XXVI.6 November - December 2019
Page: 64
Digital Citation

Straighten up and fly right: Rethinking intersectionality in HCI research

Yolanda Rankin, Jakita Thomas

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If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.
    —The Combahee River Collective

back to top  Insights


Intersectionality is currently gaining traction in the context of human-computer interaction (HCI) research [1,2], creating a status-quo-challenging undercurrent for how we design technology-based solutions for marginalized, underserved, and vulnerable populations. These populations have historically faced injustices such as overpolicing, lack of economic investment, and lack of accessible healthcare (e.g., areas with concentrated poverty and food deserts that contribute to obesity, diabetes, and heart disease) [3,4]. Those of us who are socially conscious or "woke"—defined by Merriam Webster as "aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues related to racial and social justice"—espouse a moral obligation to conduct this research in an attempt to correct the injustices that shape the lived experiences of these same populations. For us, the work we do is more than just research; it is our attempt to illuminate issues that affect these populations by not only exposing the morally decrepit and systemic, organized, interlocking matrices of oppression, but also uncovering how the structure of social inequality "is simultaneously racialized and gendered for women of color" [5]. These systems and structures negatively impact the everyday lives of real people, and as such, the work we do aims to inspire the design and use of technology that produces positive change in the lives of those deemed marginalized, underserved, or vulnerable [6,7].

As Black women who conduct HCI-related research, we find it necessary to set the record straight, intentionally choosing to position Black women front and center in this discussion of the intersectionality movement that is gaining momentum within the larger HCI community. Why? Because history has taught us that those who do not know their history are prone to repeat it. Furthermore, for those of us who embrace intersectionality as an ethically responsible approach to conducting user-focused research, we hope to invoke a cultural shift within the HCI community, one that goes beyond intersectionality as a buzzword to instead embrace equity, inclusion, and social justice as the new standard.

The article accomplishes three things: First, we dare to "speak against internal exclusions and marginalizations" of Black women in HCI [7], drawing attention to how the power structures within the field of HCI have confined Black women to the periphery of what constitutes accepted HCI research. Second, we offer a critique of HCI's current use and leveraging of intersectionality as described, for example, in [2]. Third, in response to these exclusionary practices, we extend an open invitation to the HCI community to forge coalitions with women of color to leverage intersectionality as an important theoretical and methodological lens to ethically and responsibly design technology-based solutions to effectively address the social injustices of our day.

back to top  An Overview of the Origins of Intersectionality

Acknowledging the recent awareness surrounding intersectionality as an analytical lens that seeks to understand marginalized, underserved, and vulnerable populations, we point out that intersectionality is not a new concept. Although Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality in 1993 and demonstrated its significance to bring attention to the discrimination of Black women in housing and the legal system, using intersectionality as an analytic framework (without calling it intersectionality) has been done as far back as the 18th century [5]. Additionally, the Combahee River Collective's "A Black Feminist Statement" was the "first document to frame identity through an intersectional lens" [5,8].


Patricia Hill Collins and Sirma Bilge describe intersectionality as "a way of understanding and analyzing the complexity in the world, in people, and in human experiences" [5]. Informed by critical race theory [7,9], intersectionality posits that "when it comes to social inequality, people's lives and the organization of power in a given society are better understood as being shaped not by a single axis of social division, be it race or gender or class, but by many axes that work together and influence each other" [5]. Intersectionality can be leveraged as an analytic tool when different or better frameworks are needed to "grapple with the complex discriminations" that people experience. For example, Black women are, at a minimum, simultaneously Black and female. As a result, issues that are specific to Black women often remain unaddressed or "subordinated within racial- or gender-focused movements" [5]. For Black women, racism and sexism cannot be disentangled; they face and grapple with both, simultaneously, at all times, unlike Black men, who have gender privilege as men, or White women, who have racial privilege as White. For Black women, one (gender or race) does not supersede the other. In fact, Black women leveraged the analytical power of intersectionality precisely, because single-focused lenses "on social inequality left little space to address the complex social problems they face" [5]. Intersectionality "examines how power relations are intertwined and mutually constructing" [5].

We find it necessary to set the record straight, intentionally choosing to position Black women front and center in this discussion.

