Bionote: Kalindi Vora is Professor of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies, of Ethnicity Race and Migration, and of American Studies at Yale University. Dr. Vora’s current research includes ongoing writing and publishing on artificial intelligence and automation through the lens of STS and critical race and gender theories. She is also working on a book-length project supported by a National Science Foundation’s Science and Technology Studies award [working title] Autoimmune: Chronic Conditions and Care in a Time of Uncertain Medicine. It places contemporary narratives of illness by patients facing racism and sexism in their daily lives within an analysis of the history of the concept of autoimmunity and contemporary practices of healthcare self-monitoring to understand the potential for patient-physician co-production of medical knowledge.
Kalindi Vora is author of Life Support: Biocapital and the New History of Outsourced Labor from the University of Minnesota Press (2015), and co-author with Dr. Neda Atanasoski (UC Santa Cruz) of Surrogate Humanity: Race, Robots, and the Politics of Technological Futures from Duke University Press (2018) and of Technoprecarious from MIT Press (2020) as a member of the Precarity Lab. Her collected work on transnational gestational surrogacy in India was published in 2022 under the title, Reimagining Reproduction: Surrogacy, Labour and Technologies of Human Reproduction.
This interview by Sourabhi Dutta Roy is featured in the book,
“ANONYMOUS WAS A WOMAN”:
an anthology of poems, short stories and interviews available worldwide via Amazon.
Here is the India link.
TMYS: Please share with us some of the discrimination or subordination that you perhaps experienced based on race, ethnicity and gender. How did you respond to them? Tell me your story!
When I was in 7th grade in the far-flung rural suburbs of the twin cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, my teacher administered a mathematics test being conducted state-wide. It was an assessment of which students might qualify for the University of Minnesota Talented Youth Mathematics Program. I qualified, and my parents took me to attend their orientation event. Participants would spend the first two years doing an accelerated version of all four years of required high school mathematics. In the final three years of the program, students would take university level calculus classes.
At orientation, I entered the auditorium at the UM school of engineering. It was full of pre-teens like me. I focused on ways not to stand out, a habit from growing up non-white in a homogeneously white area. I noticed almost immediately that in a packed room, there were few other girls. Without further thought, I knew in my gut that I couldn’t do this program, even though I loved maths and science. At that age, I couldn’t bear the weight of even more attention to being different.
I grew up in a working-class community where nearly everyone else was descended from Polish or Scandinavian immigrants. My father, who grew up in India, highly valued maths and science education. He asked me to reconsider not accepting admission to the mathematics program. I wish I had, but my survival instincts in those days were shaped by many years of being stopped by strangers and quizzed about “where I was from.” I just wanted to blend in. In my earliest memories of being stopped by strangers and asked where we were from, I was still small enough to physically hide behind my mother during the conversation. There was never any other question: it was always some polite demand for the story about where we came from. My mother is white and from the US, and people felt entitled to know how she came by her two daughters, two light-brown skinned dark eyed girls with long black hair. We stood out like an ink blot on a new white t-shirt.
Once I got to university, I was able to connect experiences of exclusion based on gender and race in the US, and this is just one of many stories that can illustrate how they are always connected.
TMYS: As a female professional who has worked on Technoscience, how has your reading of technology, machine and innovation changed because of gender specific lens?
The concepts of both gender and race have shaped my understanding of technoscience. One productive way to approach thinking about race and gender is how they operate as structural social norms that limit how we understand and organise bodies. The “gender binary” for example. Another way is to understand them as structuring social processes and assumptions about what and who matters. In the realm of technology, my work has looked at how before anything is built, technologies must first be imagined. And in that process of imagination, a person or a team are thinking about the purpose of that technology – who will it serve, and what will it help them do. In a for-profit world, tech designers are thinking about what will sell. Needless to say, this excludes the most pressing needs of what many call “the majority world,” those who do not live in the centres of capital and consumption.
There are very common examples of how dangerous technologies designed for “humans” can be when and if the norm, or default human, is unconsciously or consciously male. For example, automobiles designed for the average male body aren’t as safe for women who are on average shorter and have less mass. Similarly pharmaceuticals tested for safe dosage for adult “humans” are not tested for the many humans who are much smaller and weigh less than that average male.
