XXX.3 May + June 2023
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Digital Citation

Intersectional Computing—-Where It All Began: A Sankofa Story (Part 1)

Jakita O. Thomas

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Go back to the past in order to build for the future. — Sankofa

My journey toward intersectional computing began in 2015, when I took my daughter, Vivian, to the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing (GHC) in Houston. Vivian is an artist-scientist (as all three of my children are). She's a beautiful dancer and singer who also loves science and engineering. She's currently 12 years old, but back in 2015 she was 5. And she was sooo excited to not only go on a work trip with mommy but also to see women of all kinds in computer science.

back to top  Insights

Black women experience computing differently from other groups (even other groups of women who have been marginalized in computing).
Intersectional computing is a more complex understanding of the experiences of marginalized groups in computing who live at various intersections of racism, sexism, classism, xenophobia, heterosexism, ableism, and so on.

During our trip, Vivian met a diverse set of women at GHC (Figure 1); she even had the opportunity to visit the Young Women's College Preparatory Academy, a high school that focuses on engineering, computing, and technology for Black and brown girls. As a 5-year-old, Vivian was excited by the entire experience. As a mother of a little Black girl with an interest in computing, however, I found that year's conference concerning for two reasons.

ins01.gif Figure 1: Five-year-old Vivian at GHC Expo.

The first reason was that, although I had purchased Vivian a registration, only when we arrived did I learn that she was not allowed to attend any of the talks that year. They said she wasn't old enough, so she would only be allowed on the expo floor. I thought, What does that mean for mothers who may be nursing, who may be caring for toddlers and unable to secure childcare for the conference, which they need since on-site childcare hasn't been provided, or who wanted to expose their children at a young age to the field of computing? The literature speaks to the importance of early exposure for STEM careers, so for my daughter to be denied the opportunity to really see computing in action through the women in attendance was heartbreaking for me, and disappointing for her.

ins02.gif Sankofa bird.

The second reason was the slate of featured speakers (Figure 2). Some of these speakers were incredibly well known both inside and outside of computing, such as Sheryl Sandberg, whose book Leaning In had been published only two years earlier. Some were less well known outside of computing, but very well known inside of it. (In fact, one of the featured male speakers made a sexist comment that year onstage that made national news.) Different genders, races, and ethnicities were present and accounted for among the featured speakers. But something was missing. Neither I nor Vivian saw ourselves in those featured speakers. Where were the Black women? True, a very prominent Black woman in the field of computing did give a talk during the Black Women in Computing luncheon. However, it couldn't really be called a luncheon because there was no food, though food had been provided for other groups.

ins03.gif Figure 2. Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing featured speakers.

You may be asking yourself, Why did it matter? Well, it mattered not only for me and my 5-year-old daughter but also because three years earlier I'd received a National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Award to launch a program and research effort called Supporting Computational Algorithmic Thinking (SCAt). SCAT was designed to better understand how Black girls engaged in designing, implementing, adapting, and assessing algorithms in the context of designing games for social change; and by the third year, we'd started to see some incredible shifts in their computing identity and self-efficacy [1]. Many of them had moved on from perspectives such as "Black women don't do computing" (because they hadn't seen Black women in these roles in their everyday lives) to "Black women do computing," as they had been surrounded by Black women computer scientists through their experience and then began seeing themselves as computer scientists and game designers. They had also developed video games, mobile games, and VR games and comic books that featured themselves as the superhero. They were using computing as a tool to imagine futures for themselves, and it bothered me that we'd created this safe, transformative space for them, but the field of computing did not see and embrace their greatness in the same ways our SCAT community did. I did not realize it at the time, but I was already engaged in intersectional computing and in fact running an intersectional study.

Back to the story of the 2015 GHC. The other Black women in attendance were also concerned. They had some of the same issues that I had. In what I like to call "the meeting after the meeting," which is usually held at the close of a computing conference (or a women-in-computing conference) in someone's hotel room, we'd pack ourselves in to talk about our conference experiences—the good, the bad, and the ugly. The community was buzzing. For so many years, we'd been attending conferences like these, supposedly designed for women, but never really meeting Black women's needs or addressing our concerns. That year, the "meeting after the meeting" didn't just take place in someone's hotel room after the conference. Instead, meetings after the meeting took place in bathrooms, on couches in the lounge areas, and in hotel rooms during the conference.

By the time the conference ended, we had filed a set of complaints about all of the issues I have already described. The question that came back to us over and over was this: How exactly are the experiences of Black women different from other women's? It appeared that from the conference's perspective, they had designed an intervention (the conference itself) for women, and therefore, that conference should have met the needs of all women (Black women included). Notwithstanding the lack of Black women in leadership, the conference organizers seemed to be suggesting that, if they designed a conference experience that addressed their needs, it would automatically address everyone else's needs.

