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Incidental bias is still offensive

Recently I became a volunteer tester for a new game*. In this system, the default avatar is non-human and apparently without gender. The company currently provides thirteen additional pre-built complete human avatars: seven male, six female, with some diversity of appearance. You could think of it like the array of mesh avatars for new users in Second Life:

avatar_selection_SL

In the other system, each avatar has a small paragraph of description and backstory. Though they aren’t intended to be roleplayed in that way, someone took the time to invent personalities and characteristics for these thirteen avatars. There are quite a few errors in spelling and grammar and the writing is terrible. The lack of quality reinforces the fact that these avatars and their descriptions are not the core business of the company. However, the content is public and directly associated with the company’s name (“created by companyname” is on each listing).

So, how does this connect to the title of this post?

First, there are some uncomfortable racial descriptions in the content. The one avatar that looks Asian is described as “cunning” — a bit close to the stereotype of the inscrutable Asian — and of course he practices martial arts. The black male avatar “has flavor”; in context this indicates he has a sense of style, but the shift of language from the other descriptions is unpleasant. It’s like describing a few white men as handsome and then the black one as fly.

Then there’s the misogyny, both blatant and subtle. When you read the description “organic, farm-raised”, do you think of chicken? Cows? No, silly! That’s a woman. None of the male characters are described in terms of family life, but the description for one female avatar strangely says that “she’d be an exceptional mother of five, still ready to bear more.” Earthy and maternal women are terrific, but descriptions that make them sound like livestock are not.

You can see more bias in the groupings below. I took the words used to describe each avatar — leaving out direct references to hobbies and professions, sticking to personality and appearance — pulled them into a list with the others, and alphabetized. I’ve altered them a little to make the lists more syntactically consistent (writing “put” as “puts”, for example), but not to change the content.

Words used in female descriptions: BFF, charming, courteous, cute, doll, down to earth, fills your heart, friendly, incredible beauty, intelligent, kind, lights up your life, lovely, (will) make you fall in love with life, organic, (has) perpetually perfect eye makeup, quirky, rare bird, shy (briefly), studious, sweet, (has) tenacity

Words used in male descriptions: all-around exceptional, always growing, biggest softy, built of steel, casual, cocky, confident, cool, cool-headed, (has) courage, ever-new, extra supportive, handsome, (has) muscle, kind (3 times), living proof (of how to get a great six-pack), looks soft, makes hard decisions fast, marvelous, masculine marvel, mean when mad, means business, (has) no time for jerking around, perfect blue eyes, puts life on the line everyday, quick-witted, respects authority, sharp, smooth talking, thoughtful, tough as nails, wavy hair, (has a) work ethic, works hard everyday

The male descriptions, while over-the-top, show some variety. The female words could be used to describe a single manic pixie dream girl. Heck, some of the descriptions aren’t even about the woman, they’re about the observer (fills your heart, lights up your life, will make you fall in love with life). I get sick of people pointing out “the male gaze”, but that’s a textbook example.

There’s an easy fix for the offensive avatar descriptions: they can be removed. If text is necessary, it would make more sense (for search purposes) to describe hair color, body type, and clothing. There really isn’t an excuse to leave them online as they are.

Look, in the grand scheme of things, these avatar descriptions aren’t a big deal. I know that. They might have been dashed off by an intern and not reviewed, but they are sloppy and insulting and bear the company’s name. The company is also focusing their priorities on users without disabilities but with significant tech budgets; they’re not specifically excluding others, but seem to consider accessibility someone else’s problem for the future. Taken together, these make the company seem privileged and arrogant, backward-thinking instead of the visionaries they want to be.

* I struggled with how to present this topic and still protect the company I’m writing about. Some of you will know immediately; please leave the name out of any comments. I have neither an obligation to them nor an ax to grind. I’d like to see them succeed, which is why I mentioned this issue in a relevant thread on their forums and allowed a day for the descriptions to be cleaned up before I blogged. They have not been, as of now.

So, I’ve changed a few details about the company and product, but not about the problematic content. I could have skipped this topic altogether, but I think that with all the discussions around misogyny in the tech industry, it’s valid to call out examples like this and it’s important to talk about them.

 
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Posted by on April 3, 2015 in Gender & Sexuality, Side Topics

 

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Racism in a virtual world

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?

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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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