XXXI.3 May - June 2024
Page: 41
Digital Citation

Defining Damage-Centered Research in HCI: A Black Feminist Perspective

Sheena Erete, Yolanda Rankin, Jakita O. Thomas

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Within the HCI community, the phrase damage-centered research has emerged regarding scholarship that examines structures of oppression that create unequal outcomes for marginalized Black and brown communities. Critics claim that to call out the systems of oppression that negatively affect these communities inflicts additional oppression, harm, and trauma that positions Black and brown communities as being damaged, thus the term damage-centered research [1]. This is alarming for those of us who apply critical frameworks to draw attention to these structures for the purpose of developing critical consciousness, not only for ourselves but also for the larger HCI community. As scholars who are members of historically excluded populations in computing, we question whether the work we do within our communities is justifiably labeled damage-centered research. To address this question, here we engage in dialogic reflection, a tenet of Black feminist thought [2], as we discuss Eve Tuck's "Suspending Damage: A Letter to Communities" [3].

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Damage-centered research/design paints a deficit narrative of marginalized communities without acknowledging the existing work that communities are doing or the joy that exists despite structural oppression.
All work about marginalized communities is not damage-centered research.
Communities, not researchers, should determine what they want to research, design, and create as well as what/how they want to share and how they define damage and joy.

Sheena Erete: Thank you for joining me in this conversation. The three of us have engaged in community-based research with marginalized communities collectively for decades. However, a new conversation about damage-centered research or damage-centered design has emerged. What are your thoughts about damage-centered research in the context of the research that you do?

Yolanda Rankin: Based upon my understanding of Eve Tuck's article [3], I do not characterize my research as damage-centered research. Those who disagree obviously do not understand Black feminist epistemologies, nor do they possess intimate knowledge of how I carefully work with Black communities. I intentionally engage in self-reflexivity, which is required when using critical frameworks like intersectionality [4]. My idea of what is helpful is often very different from that of the Black communities I serve. For example, I reached out to a local organization that serves a predominantly Black community because I wanted to teach computer programming to K–12 students who participated in after-school activities. I thought this was the perfect opportunity to host a coding boot camp. The administrative staff agreed that it sounded like a good idea. Then I spent about a month just hanging out, helping students with their homework and getting to know the staff and other members of the community. I quickly realized that a coding boot camp was not what these students needed. They needed love, a listening ear, affirmation, and support for their dreams and career aspirations. How was a coding boot camp going to meet their needs? I started asking the students about their interests and what they wanted to do. I learned that no one had ever asked them about their relationships with technology, even though they interacted with technology every day, or how technology could help them achieve their life goals. I share these details so it is clear how I engage with Black communities. I cannot do this work without talking about the harm, trauma, and violence that Black communities have endured for hundreds of years. This provides the historical context for how these structures were created in the United States.

As scholars who are members of historically excluded populations in computing, we question whether the work we do is justifiably labeled damage-centered research.

Jakita O. Thomas: Acknowledging the historical component is very important. The way that things are today did not just magically happen. There were decisions, policies, laws, codes of conduct, culture, and a host of other tangible and intangible things that went into creating and curating the outcomes that exist today. To not acknowledge the historical decisions and structures that were built, which are affecting outcomes in the present day, is disingenuous and potentially life-threatening. One of the critical components of activism and doing transformative work is documenting the harm, as stated in Tuck's article [3]. What can make that damage-centered is when the narrative focuses on harm and ends there. This is dangerous, because it can lead to explicit or implicit assumptions that the individual or community is damaged without accounting for the historical and social contexts that created the current circumstances.

Tuck states: "Though connected to deficit models—frameworks that emphasize what a particular student, family, or community is lacking to explain underachievement or failure—damage-centered research is distinct in being more socially and historically situated. It looks to historical exploitation, domination, and colonization to explain contemporary brokenness, such as poverty, poor health, and low literacy…. [T]he danger in damage-centered research is that it is a pathologizing approach in which the oppression singularly defines a community." It's not that the calling out of the structural inequities is damage-centered research. Rather, damage-centered research is the notion that the resulting harm and damage from those structures is assumed to be descriptive of or inherent to the communities themselves. Tuck specifically describes damage-centered research and work in which there is no attention given to the structural inequities that have resulted in the harm or the inequitable outcomes that exist. Instead, history is leveraged to assess what has happened that makes these people deficient. It's that framing of the harm, damage, or inequity as being of the community itself (and not something that is the result of what has happened to the community and/or even in spite of the community's efforts) that makes research damage-centered.