Our issue was that we felt the invisibility, erasure, and marginalization. We saw the differences in the ways in which Black women were treated that were different from other groups (even other groups of women who have been historically marginalized in computing). But we could not point to any studies to answer their question because those studies did not exist. There was no literature.

back to top  We are Not Alone

Since that time, the leadership structure of the Anita Borg Institute (ABI) and GHC has shifted significantly. Additionally, since that time, the challenges that Black people face in computing and tech have been more widely documented. A Black woman computing major being asked over and over if she is lost when she enters the building where the computing department is located [2]. The highly problematic Google in Residence program, which sought to send Google employees (often with only BS degrees and no prior teaching experience or knowledge around pedagogy) to historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) to teach, often without regard for the historical legacies of those institutions or without knowledge of the fact that over 85 percent ofBlack Ph.D.s in STEM (computing included) received their undergraduate degrees at HBCUs. That means that HBCUs were already doing some amazing work in turning out Black computer scientists, engineers, doctors, chemists, and other scientists [3,4]. Instead of coming into these environments with a spirit of coalition, collaboration, and learning from one another, employees of Google and other companies often arrived aiming to "fix" students, faculty, and programs to align more with the company's view of what computing is and how to best prepare for careers in computing [3]. Never mind that these institutions had been recruiting, retaining, and graduating Black students in these areas for decades.

In fact, Silicon Valley can (and should) learn something from HBCUs about recruitment and retention, especially given the very high-profile departures of Black people from prominent companies like Google and Meta over the past few years. The Kapor Center's Tech Leavers report revealed what many Black and brown computing and tech professionals already know about the climates we often have to encounter in tech that cause us to decide to leave the field [5]. From Timnit Gebru's very public ousting from Google to the recent creation of a fake Twitter account that not only attempted to impersonate a Black woman scholar-activist but also tried to simultaneously inflict emotional and spiritual harm on her, all because she questioned the equity of the peer-review process within CS education and often holds the CS education community accountable for its treatment of Black women, there are many examples of the chilly environments Black people must contend with in computing and tech, including HCI, where we are often told to assimilate or fix ourselves without also transforming these environments [6,7].

back to top  Black Women Galvanize

So, we convened, holding a workshop in 2016 that brought Black women and a few others together to set an agenda for research and action (Figure 3) [8]. We identified themes that were important to Black women in computing. We discovered language to begin to articulate additional responses to the question around how our experiences were different from other women's that allowed us to communicate how we were feeling and what we were seeing. In other words, we read and read and watched, and read some more—and we're still reading (see [9] to access the reading list). We built a coalition and community with women scholars of color from education, mathematics, physics, gender studies, and Africana studies, both inside and outside of computing (e.g., [8]).

ins04.gif Figure 3. First Black Women in Computing Workshop (later became

We organized, forming several organizations specifically designed to meet our needs. For example, Jamika Burge, Quincy Brown, and I formed #blackcomputeHER as a direct result of what we experienced at the 2015 GHC ( We theorized, collecting data about the experiences of Black women in various computing contexts to understand in even greater detail how our experiences were different from those of other women, even so-called women of color [8]. We learned and interrogated. For example, every year the Computing Research Association conducts the Taulbee Survey and then releases a report on the state of enrollment and degree production in computing (which includes computer science, computer engineering, and information), but it has only been disaggregating data since 2013. Figure 4 shows CS degree enrollments of Black women (in yellow) against CS degree production at the bachelor's level for Black women (in blue). What we learned was that Black women have the highest intent to major in computing (based on their enrollments), but they are some of the least likely to be awarded B.S. degrees in computing fields. What is happening in those four to five years? We created not only a literature around Black women in computing but also other scholarly and creative works such as a mini-documentary [8]. In the words of Iyanla Vanzant, we "did our work."

ins05.gif Figure 4. B.S. CS enrollments for Black women (yellow) and B.S. degrees awarded to Black women (blue) since the CRA Taulbee Survey has been disaggregating data by race and gender.

back to top  What are We Learning?

