To Categorize, or Not To Categorize, That is The Question (Part 1)

In my last post, I talked about categories, particularly race and gender. Let’s dive farther into the general idea of categories this week.

Our brain’s ability and need to categorize serves a base function in our day-to-day lives. Think about the sheer VOLUME of information your brain processes in nanoseconds–size, shape, smell, taste, color, texture, temperature, time, weather, movement, etc–often below any real level of our awareness. This rapid processing helps us navigate our complex environment with efficiency and, arguably, a fairly high degree of learned accuracy.

Let’s say you’re out for a stroll. It’s a beautiful day in your neck of the woods. The sun is shining, nary a cloud in the sky. You keep seeing these tall (size!) things with green tops (color!) and black/brown/gray stems, some smooth, some rough (color! texture!). While their tops rustle in the gentle breeze (weather! movement!), their columnar stems (shape!) appear stationary (lack of movement!). Now, if you’ve been on this big, blue marble of ours for even a relatively short period of time, you probably know that these things are what we have collectively categorized as “trees”. And in your experience with trees, you expect them to “appear” and “behave” a certain way when you encounter them, even if they don’t all look exactly the same. So unless you’re strolling through Middle Earth or the Land of Oz where trees can speak and move, you learn to reasonably expect trees to appear and behave consistently, regardless of context (excepting an external cause perhaps, like a tornado).

Your individual understanding of trees is learned via others as you make sense of the world. Now, you could assert your individuality and define and label trees per your own preferences, but effectively communicating with your fellow humans about trees requires a shared understanding of “what a tree is”. In other words, “what a tree is” is socially constructed. While trees existed long before humans evolved, they were so named and defined by us. It was through the process of human interaction that trees were thus categorized. To wit, we have collectively agreed that there are such things as trees and we have collectively agreed on what trees are.

This collective agreement applies to everything in our world. We have ascribed shared meanings and definitions to tangibles, such as bananas and mouse pads, as well as intangibles, such as reputation and cultural heritage. We can touch, smell, and taste bananas (at least for the near future), but “banana” as a shared concept is a social construct, identified by its size, shape, color, taste, texture. While we can’t touch, smell, or taste reputations, “reputation” as a shared concept is also a social construct. We typically know what differentiates a “good” reputation from a “bad” one and that while it can take a long time to build good reputations, they can be ruined in a matter of minutes.

Good so far? Everybody with me?

Now for the BIG REVEAL…drum roll please…

Race and gender are also socially constructed.

“WHAT?!?!”

“But Tonya,” you might be thinking, “men and women are biologically different! And skin color varies due to the amount of melanin in the epidermis!”

Indeed.

But the categorical meanings we have collectively ascribed to those differences and variations are all socially constructed. “What a man is” versus “what a woman is” are shared concepts we have constructed through social interaction.

“Gotcha. So if we collectively define things such as trees, bananas, reputations, and gender through our interactions with one another, then we can be nearly certain that our social constructs are ‘correct’ and ‘right’, right? Wisdom of the crowd and all that?”

Sometimes. But we’ve made our share of collective mistakes over the centuries. A geocentric universea flat earthseparate but equal, to name a few.

So then, what if our collective beliefs about race and gender are wrong too?

Til Part 2.

With profound apologies of oversimplification to arborists, cognitive psychologists, linguists, sociologists, anthropologists, J.R.R. Tolkien, L. Frank Baum, and others. And though he wasn’t referenced, I feel obligated to acknowledge Joyce Kilmer.

Let’s Talk Intersectionality

How do you categorize yourself? Do you think of yourself primarily in singular terms of gender and race, such as “I’m a man” or “I’m a person of color”? Do you ever think about how your categories overlap? Let’s take me, for example. I’m a woman. And I’m white. While I’m frequently aware of my gender in my day-to-day life, I rarely think about my race (which we’ll unpack in a future post). But my experiences as a woman are informed by my race, even if I’m not always aware of it. So a more nuanced way to describe myself would be as a white woman and acknowledge that I exist in both categories simultaneously–that is, my gender and race categories intersect with one another and that particular intersection shapes my life and experiences.

Historically and conceptually, we have treated race and gender as separate categories. Think about the troubled arc of US history for a moment. The anti-slavery and abolition movements that gave way to the 20th century civil rights movement and to today’s Black Lives Matter movement focus(ed) their efforts on dismantling systemic racism. In a similar vein, the women’s suffrage movement of the 1850s-1910s gave way to second wave feminism in the 1960s and the failed ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s, with their efforts focused on dismantling systemic sexism. While the two movements have overlapped at times, their respective efforts have been separate more than they have been unified.

This bifurcation of race and gender is not simply an inadvertent byproduct of the civil rights and women’s movements. It is also reflected in US legislation and labor laws. When the US Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title VII of the Act prohibited employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. On the face of it, this was a fantastic, historic, and long overdue moment! Despite good intentions, however, the law’s treatment of race and gender as separate categories actually reinforces the very things it seeks to eradicate–racism and sexism–because the law simply cannot fathom that people can exist in more than one category at one time!

Let’s look at this succinct summary of a 1976 employment discrimination case (Degraffenreid v. General Motors) to unpack this a bit:

The gist here is that General Motors had been hiring white women to work in administrative positions, and hiring Black men to work in industrial positions, but not hiring Black women at all. A group of Black women sued General Motors under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, alleging that they had been discriminated against on the basis of race and gender—which seems like a no-brainer, right? But incredibly, they lost the case: the US District Court found that, because General Motors had hired (white) women, the company wasn’t discriminating on the basis of gender, and that because General Motors had hired Black people (who were men), the company wasn’t discriminating on the basis of race. This might be one of the Top Ten Most Facepalm-Worthy Rulings of the last 50 years, but that’s seriously how it played out: the court simply refused to wrap its collective head around the fact that neither “women” nor “Black people” is a uniform group with uniform experiences (Boesel, 2013).

In short, the law could not recognize the unique experiences of women of color as determined by their specific intersection of race and gender, rendering them invisible (see Crenshaw, 1989).

OK, Tonya. I think I get the gist of what intersectionality is about. But why are you talking about this on an “Innovations in Tech Education” blog?

Over the last several years, there have been numerous efforts to “broaden participation” in STEM. Widely embraced by computer science education researchers and practitioners, “broadening participation” is commonly considered an acknowledgment of and a means to rectifying the lack of diversity in CS. I’m an organizational scientist and a critical theorist. Part of my research examines the failures of diversity and inclusion initiatives across sectors, organizations, and institutions and the potential for intersectional theory and methods to remedy these failures. My focus on this ITE blog will be to thus engage thought, reflection, and discussion around broadening participation in CS through a critical, intersectional lens. In the sage words of Audre Lorde, self-described “black feminist lesbian mother poet”:

“There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.”

References

Boesel, W. E. (2013, April 3). Difference without dualism, part III (of 3). The Society Pages: Cyborgology. Retrieved March 5, 2018, from https://thesocietypages.org/cyborgology/2013/04/03/difference-without-dualism-part-iii-of-3/

Crenshaw, K. (1989). Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex: A black feminist critique of antidiscrimination doctrine, feminist theory and antiracist politics. U. Chi. Legal F., 139.