For example, when we conducted an intersectional analysis of power [5,6], we centered the experiences of Black women in computing and laid out the historical context. We analyzed the structures Black women described to answer the question: What has happened and is currently happening to maintain the underrepresentation of Black women in computing? But we also leveraged Black feminist thought and intersectionality to capture Black women's desire for how the field of computing could be transformed. This is indicative of Tuck's desire-based research [3]. We described the agency that Black women exercised as they navigated, responded to, and fought back against these structures, their strategies of resistance. Resistance can look like a lot of different things. In our research, resistance looked like speaking up and saying something when a micro- or macro-aggression occurred. Sometimes it looked like wearing natural hair even when people were staring at you like something was wrong with tightly coiled hair, kinky twists, and sisterlocks. Sometimes resistance was leaving the field of computing. The focus on resistance and the agency that people have as they are navigating oppression, discrimination, and structural inequity is incredibly important. Resistant knowledge projects aiming to address these issues should always examine resistance and agency as essential to the work. Damage-centered research denies people's agency and ability to resist no matter how strong the domination, oppression, discrimination, or inequity may be. Research efforts and resistant knowledge projects should attend to and describe the historical decisions and structures that have been designed and built to maintain long-term inequitable outcomes. They should also describe the agency that individuals and communities possess even in the face of these historical structures. HCI research should look for and describe the ways in which historically marginalized communities have resisted and continue to resist.


YR: Tuck writes, "I invite you to join me in re-visioning research in our communities, not only to recognize the need to document the effects of oppression on our communities but also to consider the long-term repercussions of thinking of ourselves as broken" [3]. First of all, I don't think of myself, nor my communities, as broken. I am a Black woman in the field of computing, and I study the experiences of Black women in computing. Though I draw attention to the harm, trauma, and violence that Black women have endured and continue to endure to be in computing spaces, their perseverance is a testament to their strength, resilience, and ingenuity in navigating these sometimes hostile computing spaces not designed to support Black women. Do all Black women need to testify to gendered racism and other forms of oppression to prove their worth? No. I recognize and respect the diversity of our experiences since we are not a monolithic population [2]. My work celebrates Black women in computing, demonstrating clearly that we can do anything we set our minds to. There has not been one Black woman whom I have talked to, despite the harm, trauma, and violence that she has endured, who thinks of herself as broken. If anything, the work that I do in collaboration with you and other Black women explains why it is so important to draw attention to and resist these structures of oppression that have negatively affected Black women's ability to persist in computing. Black feminist epistemologies represent desire-based research.

SE: I completely agree. I never think of or present the communities that I work with as broken because they are not. They are full of joy and resilience despite circumstances. However, there have been others who describe this type of work as trauma porn.

YR: Sharing the vulnerability and humanity of Black women is not trauma porn. The work we do is an act of resistance, one of the key tenets of Black feminist thought [2]. Despite being told that we don't belong here, we're not intelligent enough, we can't code, or that computing is not for us, Black women refuse to let others define us or determine our futures [6]. For those Black women who decide to leave, they are exercising their power and sense of agency because they're saying, "I'm not gonna let you tear me down or destroy me." Instead of sacrificing our well-being and our souls, Black women are finding alternative means to pursue tech careers. This aligns with desire-based research, which "accounts the loss and despair, but also the hope, the visions, and the wisdom of lived lives and communities" [3]. The refusal to quit is cause for celebration, because it shows that Black women are resilient. Black women, just like any other human being, desire to be in a place where they are wanted and appreciated. Black women are not broken. We are powerful, strong, capable, and competent. My research is about the resilience, strength, beauty, and joy of Black women in computing.


JOT: Our resistant knowledge project makes no assumptions about how Black women feel or what they think, even though we also belong to that community. Instead, we allow the Black women to exercise their testimonial authority as they talk about their lived experiences. They talk about the trials, the triumphs, and the hope that they have for their futures. This comes through in the work, which is not trauma porn. The work speaks to the complexity of these experiences and of the community, which Tuck asserts in her article. Make no mistake; these experiences are complex. The structures, obstacles, and hurdles that Black women say they face in computing every day are not easy to navigate. The things that I have had to deal with and personally overcome, from college and even into the present day, as a Black woman in computing have not been easy or simple. Yet, as Maya Angelou wrote, "…and still [we] rise."

Acknowledging historical oppression and acts of resistance shows that these populations thrive and have joy, and there is joy in resisting.

SE: There seems to be a notion that if you talk about resilience and resistance to power structures, it has to be in the context of inequity for a group of people. Is there space to talk about both resilience and joy?

YR: I don't see this as an either/or proposition where you must choose between acknowledging the harm, trauma, and violence that Black women have experienced or only emphasize Black women's joy, strength, beauty, and resilience. It is perfectly fine to do research that emphasizes one or the other, but it should not be required for scholars to choose a side. The complexity of Black women's experiences embraces the spectrum of experiences, including good and bad as well as those perceived as being neither. As a scholar who applies intersectionality to understand the complexity of the human experience, why would I privilege one perspective over another [4]? Do not all experiences contribute to what it means to be a

Black woman in computing? Who gets to decide which experiences should be embraced and which should not? That is a very dangerous position to take, whether you are a member of a particular community or not. Intersectional computing says there is room for both breadth and depth to empathetically understand what Black women are contending with in computing spaces [6,7].

