E-Racism: SXSW Panel Examines Prejudice in Online Gaming

Racism is everywhere -- including virtual communities on the Internet. A panel at the SXSW Interactive conference in Austin, Texas, examines the changing nature of online racial identity.


“Well, I teleport into a region,” she says [on Second Life incident]. “Where a couple people [are] standing around.

“One said, ‘Look at the n***** b****.’ “”

“Another said ‘Great, they are gonna invade SL now.’ ” […]

She spent three months in the skin of a black woman. Some of her friends shied away, she believes. Then there were the “guys that thought I was an easy lay, for lack of a better term. It scared me honestly, some of the assumptions made. Especially here where everything [in avatar appearance] is changeable with a click […]

She’s since told some of her black friends about her experience in Midnight’s skin. “And they were not surprised at how I was treated, at all.” As it happened, some of them are also Residents of Second Life, and play as white avatars. “Some [of them] because there were no good black skins available,” she explains. “Others because they felt more accepted that way.”

Au also noted that many African-American Second Life players often practice virtual skin lightening. While many Second Life players have the ability to look completely like or unlike their real-world selves, many black players find the racism and discrimination too much to deal with in both the online and offline worlds. Therefore, these players try to strike a color compromise: Au explained that some African-American users will choose a skin that looks more “Latino” — still identifiably brown, but lighter-skinned — in an attempt to lessen the discrimination.

The 5 Faces of Online Racism

While discrimination in Second Life may not seem like a big deal, Nakamura outlined the five types of online racism — noting that these things are not so different from “plain old racism” (which she abbreviates as POR), but have an online-specific component. She identified the following five styles of online racism: 

* Visual profiling of users

* Voice profiling of users

* Racism against avatars

* Identity tourism: racism using avatars

* Anti-immigrant racism in virtual worlds (how a pink-haired dwarf can become a despised race)

The visual profiling of users is actually a carryover from the real world. Nakamura refers to a 2010 study from Stanford University called “the Visible Hand,” which tracked online retail racism. The setup was simple: The researchers posted iPods for sale on Craigslist, using either a black or white hand to hold the item. Researchers also included a white hand with a visible tattoo, assuming that the tattooed hand would be perceived negatively by buyers. The results?

The black sellers received 13 percent fewer responses and 17 percent fewer offers than did white sellers without the wrist tattoo. They also received 2 percent to 4 percent lower offers, and potential buyers were less likely to include their names in e-mails, 44 percent less likely to choose mail delivery and 56 percent more likely to show concern about long-distance payment. The black sellers performed on a par with the white sellers with the wrist tattoo.