Jenny Ungbha Korn is a feminist activist of color for social justice, a scholar of race and gender in mass media and online communication, and a member of Mensa, the high intelligence quotient (IQ) society. Currently, Korn is a Fellow and the Founding Coordinator of the Race and Media Working Group at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. Korn’s scholarship has won awards from the Carl Couch Center, the African American Communication and Culture Division of the National Communication Association, the Association for Information Science and Technology, and the Organization for the Study of Communication, Language, and Gender. Drawing on critical race and intersectional feminist theories, Korn explores how the Internet environment influences user assemblages of race and gender and how online producers-consumers have constructed inventive digital representations and computer-mediated communications of identity.
Digital Depictions of Race and Gender: Intersectionality as Theoretical Framework, Online Examples, and Analytical Tool
The contents of this article are based on my translation of my verbal presentation that relied heavily upon visuals into published text. I thank Tarez Graban for this opportunity to contribute my work to the Peitho journal.
Upon deciding how I would contribute to a plenary panel on intersectionality for the Coalition of Feminist Scholars in the History of Rhetoric and Composition (CFSHRC), I immediately thought of Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw’s (1991) seminal work in advancing the term “intersectionality” into academic and popular usages. For my own research that examines representations of race and gender in mass and digital media, I find it useful to define what I mean when I reference “intersectionality.” Representational intersectionality focuses on cultural constructions of women of color in popular culture (Crenshaw, 1991).
Representational Intersectionality in Online Image Search
I shared from my research about how representational intersectionality manifests online in terms of oppressions via the reproduction of racial and gender hierarchies (Crenshaw, 1991). When I have examined representations of “professor” in an online image search (Korn, 2014), I have discovered that dominant gendered (men) and racialized (White) ideologies are privileged. The results depict cartoons of White men that are elderly (with grey or white hair) and bespectacled (with glasses) that tend to look like Albert Einstein. Notably, a cartoon of Donald Duck shows up as an image for a professor before women of color do! Omissions of women of color from algorithmically-driven results reflect the normalizations of racism and sexism in online searches (Crenshaw, 1991; Noble, 2018).
Representational Intersectionality in Facebook Groups
From additional research (Korn, 2016), I showed how women of color have used Facebook Groups to define our own representational intersectionality across activism, sexuality, beauty, and hobbies in uplifting ways that center race and gender as axes of identity to celebrate. As social distance from White heteronormativity increases, communities of color adopt difference as homophilous self-categorization to create counter-narratives to the typical stereotypes that depict women of color in inaccurate, negative, and harmful ways.
Changing Representational Intersectionality Online
After presenting on representational intersectionality as theoretical framework and online examples, I emphasized how intersectionality may be used as an analytical tool. Specifically, an intersectional analysis offers both an intellectual and political response to the issue of representation (Crenshaw, 1991). In terms of a political response, I ask how homogeneous are the rooms for programming, coding, computer science, engineering, and open source communities. Disproportionate impacts of technology will always fall on our communities of color, until and unless we work actively to include minoritized populations. When people of color and discussions of race are omitted and avoided, then Whiteness is reproduced. I urge the people that impact and influence the technological systems that increasingly are becoming how we work and socialize to question for whom does their work benefit.
To help disrupt the reproduction of Whiteness in technologies, I encourage institutional change in academia and industry. One systematic way to ensure race is considered as part of computer science training is to include critical race theory in mandatory curricula. A potential course name could be “Critical Race Theory in Technologies and Artificial Intelligences,” to be taught by a faculty member whose training and focus are critical race within those specific areas. Existing courses within a typical computer science program’s curricular structure, such as “data communication and computer networks” and “computer graphics,” might also include emphases on critical race theory within those domains, but it is rare for faculty trained in those topics to have been trained also in critical race. To encourage critical race theory as part of computer science curriculum, the industry side of technology must also be changed. Within the “minimum qualifications” section of a typical employment advertisement for a software engineer, the addition of “trained in critical race theory” would ensure that universities include critical race theory as a separate course for their computer science students. In so doing, industry could help to set curricula standards to disrupt the reproduction of Whiteness in technologies.
