Racism in a virtual world

17 Jan

I’ve been chewing on the material for a blog post about technology and racism, finally realizing that the topic is far too large and I need to tackle it bite by bite. A recent post on the Second Life community forums brought this back to the forefront for me. What is racism like in a virtual world?


The alt I’ve been using lately is my attempt at creating an ethnically ambiguous avatar. She’s wearing the Cocoa tone of a free group gift skin from Hush and I created her shape.  I’ve written this before: I’m not comfortable using an avatar that is distinctly another ethnicity from me because it feels — to me — like blackface or cultural appropriation. That’s just my personal reaction to trying it; I don’t think there’s anything wrong with choosing an avatar of a different ethnicity. In this case, I was not trying to make her represent any particular ethnicity, but I wanted her to be different from my other avatars.

I write from a point of privilege: I’m white, middle class, middle-aged, and a native English speaker. Peggy McIntosh’s white privilege checklist is fair to use as reference. (I’ve seen a number of people complain that some items on the list are issues of class or age privilege. Sure, they are that as well. Someone disabled, or heavy, or of unusual stature, or with a distinct personal style, or wearing faith-specific attire might also find items on the list that strike a nerve. We judge people on their appearance all the time. However, more items on the list can apply to racial distinctions than any other.)  It is simple to create an avatar with my native coloration and my natural hairstyle. I am the default, which is unsettling, since pale skin and light eyes are less common with each generation on Earth.

It used to be much more difficult to create a convincing non-Caucasian avatar, but challenges still remain. This forum thread that was just posted yesterday laments the lack of high-quality ethnic avatar skins, with some people explaining that it’s harder for creators to get the shading correct with darker tones. Is that accurate? I don’t know. I’ve tried on darker skins in some shops and found that they looked flat and lifeless. I find that hair can be a challenge. There are shops that specialize in natural black hair styles — I’ve seen them at the Hair Fair — but when I’ve tried to find styles in the Marketplace, it was almost impossible. Forget shopping at the top hair stores. It’s hard to find hair that looks naturally curly at all; the curled hair looks like my perfectly straight RL hair after I wrap it in hot rollers.

If I was not white and tried to represent myself similarly in both online and offline worlds, what might I find? A young African-American woman posted to the forums last week. She’s been in SL for years and has used both black and white avatars, sometimes with a photo of her real self on the “1st Life” tab of her profile. Her experience was that nobody would approach her when she was using a black avatar, and that when she was using a white one, many people would stop chatting once they realized she was “really” black. It’s made her feel “ashamed” of her own ethnicity and she uses a white avatar to have a social life.

Most of the responses to her post were of the order of, “sadly, racism is everywhere” and “be yourself, screw ’em if they can’t handle it”, but I think there’s more to it.  Another RL black woman replied to the thread, suggesting that black avatars in SL might be associated with griefers or sexual roleplay. That was my first thought, too. There are griefers who use black-looking avatars and act in very provocative, offensive ways to try to cause trouble and incite rage. And yes, there are a lot of interracial sex areas, mostly of the black man/white woman variety but also some based around Caribbean or US female black slave sexual roleplay. (I’ll admit, I don’t think twice about roaming a generic BDSM area and seeing white submissives with Dominants of any color, but it makes me uncomfortable to see a darker submissive with a white Dom/me. Even if those are consenting adults, I can’t avoid thinking about the abuses of RL slavery.) There are places for “ghetto/gang” roleplay, sometimes sexual, where I’ve seen avatars with such exaggerated stereotypical appearance that they look like Klan recruitment poster subjects. I can imagine that people who frequent those areas have skewed reactions to avatars of color.

Another response was from a woman who said she created a black female avatar as an experiment and found herself being approached often out on the grid, but that the pick-up lines were much more sleazy than what she had experienced (her main avatar has a same-sex partner, so that might have accounted for some of that discrepancy). Someone else said that she was black in RL with a black avatar and hadn’t noticed racism at all; in fact, she noted the SL blog meme of wearing a darker skin last year and suggested that being black was trendy. Perhaps it’s a case of “your mileage may vary”, but I think the original poster’s experience was valid and reflected a reality in many mainstream parts of the grid.

Of course, white and black aren’t the only two ethnicities (usually meaning white European and African-American or African-European). There are a variety of Asian sims in SL and I’ve seen many shapes, hair styles, and skins for Japanese avatars, but I wonder if I’d have a hard time making an avatar who seemed more Korean or Vietnamese. How about Mongolian? Native American or an indigenous person from Central or South America? Sub-Saharan African?  There is a whole lot of nose shape variation in the offline world that I never see in the post-rhinoplasty environment of SL. I’ve shared SL club dancefloors with avatars that looked like cyborgs and bunnies, goths and werewolves, but never with an Inuit.

I think it would be exciting to see more skin tone and shape diversity in Second Life.  However, the offline world is far from post-racist, no matter how open-minded any one of us might feel. Many of us find freedom in SL from characteristics that meet with prejudice in the offline world: a disability, size or shape, accent, sexual preference, gender identification, non-mainstream personality, religious affiliation, and perhaps skin color or ethnic background, as well. Ideally, everyone would be accepted for who they are on the inside and outside, in any world, but until then, I’m glad to have a virtual world where the outside layers are so changeable that what’s inside is what really matters.

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Posted by on January 17, 2015 in Culture, Embodied Experience


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