My research thinks about how long histories of gender hierarchy have shaped “common sense,” regardless of our own identity. For example, many feminists in the US were shocked that so many of the voters who elected the notoriously misogynist candidate Donald Trump as US president were white women. We know that women aren’t automatically feminists. Similarly, the history of the sciences has shaped what each field holds as most important, and these histories do not proportionally represent the viewpoints of people who have been in the margins of science, including women. For example in one of the chapters of Reimagining Reproduction, I bring up the question of why so much energy and funding have gone into researching how to build an artificial human uterus, given that there are many more urgent problems facing humanity than human birth rates. The issue is about where the need to control biological reproduction comes from, and how this supports the imagination behind designing technologies that dictate how and to whom humans are born, and how this ties to the drive to control human reproduction more generally. This can of course be extended to misogynist laws that disempower women and people with uteruses from having autonomy over their own bodies.
As a scholar who has researched precedents for how feminism and science can work together, I also write about experimental technologies that aim to address inequality. I tell those stories through a focus on projects that aim to counteract those past injustices.
For example, I am currently writing a piece expanding on an example from the book Surrogate Humanity. It looks at the work of a small biohacking feminist collective in Spain called Gynepunk. This collective brings together new technologies and DIY women’s health practice. They developed a 3D printed speculum project as an open-access design that anyone could hypothetically download and print. The project was more conceptual and artistic than practical, but their goal was to draw attention to both the history of abuses in gynaecology research as well as to empower women to seize access to reproductive health care.
TMYS: Along with tech, artificial intelligence is the one thing massively on the rise. How can AI platforms affect and get affected by the politics of race, ethnicity, identity and gender?
Science and technology studies makes the following basic but also controversial assertion: science is not a practice outside the field of culture, but rather is contained within it. Feminist science studies have added the tenet that for this reason, science and technology can never be assumed to be neutral. Donna Haraway uses the term “material-semiotics” to insist that the material world and processes of social meaning-making are inextricable. Mainstream AI therefore reflects the dominant politics of race, ethnicity, identity and gender within the cultures that dominate the imaginations of the people who design AI, and the market for which they design it.
Many of us are familiar with the important conversations happening in ethnic studies, feminist Science and Technology Studies and critical data studies about technological racial bias. It is now an established truth that racial and other forms of bias can be inadvertently programmed into algorithms or be lodged in the collection and preparation of data to feed those algorithms, or both. For example, we’ve seen bias in the outcomes of using large data sets to calculate who qualifies or doesn’t qualify for a loan and what type of loan they are offered, because necessary hard data doesn’t exist for people without stable addresses, without credit scores, etc., or in policing, where algorithms are used to calculate who is considered a criminal risk, predictive analytics are even being used to generate parole conditions – but of course these algorithms can cement biased historical data that represent racial profiling and xenophobia in its collection.
I am invested in understanding the imaginaries guiding what turns out to be a rather small and select group of people to design a globally high-impact technology, for example the GPT systems, and how then we are to contend with the fact that small and often non-diverse and commercially-motivated engineering design teams have this scale of material-semiotic power.
TMYS: Commercial surrogacy has long been a debatable topic, even more so if a still developing country, like India, is involved. The commodification of women’s reproductive bodies, turning women into disposable beings, living tools or baby machines have been criticised— parallels are even drawn with prostitution and slavery. Please share your thoughts on the same, keeping in mind your forthcoming book, titled Reimagining Reproduction: Surrogacy, Labour and Technologies of Human Reproduction.
My research focuses on transnational surrogacy arrangements between Indian women and foreign commissioning parents between the years of 2008 and 2016. In my first book, Life Support, I considered the advent of transnational surrogacy in India as it relates to other forms of what we can call the outsourcing of vital labour from India to other countries. I focus on how it requires attention to the politics and economics of the global division of reproductive labour, given that transnational Indian surrogacy arrangements were catering to clients from wealthier nations.
In Reimagining Reproduction, my most recent book, I look at the surrogacy clinic and the people it brings together to understand what this period of time teaches us about the future of commercial surrogacy for India and the rest of the world. Using ethnography, the book considers what motivates different people to participate, including doctors, staff, commissioning parents from India and abroad, and most importantly, the women who become surrogates.