Improving Diversity in Citations
As the last slide of nearly all of my presentations (Korn, 2019), I remind the audience to engage in the academically activist act of citing women of color. Diversifying our sources is an important practice for academics to disrupt the reproduction of Whiteness in our own fields of knowledge. I encourage us all to be intentional about including references by women scholars
from minoritized populations.
At the session sponsored by the Coalition of Feminist Scholars in the History of Rhetoric and Composition at the Conference on College Composition and Communication on “Building Out from ‘The Margins:’ New Directions in Intersectionality,” I used Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw’s seminal work to define a specific intersectionality central to my presentation. In her influential article, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color,” Crenshaw (1991) explains that representational intersectionality focuses on oppressions via the reproduction of racial and gender hierarchies in popular culture. During my presentation, I also highlighted Crenshaw’s (1991) definition of an intersectional analysis, which may offer both an intellectual and political response to issues related to representation, showing how intersectional feminists should be encouraged to get involved in influencing policy and promoting justice. I closed my presentation with a call for academic activism through reviewing one’s citation practices to ensure that references are diverse and include women and minoritized populations.
As I perused the feedback of the session’s attendees, I noted the following comments that reacted to points made on intersectional analysis and citation practices during my presentation:
- “Only seeing certain stories” is an initial step in conducting intersectional analysis. Noticing whose stories are included and excluded in popular culture is an awareness that we as intersectional feminists should promote in teaching and research. Reading that comment lets me know that at least one attendee was realizing that differences exist between how some stories are documented and shared, while other experiences are rendered invisible and insignificant. These two comments reacting to my statement about choosing to be activist as part of intersectional analysis were among my favorites: “You can ask companies to change things?” + “Push organizations to redesign websites, not use stock photos of White people!”
- “Cite women of color when you can” —> “And you always can” is my response. I prefer these other comments about my point about diversifying citation practices: “Who do you quote?” + “Academic practice as activism” + “I want to teach my students academic activism through thoughtful citation practices” + “Deliberately cite/reference/center writers of color and women writers” + “Cite women of color; actively make interventions in/disrupt Whiteness—cause that won’t happen on its own” —> “Yes!” is my enthusiastic response to the aforementioned feedback.
Overall, I am thankful for such an attentive audience that took the time to share their reactions to the night’s presentations. I conclude this response with appreciation for all of the attendees, especially the one that wrote, “Thank you for these brave and powerful presentations.” I am grateful to have been part of this session.
From the Microtalk
- Crenshaw, Kimberlé Williams (1991). “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color.” Stanford Law Review 43(6): 1241-99.
- Korn, Jenny Ungbha (2014, October). “Privileged Technology-Mediation: Gendered and Racialized (Re)Productions Within Online Image Searches.” Presented at the 37th annual conference of the Organization for the Study of Communication, Language, and Gender (OSCLG), Santa Clara, California.
- Korn, Jenny Ungbha (2016). “Black Women Exercisers, Asian Women Artists, White Women Daters, and Latina Lesbians: Race and Gender in Intersectionality-Based Facebook Groups.” In Safiya Umoja Noble and Brendesha Tynes (Eds.), The Intersectional Internet: Race, Sex, Class, and Culture Online (115-128). New York, New York: Peter Lang.
- Korn, Jenny Ungbha (2019, March). “Representational Intersectionality Online: By Us, For Us vs. By Them, For Us.” Presented at the 30th annual conference of the Coalition of Feminist Scholars in the History of Rhetoric and Composition (CFSHRC), Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
- Noble, Safiya Umoja (2018). Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism. New York, New York: New York University Press.
From the Response
- Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw. (1991). “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color.” Stanford Law Review, 43(6): 1241-1299.
To cite this page:
Korn Ungbha, Jenny. “Digital Depictions of Race and Gender: Intersectionality as Theoretical Framework, Online Examples, and Analytical Tool.” Peitho digital insert, Vol. 22, No. 1, Fall/Winter 2019. https://actionhour2019.cfshrc.org/jenny-ungbha-korn/