The organization of power can be described using four "distinctive yet interconnected domains of power" [5]: interpersonal, disciplinary, cultural, and structural. The interpersonal domain of power refers to the notion that power relations are about people—their lives, how they "relate to one another and who is advantaged or disadvantaged within social interactions" [5]. The disciplinary domain of power refers to the idea that different people encounter different treatment in terms of "which rules apply to them and how those rules will be implemented" [5]. This domain of power operates by "disciplining people in ways that put people's lives on paths that make some options seem viable and others out of reach" [5]. The cultural domain of power refers to the notion that "ideas matter in providing explanations for social inequality and fair play" [5]. This domain of power helps "manufacture messages" about the fairness of outcomes, even if the experiences of people involved is different. The structural domain of power refers to the questioning of "how intersecting power relations of class, gender, race, and nation shape the institutionalization and organization" [5] of a range of institutions, policies, organizations, industries, and so on. As described earlier, intersectional analysis provides a way to demonstrate how the structure of social inequality "is simultaneously racialized and gendered for women of color" [5]. As such, issues that are typically analyzed through the lens of either/or (e.g., race or gender) can be viewed through a both/and lens (e.g., race and gender).

Intersectionality is not identity politics, nor is it essentialist, reductive, additive, or categorical, all of which oversimplify intersectionality's power [5,6]. Quite the opposite: "'What intersectionality does rather than what intersectionality is' lies at the heart of intersectionality" [6,10]. In fact, Collins and Bilge note that "instead of disassociating intersectionality from these negative depictions of identity and identity politics, a more productive approach lies in examining how understandings of the politics of identity can constitute a starting point for intersectional inquiry and praxis and not an end in itself" [5].

back to top  A Critique of The Use of Intersectionality Within HCI

Within the field of HCI, many scholars are beginning to take up intersectionality as a part of their empirical work, though that uptake has been somewhat misguided in several respects. First, many HCI publications that discuss intersectionality at length negate the long historical precedents that have been set, primarily by women scholars of color, even before the term intersectionality was coined. Instead, many quickly cite Kimberlé Crenshaw for introducing the concept of intersectionality, but just as quickly relegate the historical origins and precedents of intersectionality (i.e., the systemic oppression of Black women in the U.S.) to a dim corner in the room. Instead, within HCI literature, this so-called first wave or first strand states the origins of intersectionality as occurring in the late 1980s or early 1990s. As mentioned earlier, the true origins of intersectionality, however, go back as far as the 18th century and stemmed from Black, Latina, and Native women recognizing that a single-focused lens "on social inequality left little space to address the complex social problems they face" [5,6].

Second, HCI's current analysis of this so-called first strand of intersectionality ultimately deems intersectionality inadequate (e.g., categorical, additive, and exclusionary) as an analytical lens or tool [1,2]. For example, Wong-Villacres et al. suggest that "the first strand of Intersectionality, used by feminist race scholars and focused on women of color, has been associated with the systemic approach, the additive approach, and the use of categories to classify identities" [2]. Further, they state that "this approach views systems of domination as having unilateral power over how people are socially divided and how they experience identities, leading to a sole focus on how identities bear oppression in the context being studied. It necessitates the naming (black, Muslim, and woman) and categorization (race, religion, gender) of identities to divide and then add their experiences to create intersection." Intersectionality is not simply a matter of checking the boxes for gender, race, or class, which is merely an exercise in categorizing intersectional identities. Doing so removes intersectionality from its rich history of being used as a weapon to address social injustices and fight systematic oppression. To add further insult to injury, the converging systems of oppression that ushered in the "first strand" of intersectionality have been perceived as a "highly questionable... general framework of identity to base upon 'extreme cases' in which power works in a near totalitarian way" [11]. However, as we've already described, intersectionality goes much further and deeper than identity politics and serves as a starting point for intersectional inquiry, which is actually much more nuanced and complex.

Intersectionality is not simply a matter of checking the boxes for gender, race, or class.

Third, the growing body of work by Black women scholars who use intersectional frameworks and methodologies to explore social justice remains minimally cited. This speaks to the long history of systematically erasing Black women's contributions and sense of belonging in the field of HCI, and computing more broadly. This is partly due to the practice of including only HCI-sanctioned publications, which results in limited access to the larger HCI community and reinforces the disciplinary domain of power. In an Interactions article published earlier this year, Neha Kumar and Naveena Karasula state, "We propose intersectional computing as a mindset to shift the conversation from how might we better acknowledge and design for intersections? to how might we approach computing in a way that honors intersections more broadly?" [12]. In fact, intersectional computing was originally introduced in an article written in 2018 by a group of Black scholars (four of whom are Black women) that talks specifically about the challenges Black women face in navigating the computing pipeline [13]. In fact, by examining and centering the lived intersectional experiences of Black women in computing and elevating them as intellectuals, Thomas et al. [13] actually shine a light on how the field itself creates and sustains systems of oppression. While Kumar and Karasula did not cite Thomas et al., Black women as both observers and members of their respective communities (African American churches, sororities, etc.) possess insider knowledge in understanding and then challenging these oppressive forces day in and day out [6,14].