We learned that intersectionality is "a way of understanding and analyzing the complexity in the world, in people, and in human experiences" and that "social and political life and the self… are generally shaped by many factors in diverse and mutually influencing ways" [10]. We learned that intersectionality has six core constructs: relationality, power, social inequality, social context, complexity, and social justice [11]. Along with these six core constructs are four guiding premises for intersectionality [11]:

  • Race, class, gender, and similar systems of power are interdependent and mutually construct one another.
  • Intersecting power relations produce complex, interdependent social inequalities of race, class, gender, sexuality, nationality, ethnicity, ability, and age.
  • The social location of individuals and groups within intersecting power relations shapes their experiences within and perspectives on the social world.
  • Solving social problems within a given local, regional, national, or global context requires intersectional analyses.

When looking at power configured in a particular way and exerting itself over time, which Patricia Hill Collins calls a matrix of domination, we see that power can be characterized across four dimensions [11]:

What is needed is a more complex understanding of the experiences of marginalized groups in computing.

  • Structural, which describes how organizations and institutions are structured and who holds power within them
  • Hegemonic (or cultural), which describes the dominant narratives we tell ourselves (e.g., taking calculus prior to college is required for success in computing) without questioning where those narratives came from or whether they are actually true, how images and imagery are controlled, as well as messages about what is "normal" or "fit"
  • Disciplinary, which creates the perception of a level playing field, but contains the unspoken rules that apply to and work for some but not others and, ultimately, determines who excels and who does not
  • Interpersonal, which involves social interactions with others, who is considered deficient or deviant from norms, and whether or not that deficiency or deviancy can be addressed, mitigated, or overcome (e.g., asking Black women to fix ourselves and assimilate rather than addressing the environments that cause harm). The interpersonal dimension also speaks to who benefits from power and who does not.

What we've learned is that what is needed is a more complex understanding of the experiences of marginalized groups in computing who live at various intersections of racism, sexism, classism, xenophobia, heterosexism, ableism, and so on. We need intersectional computing.

In this four-part series, we will look back and examine how the field of computing (including HCI) has engaged and not engaged in sustaining the engagement of Black girls and women. We will look at some of the pioneers who called for intersectionality in computing and HCI prior to 2018, when studies began to become somewhat more visible within the field. We will interrogate various structures in the field and describe various configurations of power that seem neutral, objective, and indifferent on their face, but whose organization and inner workings create different outcomes and, sometimes, challenges or barriers for Black girls and women to thrive in this field. We will also describe the difference between designing and conducting studies about intersectional populations and conducting truly intersectional studies. Sankofa is an Adinkra symbol that means "to go back to the past in order to build for the future." Se wo were fi na wo sankofa a yenki is a Ghanaian proverb that means "It is not taboo to return and fetch it when you forget." Black girls and women have been forgotten within this field, but it is always okay to go back and retrieve what has been forgotten. It is also always okay to transform, reimagine, and rebuild environments so that no one or nothing is forgotten going forward.

back to top  References

1. Joseph, N. and Thomas, J.O. Designing STEM learning environments to support middle school Black girls' computational algorithmic thinking: A possibility model for disrupting STEM neoliberal projects. In Proc. of the 14th International Conference of the Learning Sciences (ICLS) 2020. M. Gresalfi and I. Horn, eds. 2020.

2. King, A. "No, I am not lost": A Black woman's experience in the Stanford Computer Science Major. Odyssey Magazine (Jul. 20, 2015);

3. Vara, V. Why doesn't Silicon Valley hire black coders? Bloomberg Businessweek. Jan. 21, 2016;

4. National Science Foundation, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics. Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering: 2017. Special Report NSF 17-310. Arlington, VA, 2017;

5. Kapor Center for Social Impact. Tech leavers study: A first-of-its-kind analysis of why people voluntarily left jobs in tech. 2017;

6. Schiffer, Z. Timnit Gebru was fired from Google—then the harassers arrived. The Verge. Mar. 5, 2021;

7. Washington, N. When are we gonna have a serious conversation about how unserious (and problematic) SIGCSE is? Medium. Oct. 4, 2022;

8. Burge, J.D., Thomas, J.O., and Yamaguchi, R. Computing and intersectionality: The social and behavioral structures at play for Black women in the computing sciences. Final Workshop Report. Howard University, 2016.

9. Rankin, Y.A. and Thomas, J.O. Straighten up and fly right: Rethinking intersectionality in HCI. ACM Interactions 26, 6 (2019), 64–68.

10. Collins, P. and Bilge, S. Intersectionality (Key Concepts). Polity, Cambridge, UK, 2016.

11. Collins, P. Intersectionality as Critical Social Theory. Duke Univ. Press. Durham, NC, 2019.

back to top  Author

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 director of the CUltuRally and SOcially Relevant (CURSOR) Computing Lab. She is a recipient of the National Science Foundation's Faculty Early Career Development Award (2012–19] as well as the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (2016). [email protected]

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