XXVIII.3 May - June 2021
Page: 73
Digital Citation

Discovering intersectionality part I: Researcher interrupted

Quincy Brown, Neha Kumar, Jakita Thomas, Alexandra To, Yolanda Rankin

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More than a year has passed since Jakita Thomas and I (Yolanda Rankin) wrote the ACM Interactions article "Straighten Up and Fly Right: Rethinking Intersectionality in HCI." In that article, we critiqued the field of HCI for not acknowledging the origins of intersectionality, which lay in the historical oppression of Black women and other women of color. In addition, we implored scholars to correctly apply intersectionality as a critical framework to identify how overlapping social constructs such as race, gender, class, and sexual orientation mutually influence one another to create systems of power that produce unequal outcomes for historically excluded groups [1,2]. By using intersectionality to call out how power operates within interconnected systems of oppression, we can resist these structures of oppression and push for more equitable solutions [2]. Subsequently, we extended an open invitation to the HCI community to partner with women of color to ethically and responsibly design technology-based solutions to address social injustices. In the spirit of feminist solidarity, we invited three women of color, Quincy Brown, Neha Kumar, and Alexandra To, who represent thought leaders in the HCI community, to engage in an intimate conversation with us about how they came into the knowledge of intersectionality and how intersectionality informs the work that they do.

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As women of color who are scholars in the academe, we acknowledge and use our power and privilege as a platform to empower the voices of those who have been silenced, ignored, or erased. Each scholar is respected for their unique perspective of applying intersectionality as a critical framework, whether it be in the context of Asian Americans, women in the Global South, or Black women, as each historically excluded group has experienced oppression that cannot be denied. Rather than debating about whose oppression has been greater, colloquially referred to as the Oppression Olympics, we must instead come together to build coalitions and rally our resources to stand against social injustice. This thought-provoking conversation, originally recorded in November 2020, gives readers an up-close and personal perspective of our different journeys.

Yolanda Rankin: Thank you for joining me in this conversation about the significance of intersectionality in HCI research. I wanted to have a conversation with other women who were just as excited and motivated to tackle tough problems surrounding intersectionality and what it means to do this work. Each of you has a unique perspective of how intersectionality informs the work that you do, and I have been encouraged and inspired by your work.

Prior to coming to Florida State University, I was an assistant professor at Spelman College, an all-female historically Black college in Atlanta, Georgia. My students were always questioning me, which led me to not just accept things as they were. I grew a lot in that space, and those experiences led to my interest in understanding how Black women navigate the ecosystem of computing. I had to start with myself and reflect on some of my experiences. I had worked in the tech industry as a software engineer, program manager, and in other roles for several years. At that time, I was fortunate to work with Black women and men who had Ph.D.s in STEM disciplines. I had thought about getting my Ph.D., but I didn't think that it was a very real possibility for me. My coworkers, along with my parents, encouraged me to go back to graduate school in my 30s. After receiving my Ph.D. in computer science, I worked at IBM Almaden in Silicon Valley, where I was one of two Black women Ph.D.s. Being acutely aware of the underrepresentation of Black women in computing, I wanted to make a difference, so I found myself at Spelman College. I began to ground my research in intersectionality when I went to Florida State University and interacted with scholars in education and the social sciences. While intersectionality was new to me, I learned that it had been around for years, and so I began to educate myself. That's how I stumbled into intersectionality.

ins02.gif Left to right: Alexandra To, Jakita Thomas, Neha Kumar, Quincy Brown, and Yolanda Rankin.

It is extremely important that we engage in conversations with people whose perspectives may differ from our own, rather than resorting to "cancel culture." Having these dialogic interactions gives us an opportunity to learn from each other and grow professionally. One common misconception is that Black women "own" intersectionality. Not true. Intersectionality has a long history of Black women, Chicanas, Asian-American women, Native-American women, and other women of color appreciating the similarities and differences of their lived experiences [1,2]. We must confront this notion that women of color are homogeneous. Neha, as a woman of color, how did you discover intersectionality?