Fourth, but related to the above point, within the HCI community and computing more broadly, the everyday lived intersectional experiences of Black women are ignored, even within the context of an HCI community that is interested in engaging with intersectionality. For example, Black women within the HCI community talk about repeated acts of ongoing misrecognition, "the process of creating invisibility," in which peers/colleagues continuously disregard your presence or confuse you, on multiple occasions, with other Black women [15]. Consequently, these acts of misrecognition and other microaggressions communicate to Black women that they are neither welcomed nor wanted within the HCI community.

back to top  Power Plays Within HCI

Within the fields of HCI and computing, all of the domains of power are at play. Given the space limitations for this article, we reserve a deeper examination of each of the interconnected domains of power for a future publication. However, we will explore one example here: Black women in the academy who conduct research about the intersections of race, gender, class, and so on are perceived as "doing service," whereas White colleagues who conduct the same research are perceived as doing cutting-edge research that demands attention and recognition. This is an example of not only the interpersonal domain of power, which examines how people relate to one another and who is advantaged or disadvantaged in those social interactions, but also the disciplinary domain of power, which involves applying one set of rules that benefit one population while defining a different set of rules for another population. Thus, Black women scholars who study Black communities, and particularly Black women, are deemed as not conducting real research (disciplinary). This devalues the very intersectional research that these Black women do and creates a vicious cycle of ignorance. As a result, Black women are neither recognized nor cited for their contributions to the field, thus rendering them invisible within the predominantly White HCI landscape (interpersonal). Black women who do intersectional HCI and/or computing research about Black women and the Black community are not engaged in service; they are answering Collins's clarion call: producing facts and theories about the experiences of Black girls and women in an effort to clarify, empirically, a Black woman's standpoint.

Moreover, this ongoing devaluation contracts the notion of who is considered an intellectual, a notion that contrasts with well-known perspectives such as Black feminist thought (BFT), which asserts that "Black women's participation in constructing African-American culture in all-Black settings and the distinctive perspectives gained from their outsider-within placement... provide the material backdrop for a unique Black women's standpoint" [6]. This elevates the knowledge of the unique experiences (being, minimally, both Black and female) that Black women possess: It becomes a particular expertise that Black women have, expanding the notion of who is considered an intellectual. Articulating a unique Black women's standpoint does not suggest that Black women are a monolith with uniform experiences. However, it does suggest commonalities in how Black women experience HCI and computing, more broadly, that are the direct result of the structures within the field perpetuating inequity [13].


back to top  Key Takeaways

We leave you with the following calls to action:

  • Properly position intersectionality within HCI and acknowledge the long historical origins of intersectional work. First, many HCI publications that discuss intersectionality at length negate the long historical precedent that has been set, primarily by women scholars of color, even before the term intersectionality was coined. Second, HCI's current analysis of this so-called first strand of intersectionality ultimately incorrectly deems intersectionality as inadequate (e.g., categorical, additive, and exclusionary) as an analytical lens or tool. Third, the growing body of work by Black women scholars who use intersectional frameworks and methodologies to explore social justice more broadly, and social justice design specifically, remains uncited. However, our analysis highlighted that intersectional analysis and frameworks had a long history before the term was coined and that intersectionality complicates and nuances analyses and positions that would seek to simply combine identities and call it intersectional.

