Design (Games) and the Khoury College of Computer Sciences. She holds a Ph.D. in HCI from Carnegie Mellon University and is an HCI researcher, game designer, and racial justice activist. [email protected]
Quincy Brown is a cofounder of blackcomputeHER.org and director of engagement and research at AnitaB.org. She was previously a program director at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and senior policy advisor in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. She has supported women and girls in computing for more than a decade. [email protected]
Yolanda A. Rankin is an assistant professor in the School of Information at Florida State University and director of the DEsigning TechnOlogies for the UndeRserved (DETOUR) research lab, which explores designing technologies with and for underserved populations. She is the recipient of the 2016 Woodrow Wilson Early Career Enhancement Fellowship. [email protected]
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