Neha Kumar: My experiences with intersecting oppressions trace back to the experience of being uprooted and planted in unfamiliar lands, when I first left India as a 16-year-old. It was disorienting to be abruptly pulled out of a world where I was completely at home, never having had to question what I looked like and how I sounded, to one where I felt like a complete outsider. Two years later, this experience repeated itself when I started college at UC Berkeley as an international student, though it felt less painful this time around. Berkeley is a good place for "outsiders," and it taught me, steadily, to make peace with my place in the world. I still remember being introduced to then California Attorney General Kamala Harris during my undergrad, and marveling that a woman with an Indian name could hold a position of prominence and be so respected in this foreign land. Last week's presidential election victory has also been emotional for that reason.

My introduction to the theory itself took place in 2016—at Georgia Tech. Ari Schlesinger was writing her paper on "Intersectional HCI" [3] then, and I happened to read a draft at a CHI "writing party." Months and many readings later, I participated in a workshop organized by colleagues from the University of Washington at the Interaction Design and Children (IDC) conference [4]. This is where Marisol Wong-Villacres and I started asking ourselves: How do you process different intersections when you're designing? How do these shape design? We attempted to address these questions [5], but that was only a starting point. Engaging with intersectionality has been a layered, iterative process, involving unlearning internalized assumptions around histories of oppression and learning to see oppression through a radically sharper lens. My most recent read, How We Get Free by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor [6], has been eye-opening in its interviews with women of the Combahee River Collective. An important lesson that I have learned through others' work and my own is that "third world women," or women variously owing allegiance to Global South histories, can be in powerful and world-changing support of each other. And the process of discovery continues…

One common misconception is that Black women "own" intersectionality. Not true.— YOLANDA RANKIN

YR: Thanks for sharing, Neha. Now I see the connections. Jakita, how about you?

Jakita Thomas: I'm an associate professor of computer science and software engineering at Auburn University. I'm a graduate of the computer science department at Spelman College. Prior to coming to Auburn, I taught at Spelman for six years. It was awesome to be in that space to help develop the next generation of young Black women and young Black computing professionals. Before Spelman, I worked in Silicon Valley at IBM research, but I always knew that I wanted to be in academia. Spelman didn't have an opening at the time that I finished my Ph.D. at Georgia Tech, so I went to industry. I learned a lot there. While I was there, I worked with a bunch of anthropologists, so my whole career in computing had been very interdisciplinary, with a focus on learning sciences.

I left industry to start my academic career at Spelman to do research that looked specifically at how Black girls developed their ability to use algorithms to solve problems. I became aware of some of the issues that they were facing—not within computing, because none of them went to schools that offered computing at the K–12 level, but more so the issues that they were having with mathematics, and how this was negatively impacting their ability to be successful in computing. It was then that I met Nicole Joseph, a very talented researcher at Vanderbilt University. She does lots of work with intersectional frameworks as it relates to Black girls and mathematics education. I became introduced to and immersed in intersectionality.

YR: I do miss the beauty of California. Alexandra?

Alexandra To: I was doing work in racial justice and intersectionality before I was doing work in computing. I have a mixed-race background. I'm Chinese, Japanese, and German. And even saying that out loud in this room is very uncomfortable for me—not because of the people in this room, but because I usually hold back that information. When someone asks me, "What are you?" that's my signal that you're not a safe person for me or we are not on the same page about what you can ask and what's appropriate. This kind of behavior is just one form of anti-Asian racism. I grew up in a Midwestern, predominantly white town, and then went to college in California, where I started to ask these identity questions. My racial identity was at the forefront of every experience I had as a child. Then I went to college and met all of these other people from all of these different racially diverse backgrounds; it felt like every Asian person said, "Well, you're not really Asian, because you don't know what this is, you don't know what that is." And it was really confusing and frustrating for me. My school, fortunately, had a whole program for comparative studies in race and ethnicity, racial affinity groups, and cultural centers. There was a lot of my personal time where I was engaging with this question of my identity. What does race, gender, and all of these many aspects mean to me personally, but also what does it mean in a historical context?

