An iconic 1993 cartoon published in the New Yorker summarized the appeal of the emerging online space: "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog." The sketch captured the idea that real-world constraints would fall away, and participation in the new digital era was open to all, even the family pet.
Nearly 18 years after the cartoon's publication, the Internet has become a part of everyday life for most Americans. However, the promise of liberation from personal identity has developed a caveat: You can be whoever you want, as long as you aren't black.
At the SXSW conference in Austin, Texas (March 11-20), the intersection of online identity and racism was explored in a panel called "E-Race: Avatars, Anonymity and the Virtualization of Identity." Jeff Yang, who writes the "Asian Pop" column for the San Francisco Chronicle, organized and opened the panel, remarking that we are at the dawn of a new era.
Racial identity is becoming more malleable than ever before, as mixed-race and minority populations are steadily increasing and changing the American demographic. At the same time, our online selves are becoming larger reflections of who we are in the real world — but why is that occurring? Yang asked Wagner James Au — an expert on the virtual avatar community Second Life, and the pioneer of digital racial studies — and Lisa Nakamura, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, to reflect on the changing nature of online racial identity.
The panel set out to explore a key theme: "What does the ability to hide or disguise identity mean in particular for the experience of race — and racism — online?" Counter to common assumptions, the ability to camouflage one's race online doesn't equal liberation from racism. In fact, since the default person online is assumed to be white and male, revealing yourself to be racially different often prompts other users to lash out.
Jenny McCarthy, Yes; Serena Williams, No
Au, the author of the blog New World Notes, said that in Second Life, "you can design your stereotypes from the bottom up." Users select every part of their bodies — from hair, skin and eye color to lip shape and shade. However, with that selection comes a heavy serving of assumptions and stereotypes.
In 2006, Au documented the case of Erika Thereian, a Second Life user who normally presented herself as a blond "avatar hybrid of Jenny McCarthy and Pamela Anderson." After a friend designing custom skins asked her to test-drive a new design, she switched over to a darker, Serena Williams-esque persona. Since Thereian often tested her friends' designs, she was happy to try out her new look. But what happened next, she told New World Notes, was almost a "Black Like Me" moment:
"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.
Nakamura repeatedly framed the cost of racism online in terms of how it harms those who attempt to participate. She brought up the example of how Quinton Jackson, a mixed martial arts fighter in real life who quit playing the game Halo 2 online because of the excessive racist chatter over the game's voice channels, which players use to talk to one another. She talked about how users are discouraged from choosing darker avatars by game companies (who rarely create more than one or two darker-skinned avatars from which to choose) as well as other players (some of whom use the anonymity of the Internet to indulge their inner racist).
Nakamura then looked at examples of avatars or character classes that became racialized. In Diablo II, for example, a type of character called the female dwarf became popular among Chinese players. The Chinese players had developed a reputation for in-game resource farming, which is gathering items like gold and selling them to wealthier players to earn money. Gaming communities frown on that type of behavior, but some players become vigilantes, choosing to kill these players on sight.
What ended up happening was a cyberversion of racial profiling: All players using the female dwarf were assumed to be Chinese resource farmers and were immediately killed off, even if these players were just trying to play as a different character. Thus, the female dwarf became a racial minority within the game — rarely seen, but often persecuted.
Nakamura points out, "Race doesn't happen because of biology; it happens because of culture." Race (and racism) is something that develops when our culture rewards the persecution of a smaller group. Unfortunately, it seems that as our lives move more and more into the digital world, we are migrating more and more of the racism in our culture along with us.
Latoya Peterson is the editor of Racialicious.com and a frequent contributor to The Root.
Latoya Peterson is a hip-hop feminist, anti-racist activist and deputy editor of Fusion’s Voices section, opining on pop culture, news, video games and everything that makes life worth living.