XXVII.5 September - October 2020
Page: 68
Digital Citation

Intersectionality in HCI: Lost in translation

Yolanda Rankin, Jakita Thomas, Nicole Joseph

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The annual 2015 Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing (GHC) featured 11,702 attendees from over 60 countries [1]. Manuela Veloso, Janet George, and Clara Shih honored the stage as plenary speakers, affirming the message that women of color have made significant contributions in artificial intelligence, data science, machine learning, and other important technological areas. Also powerful, GHC 2015 designated restrooms to accommodate those attendees identifying as nonbinary, transgender, and other fluid identities throughout the conference venue. These combined actions suggested a sense of caring about issues of diversity, especially since the attendees were 42 percent Asian, 40 percent white, 5 percent African American or Latinx, and 1 percent Native American. Despite the diversity of attendees, including a male keynote speaker, some of the Black women noticed that none of the keynote speakers represented Black women in the field of computing. Since the inception of GHC, Black women have rarely been keynote speakers, sending an implicit message that they do not matter, which subsequently renders them invisible. To further exacerbate the feelings of isolation and exclusion, registered attendees walked into the Black Women in Computing Reception only to be greeted with no refreshments, since none of the 100-plus corporate sponsors were willing to provide financial support to host the reception. Those of us in attendance wondered, How could this have happened? The decision made by corporate sponsors to not support the Black Women in Computer Reception reveals much about power hierarchies in GHC; it says that no one at the decision-making table took into account the Black women attendees. Black women felt rejected, ignored, and, again, relegated to the outer fringes of the computing community.

back to top  Insights


This vignette in the context of a conference that celebrates the diversity of women within the field of computing is not shocking to Black women, as we have experienced this exclusion many times before. The annual GHC represents an example of good intentions and serious attempts to promote diversity and inclusion while developing programming that appeals to thousands and thousands of women worldwide. Given the example above, well-defined agendas and initiatives are great, but bad things still happen when people are not willing to examine the underlying issues attributed to how power works in the computing field. Power comes into play when we scrutinize why specific groups of attendees (e.g., Asian Pacific Islanders, African Americans, Native Americans, and others) were being relegated to the outer fringes of the GHC community. Were there no Black women who had made significant contributions to the field of computing or who served in leadership positions at technology-based companies? Was the lack of Black women represented on the center stage during this well-attended, socially conscious celebration of women simply a matter of oversight? How were the keynote speakers selected? Asking these types of questions demonstrates the power of intersectionality, a critical framework for wrestling with the complexity of overlapping socially constructed identities that shape the lived experiences of people while interrogating the very systems of oppression that negatively impact their everyday realities [2,3,4]. For some of the Black women attendees, these questions deserved answers and motivated a discussion with the GHC Leadership to understand Black women's perspectives of their conference experiences, especially when other women of color were being embraced and welcomed into the community. We return to this example later in this discussion.

In the spirit of scholarly discourse, debate, and critique, this article poses a series of questions and commentary that reflect the tensions of applying intersectionality as a critical framework in HCI. It serves as a call to action to those who are authentically and tirelessly committed to social justice and liberation [3,4]. We invite deeper thought and conversations about the significance of intersectionality to the larger HCI community, a global community that can no longer turn a blind eye to the social injustices manifested in society. We conclude this article with a charge to the field of HCI, specifically how to leverage intersectionality to both a) reveal how power operates in the HCI field to marginalize, oppress, and erase Black women; and b) think at the various intersections of oppression to innovate, design, and assess intersectional interventions that can disrupt systems of oppression and social inequalities in the fight for social justice and liberation.

back to top  Making the Invisible Visible

Patricia Hill Collins and Sirma Bilge [3] describe intersectionality as "a way of understanding and analyzing the complexity in the world, in people, and in human experiences." Informed by critical race theory [5], 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" [3]. Thus, there is no pure racism or pure sexism.

Intersectionality works toward social justice and raises additional critical questions such as: What intentional misconceptions and fallacies have been upheld when we simply accept the dominant culture's historical perspective of events? When we apply intersectionality as a critical praxis to shed light on those dark moments in history that reveal the misuse of power at the expense of humanity, we finally see white supremacy in the flesh and how whiteness overshadows the conversations needed to unpack how marginalized communities in computing have been erased [6]. This is the work that intersectionality does, making visible what is invisible to those who are privileged while also requiring them to be in community with Black women [7]. We see the need to hold the HCI community accountable for its inability to instigate much-needed change because of the disciplinary and structural domains of power at work in the field.


