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My Reflections on "Critical Race Theory for HCI"

Updated: Nov 7, 2021

Citation: Ihudiya Finda Ogbonnaya-Ogburu, Angela D.R. Smith, Alexandra To, and Kentaro Toyama. 2020. Critical Race Theory for HCI. In Proceedings of the 2020 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI ’20). Association for Computing Machinery, New York, NY, USA, 1–16. DOI:

Authors: Ihudiya Finda Ogbonnaya-Ogburu*1, Angela D. R. Smith*2, Alexandra To*3, Kentaro Toyama*1


1University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI USA

2Northwestern University, Evanston, IL USA

3Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA USA

Terms: critical race theory, interest convergence, intersectionality, reflexivity, others-conscious


In Critical Race Theory for HCI, authors Ihudiya Finda Ogbonnaya-Ogburu, Angela D.R. Smith, Alexandra To, and Kentaro Toyama present critical race theory to the human and computer interaction research community. The article defines critical race theory as “...a theoretical framework introduced in the 1970s by legal scholars to challenge the dominant discourse on race and racism.” (p1) The authors outline several key tenets of the theory which include: “Racism is ordinary, not aberrational”; “Race and racism are socially constructed”; “Identity is intersectional”; “Those with power rarely concede it without interest convergence [emphasis in original]”; “Liberalism itself can hinder anti-racist progress”; “There is a uniqueness to the voice of color...and storytelling is a means for it to be heard.” (p.3)

The term interest convergence is used to call out the HCI community because “ those in power support progressive goals only when it serves their selfish interest” (p.2). Recognizing that the social construct of race has real-world implications, the article discusses race and racism in the United States as well as race in HCI research. While there are several publications about race and digital technology, many of them are found outside of the HCI research publications. The research that is conducted within HCI either superficially engages with race as characteristic (designing for small communities along racial lines) or bias in technology and design though this research is narrowly concerned with algorithmic bias and facial recognition software.

The authors then recognize “allied research” described as “A number of movements, frameworks, and theories in HCI [that] have goals allied with critical race theory, in that they seek to address injustices faced by minority, vulnerable, or marginalized communities of various kinds. ” (p.4) Concomitant with critical race theory in HCI are, as highlighted by the authors, feminist HCI and queer HCI. While Feminist HCI is described as being concerned with the “design and evaluation of interactive systems that are imbued with sensitivity to the central commitments of feminism – agency, fulfillment, identity and the self, equity, empowerment, diversity, and social justice”, Queer HCI “articulates the need to focus on the ‘structures and norms that underlay sexism’ and acknowledges the diversity within the LGBTQIA community.” (p. 4) Both have similar roots with critical theory and their conclusions can be applied to issues of race.

In addition to other theories that examine “systemic causes of inequity”, the authors lift Kimberlé Crenshaw’s intersectionality as part of their allied research. (p.4) The concept of intersectionality had been around before 1989, when Crenshaw coined the term within Black and Brown female-identified groups. Once codified into a term, it was defined initially as “...contexts in which those with multiple discriminated identities – e.g., female and African-American – fall through the cracks of attempts to address injustices suffered by individual identity groups” and since has been “broadened to consider the complexities of overlapping identities, and it has also been imported into HCI” (p. 4) Though these concepts are becoming a part of HCI research, the authors point out that universal design reigns dominantly in the field and such allied theories are relegated to niche subsets of the discipline.

In an effort to bring the power of storytelling into their presentation as a strong methodology from critical race theory, the authors share nine personal stories about race and HCI. Afterward, critical race theory is adapted for HCI and the authors describe how “Racism is Ordinary in Our Socio-Technical World”, emphasize the importance of “Storytelling and Voices of Color in HCI”, expose “Interest Convergence & Material Reality in HCI”, and outline “The Limits of Tech Liberalism”. (p. 8-9) The article ends with a call to action for HCI research and practice as well as the HCI community at large. For the former, the authors make several suggestions. First, the authors call for a “[t]rue recognition of the pervasiveness of racism in our digital systems [which] would open our eyes to whole new universes of unexplored research questions.” (p. 9) Second, when any HCI research team studies or works with any marginalized group, the authors recommend that the team “...must acknowledge an additional burden of representation” which can be achieved in part by ensuring that at least some of the research team identify with the research subjects. (p. 9-10)

Converse to reflexivity, “being self-aware and conscious of one’s own station and biases as they might affect research and writing”, the authors go on to recommend researchers in HCI be others-conscious meaning “ to think through one’s own research and writing as it might be received by groups that are not one’s own”. (p. 10) Thirdly, the paper review process is offered as a space for improvement. The rubric for considering papers could include “the degree to which papers considered the potential racial impact of their work” and “if a paper is explicitly about race, does it sufficiently bring in a relevant voice of color?” noting the possible option of alerting reviewers to the racial identity of authors while they remain anonymous. (p. 10)

The call to action for the HCI community at large starts with a need for more diversity and inclusion (D&I). Researchers, and in particular senior researchers, can take on the task of “identifying, recruiting, and taking on underrepresented minority students, interns, and junior researchers” and track the progress or lack thereof by “SIGCHI ... conducting periodic studies to track leadership make-up, community membership, paper authorship, conference attendance, and such by race and other group categories.” (p. 10) In addition to improving the pipeline for D&I, events such as the Diversity & Inclusion Lunch is recognized by the authors as “a good start, but its cost should be subsidized to reduce attendance barriers and to demonstrate larger community commitment”, and “CHIMe – Mentoring in Human Computer Interactions – should be subsidized and turned into annual events.” Their suggestions continue as the authors note that “[r]elevant panels, workshops, and town hall discussions are also in order” and pointedly state that “[r]ace is overlooked as a category of diversity” in many events and efforts. (p. 10) To address these and other issues of race and technology, the authors point to committees to be established that can “engage policymakers and technology companies through position papers, meetings, and so on.” (p.10) Finally, the authors encourage allies in the HCI research community to “respond to all of the calls of action above in a spirit of genuine anti-racist progress.” (p. 10)

Similar to Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism, Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code, and Beyond the Hashtags: Racial Politics and Black Digital Networks, this article draws a line from neoliberalism within the tech industry specifically and today’s society writ large to our current system of racism. The favoring of the individual also flattens the group experiences of minoritized and marginalized people and erases the history and strides hard-fought and won over generations as communities of people stood up against a system built against them. Critical Race Theory for HCI does a wonderful job of explaining what critical race theory is and how it is relevant to the HCI research community. The use of storytelling as a methodology is novel and powerful as reading the stories allowed me to resonate with similar experiences and know that I am not alone as a Black scholar in academia. The related works section includes research, especially the allied research, which I hope to take on next. Overall, the clear and caring critiques are shared with a desire to improve the HCI research community for everyone starting with minoritized members. I am eager to see this necessary work influence HCI research for years to come.

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