As I explain in the book, commercial surrogacy not only mixes intimacy and commerce, but also bodies and technologies. This occurs amidst competing claims worldwide about the meaning of parenthood, the value of mothering and of the child, and the moral and ethical implications of reproductive technologies. Transnational arrangements add the complication elements of crossing cultural norms, government regulations, and legal structures between nations and communities.
In the book’s introduction, I give an example: “[W]hen a person from the US or UK hires an Indian woman to carry a child by in vitro fertilisation (IVF) commercially, on one level it is an exchange of services for payment. On another, the surrogate mother is doing work that enhances and actually reproduces the life of that person or family. For women working as surrogates, surrogacy also requires the re-conceptualization of their own bodies and their relationship to childbirth. As a result, she reconstitutes her relationship to her body and to the meaning of childbirth effectively, contributing to the enrichment and longevity of the US or UK economy and society. The Indian surrogacy market has also come to be understood as a lens and a metaphor for longer histories of capitalism’s investment in capturing the reproductive power and potential of women’s bodies.”
There is much more to be said, and I hope those interested will read both books!
TMYS: Would you agree that 'Intersectional Feminism' is what we actually need today, instead of 'White feminism', to execute the original idea of 'sisterhood'?
No one owns the term ‘feminist.’ What different types of feminism share in common is a deep attention to how power and hierarchy operate in specific contexts. In other words, feminist practice has centred the spaces of knowledge that are the most structurally and politically disempowered. Feminists have historically defined their feminism as the tool(s) they need for addressing abuses of power and hierarchy in their specific time and place. White feminism centred the concerns of middle-class white women in the US, and came to dominate in institutional settings. We must continue to address the risk of institutionalising one version of feminism as if it were the only type. We can do this by practicing coalitional feminism, which means recognising that different types of feminists can work together towards shared goals even if they don’t share the same identity. Intersectional feminism holds space for recognising multiple feminisms and for building coalitions across differences while respecting them. Yet we must be careful that it doesn’t get institutionalized at the expense of other forms and movements (Dalit feminism, Black feminism, Native feminism, etc.). Feminisms are alive in their practice, as with other forms of knowledge produced through political action, and therefore always changing. We must also be careful that we do not allow “gender” to stand in for other forms of complex difference, such as caste, race, religion, ability, sexuality, and so forth. Rather we must consider them together on a situational basis, in order for feminisms to retain their political effectiveness.
TMYS: How do you think gender, identity, globalisation and postsocialism are interconnected? Do new forms of economic and cultural globalisation open spaces for women's empowerment and feminist politics?
I think of postsocialism as one of several ways to describe our current global condition. I collaborated on a project for several years about this idea with Neda Atanasoski, whose early work focused on postsocialist eastern Europe. We worked with a group of researchers who explored the way socialisms continued to exist after the formal end of the USSR. Instead of thinking of socialism as a singular vision of a shared revolutionary future, we invited people to write about their geopolitical areas of expertise in terms of the legacies of socialism. I was interested in thinking about how different kinds of socialisms arose in anti-colonial contexts, such as in African nations, liberation theology in Latin America, or pro-indigenous naxalism in India. We invited contributors to engage both the relationship between the former USSR and its peripheries as well as these other legacies of socialism, not the least of which was the non-allied movement, represented by the Bandung conference.
New forms of economic organisation, whether they are domestic or international, certainly have the potential to empower women and feminist politics. One of the examples I think about is how the modern nuclear family as an ideal is a relatively recent invention that normalised the privatisation of care. We might think about what types of communities of care might arise if the state were to recognize and reward (economically) structures other than the family. For example, in Reimagining Reproduction, I convey the way that former surrogates describe the potential for structures of life-long responsibility between commissioning parents and the families. This can help us imagine alternatives to nation-state organised family and marriage-based structures of kinship and mutual aid. A surrogate is legally made into non-kin for the commissioning parents and the infant she will birth. The stories of surrogates should make us think about what the landscape of care could look like if family relations weren’t the only way to access resources and care, both socially and from the government.
This interview by Sourabhi Dutta Roy is featured in the book,
“ANONYMOUS WAS A WOMAN”: an anthology of poems, short stories and interviews
available worldwide via Amazon.
Here is the India link.