By disciplinary power, we refer to the phenomenon of how "different people find themselves encountering different treatment regarding which rules apply to them and how those rules will be implemented" [3]. Harrington et al. [8] explicitly describe the tensions at play when white researchers in HCI, who do not belong to the community they are researching, fail to "check their privilege" at the door. They deconstruct this idea poignantly in the following quote:

Many community residents perceive research engagements within their communities to be more about concepts of "white gaze" (in which Black and Brown bodies are a spectacle of performance)… where individuals are fixated on "saving" the disenfranchised due to guilt of privilege or even ways of policing in which their personal narratives are not safe from future consequence…Researchers must acknowledge the (unintentional) harm that may occur simply by their presence in these research environments…[R]esearchers should look to focus more on the fullness of engagement…Supporting community residents to engage on their own terms and share narratives that they deem important in a comfortable environment may push us closer to design engagements where these individuals feel empowered rather than further marginalized [8].

Black women felt rejected, ignored, and, again, relegated to the outer fringes of the computing community.

This quote speaks to the vicious cycle of entering into communities without understanding the sociocultural and political environment associated with the historical injustices of doing research in these communities. This often leads to perceptions in the community that the research engagement is more about centering the white gaze rather than the community being engaged, and can appear to call for marginalized people to assume performative identities for the sake of the research project. Moreover, when outcomes are not as predicted, researchers resort to explanations and conclusions that point to deficits in the participants rather than looking at how the study was motivated or conducted, how the researchers themselves were positioned with respect to the research, and tensions in data collection, analysis, and interpretation [9]. These same researchers then publish outcomes attributed to deficit mindsets and capabilities in the studied research population. The vicious cycle continues to propagate.

The structural domain of power refers to how the field of HCI itself is organized and governed [3]. For example, the field of HCI falls under the auspices of the Association of Computing Machinery (ACM) Special Interest Group (SIG). The first principle in the ACM Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct states, "Computing professionals should consider whether the results of their efforts will respect diversity, will be used in socially responsible ways, will meet social needs, and will be broadly accessible" ( This represents a noble cause. However, this principle is meaningless to marginalized populations who have been denied a seat at the decision-making table. To the naked eye, neither the ACM nor CHI leadership reflect the diversity of race (i.e., no Blacks/African Americans are included in the leadership) [10]. Recall that the 2015 GHC marginalized Black women, and intersectionality helped to illuminate such erasure. The GHC leadership listened and was receptive to the concerns of its Black women constituents, engaging in intentional discussion to pivot and embrace Black women as valuable members and contributors to the field of computing. For example, Latanya Sweeney, a Black professor of government and technology at Harvard University whose mission is "to create and use technology to assess and solve societal, political and governance problems," was the opening keynote speaker for GHC 2016. Brenda Darden Wilkerson, a Black woman with years of experience in breaking down barriers of access and inclusion in CS education, now serves as the president and CEO of the Anita Borg Foundation. Likewise, we implore the ACM leadership to bring the issue of intersectionality forward and serve as an example of what it means to apply intersectionality as a stimulus for equity and inclusion across the board for ACM-sponsored organizations. Though intersectionality has a history of being more of a grassroots movement, when applied, intersectionality requires a shift in power, an organizational process that requires the interrogation of hegemony and the inclusion of marginalized populations who hold decision-making power in leadership.

The HCI field has dismissed intersectionality, in large part because it illuminates hidden power relations.

back to top  Subconscious Thoughts

We discuss two important questions that may be in the back of people's minds as they contemplate the applicability of intersectionality in HCI.

Why the emphasis on intersectionality in HCI now? Weren't we just fine without it? There is a need for intersectionality in HCI because for far too long, hegemonic power has gone unchecked and uninterrogated, resulting in the maintenance of the status quo. Hegemony allows for the ignorance of these things, which brings about benefits to those in power. The HCI field has dismissed intersectionality as a viable critical framework, in large part because it illuminates hidden power relations. Those that have this power rarely want to relinquish it because they benefit greatly (i.e., making decisions about curriculum, conference format, speakers, policy decisions). Undeniably, those who are privileged wield power. The question becomes: How will those who have power use their power to dismantle oppressive systems?

As a community, HCI represents a diverse body of researchers and colleagues, and yet we are more comfortable discussing gender rather than race and racism [10]. As stated by Gillian Hayes, "You do not have to be a racist to benefit from racism" [11]. While this is true, one can still perpetuate racism by simply refusing to acknowledge that it even exists within the field of HCI, becoming implicit in its insidious enactment. So how does one counter racism? By calling out the matrices of power at work within our community, a by-product of intersectionality.

Doesn't intersectionality serve to further divide the HCI community rather than bring us together? This is a common but misplaced myth, as intersectionality has the power to bring about solidarity in the HCI community. Intersectionality sees the humanity in everyone, regardless or race, gender, class, ability, or sexual orientation. To acknowledge those differences is to affirm that each person is important and worthy of respect. Across multiple disciplines such as women's studies, African American studies, social science, political science, and the humanities, intellectuals engage in healthy scholarly debates about what intersectionality is and is not [3,9]. Scholarly debate is necessary for growth, as diverse perspectives and approaches define direction and opportunities for future research. While intersectionality is just beginning to gain traction within the field of HCI, this newfound momentum raises questions concerning its ability to foster change without engendering division. Collins and Bilge [3] argue that intersectionality transitioned into global dispersion in 2000, gaining wider acceptance beyond both academic and non-English-speaking countries. Such global dispersion expanded intersectionality as a form for critical inquiry and praxis in the fight for human rights (e.g., the 2001 United Nations World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa) and equality policies [3].