Engaging with intersectionality has been a layered, iterative process.— NEHA KUMAR

I did an Asian-American studies minor. I became involved in student activism in 2012 and 2013, when the Black Lives Matter movement started. The Asian-American activist group that I was a part of paused our ongoing campaigns to form a coalition with the Black student union and engage in Asian-Black solidarity. And all of that practice that I did in those years with those groups was very much focused on bringing people in and doing teach-ins. Even though we were focused on racial justice activism, we would do teach-ins about disability justice and about intersectionality. You needed that kind of coalition to do good work.

YR: Thank you, Alexandra. That was very insightful for me. Last but not least, Quincy?

Quincy Brown: Born and raised in the Bronx, New York, I went to the Bronx High School of Science and was very academically prepared and privileged. I had a very multicultural upbringing, since I went to school with kids from all cultures and religions, including immigrants. At that time, the TV show "A Different World" was on. It was all about historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). I was like, "I'm going down South, and I'm going to an HBCU," so that's what I did. I went to North Carolina A&T and was in this whole other world. It was a chance for me to just be an awesome student and not have to think about being a Black student. I was just Quincy. I was fortunate to be in the electrical engineering program. We didn't have a lot of Black women faculty, but my study buddies were other Black women. We just had a really good time excelling academically. After graduation, I worked in industry for about 10 years as an engineer in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

I ended up going to graduate school full time back in Philadelphia at Drexel University, where I got a master's and Ph.D. in computer science. By the time I started school, I was married and had two daughters, and was busy being a full-time mom and all the things that came with having young children. Black women helped me understand how to navigate graduate school. I don't think that I was consciously aware of the lack of diversity in my program, partly because I was so busy making sure that homework was done and hair was done. School was over there, and I was just there to do what I needed to do and not get caught up in a whole lot of other things. But at the same time, I was very aware of the lack of diversity, so it was kind of this balancing act of not thinking about it too hard, but also being very aware of that reality.

YR: I pose this question to each of you: How does intersectionality inform the work that you do?

NK: Intersectionality has brought me to question my place in the worlds I occupy, the research areas I pursue, the scholars and scholarship I must be in conversation with, and the impact I aspire toward. It has helped me to read and understand better the contexts where I do research, then communicate better to audiences who are less familiar with these contexts. I first came to look at intersecting oppressions in research while helping Piya Sorcar with her project on HIV education, which focused on designing technology for teaching taboo topics in underresourced contexts [7]. I applied to Piya's program—the Learning, Design and Technology program at Stanford University—where the more I learned about design, the more I was left feeling skeptical about learning technologies that were context agnostic. When I moved on to doing my Ph.D. in the still-new field of ICTs and development (ICTD), my ethnographic encounters across rural and small-town India made me increasingly attuned to oppressions that trace back to global histories of coloniality and patriarchy. Intersectionality has helped me understand how global histories connect with current, more local contexts in other disciplines. This could be particularly productive toward bringing together voices that are less connected in HCI but are stronger together. This is where I would like intersectionality to inform the work I do in future.

JT: Engaging with Nicole Joseph, her work, and the intersectionality literature made me question a lot of things. If I'm creating this environment that elevates, values, and centers these Black girls, what am I setting them up for if they go into colleges and universities that don't do that? Am I setting them up for heartbreak and maybe failure? That led me to want to try to see what I could do about trying to make the environments they were going to go to be better. So that is kind of what led me to the work. I became interested in reading Patricia Hill Collins, Kimberlé Crenshaw, and many other scholars, but especially Patricia, because she's militant and she understands how to play the long game. I wanted to really focus on transforming computer science education, understanding that this is a long-term process. It's a marathon. That's what brought me to working with these girls and trying to understand how I could make computing education better for them.