  • Cite Black women and build coalitions to work with the people you write about. For Black women who choose to conduct intersectional research, the work we do is an act of activism, a call to action! It is our response to the systems of oppression that dehumanize the lives of people. Black women who do intersectional research do exist within the HCI community. The HCI community as a whole needs more true coalitions with more Black women and across multiple disciplines to move the field forward if the goal is to promote diversity and equity within our field. To accomplish this goal, first, it is imperative that we acknowledge and support Black women as well as other researchers who conduct intersectional research. There are several organizations founded and led by Black women scholars (Jamika Burge, Quincy Brown, Kimberly Bryant, Leshell Hatley, Nichole Pinkard, and Kimberly Scott, to name just a few) that promote the design and use of technology to rectify social injustices around the globe. While these efforts may not necessarily result in endless publications, this work has made immeasurable positive impacts to people's lives, much more than a paper publication would make. Second, collaboration is the key. It is not necessary to reinvent the wheel, as there are numerous researchers and organizations (e.g., American Education Research Association, Center for Gender Equity in Science & Technology,, etc.) external to the HCI community that have engaged in intersectional research for years, do it well, and disseminate the results of these efforts. In essence, there is no excuse for not being aware of and citing Black women both within or external to HCI that conduct intersectional research, not getting to know these Black women on a personal and professional level, nor engaging them to form coalitions for change as HCI continues to take up and leverage intersectional frameworks and methods.

  • Acknowledge that the existence of a Black women's standpoint does not suggest that all Black women are alike or the same. One Black woman's viewpoint does not represent the entire population of Black women. In the words of Patricia Hill Collins, "There is no archetypal Black woman whose experiences stand as normal, normative, and thereby, authentic" [6]. At the same time, individual Black women have, historically, and continue to construct what Collins calls a "collective wisdom on how to survive as U.S. Black women" that they've shared with each other because of the similarity of experiences faced by Black women [6]. As such, a collective Black women's standpoint exists. It is a standpoint that is defined by the heterogeneity of Black women from all walks of life "who aggressively push the theme of self-definition," refusing to be silenced or ignored [6].

In summary, for the authors, intersectionality invites us to think deeply about for whom we design technology, the implications of deploying this technology in the world, and who it advantages or disadvantages. Black women, along with Chicanas, Latinas, and Native American women, have historically been engaged in intersectional work as they navigate and address the unique positioning and challenges they face in their everyday lives [5]. To ignore or erase Black women from this significant research initiative sends the message that Black women are not valued within the HCI community. Consider the editorial vibe of this article to be one that implores a different perspective on how these historical actions have reinforced the very systems of oppression within the HCI community that so many of us are fighting desperately to oppose and change for the better. It is not our intent to be provocative, but it is the work of Black feminist tech activists to examine and critique, as scholars and intellectuals, the status quo, and to leverage that examination and critique as a mechanism for agency to enact change. Intersectionality shows us the way.

Beloved community is formed not by the eradication of difference but by its affirmation, by each of us claiming the identities and cultural legacies that shape who we are and how we live in the world.
    —bell hooks

back to top  References

1. 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. DOI:10.1145/3025453.3025766

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

3. Dombrowski, L. Socially just design and engendering social change. Interactions 24, 4 (Jul.–Aug. 2017), 63–65.

4. Harrington, C.N., Borgos-Rodriquez, K., and Piper, A.M. Engaging low-income African-American older adults in health discussions through community-based design workshops. Proc. of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, ACM, New York, 2019. DOI:10.1145/3290605.3300823

5. Hill Collins, P. and Bilge, S. Intersectionality. Polity Press, Malden, MA, 2016.

6. Hill Collins, P. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. Routledge, New York, NY, 2000.

7. Crenshaw, K.W. Mapping the margins: Intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color. In Critical Race Theory. K. Crenshaw, N. Gotanda, G. Peller, and K. Thomas, eds. The New Press, New York, 1995, 357–383.

8. Combahee River Collective. Combahee River Collective Statement. Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, Albany, NY, 1986.

9. Gregory, S.L. African American Female Engineering Students' Persistence in Stereotype-Threatening Environments: A Critical Race Theory Perspective. Completed Dissertation, Utah State University, 2015.

10. Cho, S., Crenshaw, K.W., and McCall, L. Intersectionality: Theorizing Power, Empowering Theory. Signs 38, 4 (Summer 2013), 785–810.

11. Prins, B. Narrative accounts of origins: A blind spot in the intersectional approach? European Journal of Women's Studies 13, 3 (2006), 277–290.

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13. Thomas, J.O., Joseph, N., Williams, A., Crum, C., and Burge, J. Speaking truth to power: Exploring the intersectional experiences of Black women in computing. Proc. of 2018 Research on Equity and Sustained Participation in Engineering, Computing, and Technology. DOI: 10.1109/RESPECT.2018.8491718

14. hooks, b. Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. Taylor & Francis, 1984.

15. St. Jean, Y. and Feagin, J.R. Double Burden: Black Women and Everyday Racism. M.E. Sharpe, 1998.

back to top  Authors

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]

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. She 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]

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