Intersectionality from a transnational point of view addresses the abuse of human rights at the international and intergovernmental levels, examining dominating matrices of power enforced around the globe. In this sense, intersectionality draws from similarities in the mistreatment of human beings, regardless of nationality, ethnicity, gender, or class, around the world. Collins and Bilge refer to this phenomenon as the transnational political imaginary, "a way of imagining political action that goes beyond local face-to-face organizing and beyond national politics to encompass a broader transnational focus" [3]. This transnational focus sets the stage for global resistance in the fight against historical disenfranchisement attributed to racism, sexism, class exploitation, and ethnic subordination. Rather than dividing people, intersectionality as a globally dispersed critical framework functions as a mechanism for building community so that every human being is included and treated equitably.

back to top  Conclusion

What is the charge to the HCI community? What are the next steps? First, we applaud the HCI community for having these uncomfortable conversations about intersectionality, especially while other subfields in computing have yet to even acknowledge its significance. However, more work remains to be done. Second, the community can begin to educate itself about intersectionality, starting with research literature that predates Kimberlé Crenshaw [12]. For those who wish to learn more, we propose a suggested reading list that goes beyond the field of HCI, revealing its interdisciplinary roots and extensive framework. (See Third, the community can begin to operationalize intersectionality. Intersectionality invites reflection and deeper thought about what is happening in the world around us and why. So how should researchers operationalize intersectionality in the context of HCI? Start by asking a series of questions: Are you thinking about everyone as you design this tool? Who is at the table to inform decisions about how this technology will be designed and for whom? Do the key stakeholders, intended users, and communities in which the technology is being situated for use reflect the diversity of humanity and respect for those who have a history of being disenfranchised and marginalized? How have I, as a person of privilege, co-constructed research engagements with marginalized scholars or communities? Am I conducting research on or with participants? In what ways have I interrogated my privilege (e.g., race or gender) to dismantle hegemonic systems of oppression that exist within HCI? Next, when summarizing findings in papers, be sure to include how power informs the research process [9]. Scholars who use their findings to address intersectionality interrogate how widely accepted research traditions facilitate the social reproduction of whiteness. Calling this out in Method sections becomes an indicator of a scholar's commitment to using intersectionality for social justice in HCI.

We conclude this article with our vision for this forum: bringing different perspectives of intersectionality to the forefront and how these are enacted both within and outside of the HCI community. Future issues will feature traditional articles written by those academicians who apply intersectionality as a critical framework as a tool to fight social injustice. Additionally, future issues will divert from exclusionary practices and branch beyond the traditional academic writing style to invite outsiders to engage in much-needed dialogue about the power of intersectionality as a critical praxis for design across a variety of contexts. Such actions allow us to push against the structural and disciplinary domains of power present in the field of HCI, breaking down barriers of access and inclusion for all.

back to top  References

1. Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology. GHC 2015 Impact Report;

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

3. Collins, P. H. and Bilge, S. Intersectionality. Key Concepts. Polity Press, Cambridge, UK, 2016.

4. 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;

5. Bell, D.A. Who's afraid of critical race theory. U. Ill. L. Rev. (1995), 893–910.

6. DiAngelo, R. White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. Beacon Press, 2018.

7. Collins, P.H. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment, 2nd ed. Routledge, New York, 2000.

8. Harrington, C.N., Erete, S., and Piper, A.M. Deconstructing community-based collaborative design: Towards more equitable participatory design engagements. Proc. of Computer Supported Collaborative Work 3, CSCW (Nov. 2019), Article 216; htps://

9. Haynes, C.M., Joseph, N.M., Patton, L., Allen, E., and Stewart, S. I am: Intersectionality as methodology and Black women as possibility models for educational research. A paper presented at American Education Research Association, New York, NY, 2018.

10. Ogbonnaya-Ogburu, I.F., Smith, A.D.R., To, A., and Toyama, K. Critical race theory for HCI. Proc. of the 2020 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, New York, 2020;

11. Hayes, G.R. Inclusive and engaged HCI. Interactions 27, 2 (Mar.–Apr 2020), 26–31;

12. 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.

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. Rankin is the recipient of the 2016 Woodrow Wilson Early Career Enhancement Fellowship.

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

Nicole M. Joseph is an assistant professor of mathematics education in the Department of Teaching and Learning at Vanderbilt University. Joseph is the recipient of the 2018 AERA Scholars of Color Early Career Contribution Award and the 2018 AERA Division G Early Career Award. Her research explores two lines of inquiry: a) Black women and girls, their identity development, and their experiences in mathematics; and b) whiteness, white supremacy, and how they operate and shape Black women's and girls' underrepresentation and retention in mathematics.

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