Intersectionality — more than a buzzword

Naveena Karusala
Jul 3, 2018 · 4 min read

Taking human-centered computing across borders requires working with diverse populations — people living in different places, shaped by unique cultural and political histories depending on their identity. Research in HCCxB spaces has often hammered home the importance of recognizing such diverse contexts to improve design decisions, manifesting in a call for a more intersectional human-computer interaction (HCI). Workshops such as “Imagining Intersectional Futures” at CSCW 2017 and agendas such as Schlesinger et al.’s “Intersectional HCI” at CHI 2017 call for and present steps towards an HCI that researches the unique experiences of people with differently (and multiply) marginalized identities, living in different contexts.

Beyond a doubt, I’ve found this perspective necessary in my own work on women’s safety technology — physical safety and the potential for technology to support one’s sense of safety is affected by so many factors in addition to gender. Intersections of gender with, say, race, religion, and socioeconomic status all affect the threats to safety that women face and the resources they can avail to fight against them or cope with them. For example, undocumented immigrant women in the United States may not feel comfortable turning to law enforcement in cases of domestic violence for fear of immigration issues. Meanwhile, women of religious minorities in wartorn areas such as the Indian state of Kashmir might face similar dilemmas with law enforcement, but coupled with the militarization and authoritarianism that has further sanctioned law enforcement and military personnel as perpetrators of sexual assault themselves. Thinking intersectionally about women’s safety brought attention to diverse users and contexts, but there seemed to be a glass ceiling — it wasn’t clear how to translate diversity of data into direct points of interventions designed for women’s safety when experiences within each context seemed to have little overlap. How are designers supposed to make sense of the sometimes conflicting needs, motivations, and behaviors that arise with studying diverse populations and translate them to design decisions?

Kathy Davis succinctly described this glass ceiling with her characterization of intersectionality as a buzzword (Davis 2008). By buzzword, Davis is talking about the way intersectionality is often used in diversity initiatives (in research design, organizations, policy decisions, etc.) to bring attention to yet another identity category, be it race, gender, class, ability, religion, caste… or the many other facets of identity that people relate to. It’s this surface-level call for inclusion that makes it hard to imagine intersectionality as a tool that can gain better insights from inclusivity. Motivated to go beyond intersectionality as a buzzword, I co-authored with Marisol Wong-Villacres et al. “Designing for Intersections”, a paper that describes and demonstrates how intersectionality can meaningfully manifest in design decisions. This paper required us to delve deeply into the literature on intersectionality, heavily engaging with its many theorizations to understand how we might operationalize intersectionality for design.

Starting from the seminal work on intersectionality by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 (Crenshaw 1989) and arriving at Rita Kaur Dhamoon’s recent work on mainstreaming intersectionality (Dhamoon 2011), we sifted through a chronology of debate around what intersectionality represents to different groups of people. We found two strands of intersectionality, both of which we evaluated in light of how they might be applied to design. One strand spoke to the top-down use of pre-existing categories, such as race or gender, to provide a starting point or framework for understanding different people’s experiences, especially those of oppression. According to prior work on feminist theory, and intersectionality specifically (e.g., Prins 2006, Suchman 1994), this approach begs the question of who had the privilege of creating these categories in the first place, and encourages assumptions that people within certain categories have homogenous and static experiences (e.g., “all women of color are oppressed”). Responding to this critique, the other strand of intersectionality we sussed out takes an entirely bottom-up approach, relying on personal narratives to understand what it means to experience an identity — this idea brought out the potential of intersectionality to focus on individuals’ agency and ability to respond to and define their circumstances regardless of how their identity is defined by others. To operationalize this idea, however, it seems that designers have to collect data on innumerable individuals’ unique (and sometimes opposing) experiences of identity and somehow incorporate every detail into practical design decisions.

Stuck between convenient but presumptuous categories and intractably diverse individual experiences, we turned to Dhamoon’s work. Dhamoon’s approach to operationalizing intersectionality encouraged us to shift focus to individuals’ ever-evolving interactions with systems of domination and the many ways in which systems wield power. For our goal of operationalizing intersectionality, this process-oriented approach could take into account change over time, individual agency, and intersections of ways of using power, all of which bring attention to complexity. Using Dhamoon’s definition and vocabulary, intersectionality in our paper is a way of looking at how systems of domination (e.g., racism, sexism) interact with processes of differentiation (e.g., racialization, sexualization) to impact people in different ways (e.g., individual, communal, institutional), regardless of which categories (e.g., race, sex) people fall in. We can then look at the ever-changing penalties and privileges that these systems and processes afford people and how people use them in their lives.

These penalties and privileges can then become constraints and assets that design can take into account to address end users’ needs. Dhamoon provides a methodology for further analyzing these complex interactions between individuals and systems known as situated comparisons — a whole other story :). Stay on the lookout for Marisol’s forthcoming post on what situated comparisons entail for multi-sited research projects and how we might use them towards making intersectionally-sensitive design decisions.

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Marisol Wong-Villacres, Arkadeep Kumar, Aditya Vishwanath, Naveena Karusala, Betsy DiSalvo, and Neha Kumar. 2018. Designing for Intersections. In Proceedings of the 2018 Conference on Designing Interactive Systems. ACM, 45–58.

Human-Centered Computing Across Borders

This publication is meant to be a co-learning space for researchers working on human-centered computing, across various borders and intersections. Here we share our stories, work, reviews for others' work, and more. Join us!

Naveena Karusala

Written by

PhD student in Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Washington

Human-Centered Computing Across Borders

This publication is meant to be a co-learning space for researchers working on human-centered computing, across various borders and intersections. Here we share our stories, work, reviews for others' work, and more. Join us!

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