Thinking about how we use our voice, our power, what we know, who we know, our networks and strengths fosters change.— QUINCY BROWN

AT: When I wrote my research statement to apply for Ph.D. programs, I wrote about intersectionality. I wanted to talk about identity. I wanted to specifically talk about race in HCI. And a mentor reviewed my statement and was like, "This is really great that you care about this, but nobody's going to know what that word is. Nobody in HCI knows what the word intersectionality is." I've conversed with that mentor a few times about that feedback over the years. Isn't this wild? Look at us now in 2020. Everybody wants to talk about intersectionality. Like, what is this? What changed? When you complete a Ph.D., you start thinking about what you want to do, and I was like, I have to do this, right? Focusing on racial justice, including this lens of critical race theory, of intersectionality, of these things that are important. Having this in my work centers my own humanity in the work that I'm doing—it provides a framework for talking about my own lived, embodied experiences. I can't suppress these things that I care about. If you don't actually care about the thing that you're working on, why are you even doing it? Recognizing that was a big turning point for me.

QB: I've been at for a year and a half or so, and I'm also cofounder of It's a nonprofit organization that we started to support Black women and girls in computing and technology. Its origins are my story. This network that Black women created while in graduate school also became our network when we were junior faculty. We were all HCI researchers, right? We would meet at conferences, since that's the only time people get to see each other a couple of times a year. We would talk about how there were researchers from our community who absolutely could have given talks, and the dismissive ways we were treated. So we'd talk about those things in someone's room after the conference. And we started referring to those meetings as the conference after the conference. At some point we said, "This should be the conference, because these are the things that we know we need, that sustain us until when we can meet in person again." This is how blackcomputeHER was born. We started the organization out of that shared experience and the need for us to have community, because a lot of the conversation around intersectionality is in the education space. But there are so many of us who are in the workforce who don't have that cushion of someone saying, "Hey, here's a workshop to go to" or "Hey, take this class." We're just out here, trying to figure it out, and there's not a whole lot of guidance. Now we have an annual conference. Prior to, I worked at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. I began to see the differences in perceptions and how people described the space that I knew so well. Those missing voices from those very important policy conversations lead to not having environments that are better. Thinking about how we use our voice, our power, what we know, who we know, our networks and strengths fosters change. That's the work that I've been doing for many years.

YR: I appreciate each of you for your willingness to share your lived experiences. It is not easy to be vulnerable since people can misunderstand your words or misinterpret your actions. I consider each of you to be allies in the fight against white supremacy, gendered-racism, gender discrimination, classism, and other forms of oppression.

This concludes part 1 of this conversation. Stay tuned for part 2.

back to top  References

1. Collins, P.H. and Bilge, S. Intersectionality. Polity Press, Malden, MA, 2016.

2. Collins, P.H. Intersectionality as Critical Social Theory. Duke Univ. Press, 2019.

3. Schlesinger, A., Edwards, W.K., and Grinter, R.E. Intersectional HCI: Engaging identity through gender, race, and class. Proc. of the 2017 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, New York, 2017, 5412–5427.

4. Sobel, K.,. Kientz, J.A., Clegg, T.L., Gonzalez, C., and Yip, J.C. Equity & inclusivity at IDC. Proc. of the 2017 Conference on Interaction Design and Children. ACM, New York, 2017, 761–767.

5. Wong-Villacres, M., Kumar, A., Vishwanath, A., Karusala, N., DiSalvo, B., and Kumar, N. Designing for intersections. Proc. of the 2018 Designing Interactive Systems Conference. ACM, New York, 2018, 45–58.

6. Taylor, K-Y, ed. How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective. Haymarket Books, 2017.

7. Sorcar, P., Strauber, B., Loyalka, P., Kumar, N., and Goldman, S. Sidestepping the elephant in the classroom: Using culturally localized technology to teach around taboos. Proc. of the 2017 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, New York, 2017, 2792–2804.

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Quincy Brown is the cofounder of and head of programs at She was previously a program director at 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]

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. She is SIGCHI VP-at-large for global community support. [email protected]

Jakita O. Thomas is an associate professor of computer science and software engineering in the Ginn College of Engineering at Auburn University. She is also the 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]

Alexandra To is an assistant professor at Northeastern University, jointly appointed in the Department of Art + Design (Games) and the Khoury College of Computer Science. She holds a Ph.D. in HCI from Carnegie Mellon University and is an HCI researcher, game designer, and racial justice activist. [email protected]

Yolanda A. Rankin is an assistant professor in the School of Information at Florida State University and the 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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