SE: Describing the structures that created the conditions for these populations we seek to design with should not be deemed as damage. Acknowledging historical oppression and acts of resistance shows that these populations thrive and have joy, and there is joy in resisting. Tuck wrote, "It is crucial to recognize that our communities hold the power to begin shifting the discourse away from damage and toward desire and complexity" [3]. The part that stands out to me is the centering community in that power. Most of my research describes the structures and the complexities of conditions, forcing the field to remove this "colorblind" lens [5,6,7] that has historically plagued computing, which ignores the fact that structures that catalyze inequity are by design. Communities should decide what is joy, resistance, damage—not researchers. For example, in the research that I've done with street outreach workers [8], the community organizations came to me and said, "We don't trust big tech companies. We want to work with you to build our technology." This work took so long because it's community-centered and driven. However, some critics have framed this work as "deficit-oriented" research [1]. These street outreach community organizations were engaging in community-led safety initiatives prior to 2020, long before everyone began talking about community policing. Street outreach workers' on-the-ground direct approach to reducing violence in the community is not a deficiency, nor is it damage-centered. Community organizations have the autonomy, agency, and power to define these terms, not academics. In HCI, we need to be cautious about the definition and label "damage-centered design."

So, shifting the conversation a bit, what does damage-centered research mean for those who are in industry or who design products? How do you think they should leverage these frameworks and approaches in their practice?

JOT: As Iyanla Vanzant would say, "Beloved, you must do your [own] work." One of the first steps is to believe Black women. Believe what Black women and other marginalized people are saying about their experiences in computing—even if those experiences are vastly different from your experiences or those of your friends. Then, educate yourself. Read. Just as you would with any other research effort, you must engage with the literature. Expand your search beyond HCI literature to include education; law; gender studies; Black, Chicana, and Native American women's studies; and Africana studies. A good starting point is our Interactions article "Straighten Up and Fly Right: Rethinking Intersectionality in HCI Research" [7]. Learn about the historical context (oral and otherwise) from those who have lived with and through inequity over time. Learn and value non-Eurocentric epistemologies. Engage in dialogic interactions with your own ideas, your work, and different ways of knowing. Have courageous conversations with your friends and colleagues from Black and brown communities. Do not get upset if they don't openly talk to you at first. As those around you begin to see the shifts in your language, behavior, and perspectives, they may begin to open up to you. During these courageous conversations, do not deflect, defend, or deny. Listen to understand, not to speak. Question your beliefs. Do you believe something because statistics said it is so, someone told you so, or "It's always been this way"? In those moments, ask yourself, "Who does this belief benefit? Who is left out?" Be self-reflexive. Create space for marginalized voices and perspectives to be heard, elevated, seriously considered, and valued. Wield your power to create that space. Use your platforms to feature and talk about the work of scholars at the margins. Build coalitions. Be a coconspirator in making computing safe and available to everyone. This is only the beginning. Then the real work begins.

SE: Thank you for engaging in this courageous conversation. As a community, I hope that we can engage in more dialogic interactions about damage-centered versus desire-based research.

back to top  References

1. To, A., Smith, A.D.R., Showkat, D., Adjagbodjou, A., and Harrington, C. Flourishing in the everyday: Moving beyond damage-centered design in HCI for BIPOC communities. Proc. of the 2023 ACM Designing Interactive Systems Conference. ACM, New York, 2023, 917–933; https://doi.org/10.1145/3563657.3596057

2. Collins, P.H. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. Routledge, 2000.

3. Tuck, E. Suspending damage: A letter to communities. Harvard Educational Review 79, 3 (Sep. 2009), 409–428; https://doi.org/10.17763/haer.79.3.n0016675661t3n15

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

5. Erete, S., Rankin, Y.A., and Thomas, J.O. A method to the madness: Applying an intersectional analysis of structural oppression and power in HCI and design. ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction 30, 2 (Apr. 2023), Article 24; https://doi.org/10.1145/3507695

6. Rankin, Y.A., Thomas, J.O, and Erete, S. Real talk: Saturated sites of violence in CS Education. Proc. of the 52nd ACM Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education. ACM, New York, 2021, 802–808; https://doi.org/10.1145/3408877.3432432

7. Rankin, Y.A. and Thomas, J.O. Straighten up and fly right: Rethinking intersectionality in HCI research. Interactions 26, 6 (Nov.–Dec. 2019), 64–68; https://doi.org/10.1145/3363033

8. Erete, S., Dickinson, J., Gonzalez, A.C., and Rankin, Y.A. Unpacking the complexities of community-led violence prevention work. Proc. of the 2022 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, New York, 2022, Article 575, 1–15; https://doi.org/10.1145/3491102.3502122

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Sheena Erete is an associate professor at the University of Maryland. Her research focuses on designing technologies, policies, and practices with Black and brown communities. [email protected]

Yolanda Rankin is an associate professor at Emory University. Her research focuses on leveraging Black feminist epistemologies to advance the representation and retention of Black women in the field of computing. She is a recipient of the National Science Foundation's Faculty Early Career Development Award (2023–28). [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 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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The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2024 ACM, Inc.

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