One of the most interesting panels I went to at SXSW was E-Race: Avatars, Anonymity, and Visualization of Identity on the Internet. It included Lisa Nakamura, Director of Asian-American Studies at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign and author of Digitizing Race; James Au, who literally wrote the book on the avatar universe of Second Life; and Jeff Yang, who writes the column Asian Pop for the San Francisco Chronicle.
A montage Yang made from Robert Cooper's Alter Ego photography project, which paired users with their online avatars.
As the title suggests, the talk revolved around the visual identities people use online—in games, on social networking sites, message boards, etc. But even though Second Life is by now a bit passe, lessons from identity and race online are applicable across the boards. I heard about generational divides in avatar usage and anecdotes about role-playing games that I don't know much about to begin with, but when Lisa Nakamura took the mic, the conversation really began. She presented five different forms of user-based racism online with examples of each. Here's a quick run-down:
1. Visual profiling of users. She opened by citing the Stanford study "The Visible Hand," which observed how reactions on Craigslist varied when an iPod for sale was held by a black, white, or tattooed hand. Nakamura called this "POR": plain-old racism. In other words, you really can't chalk this kind of discrimination up to technology. Throughout the talk, Nakamura distinguished between plain-old racism instead of what might be considered some "new" phenomenon that sprouted with the Internet took off.
2. Voice-activated racism. More and more online, multiplayer games involve voice commands. Voices that are perceived to be female or black ("interpret that as you will," added Nakamura), receive a large amount of pushback and harassment. Nakamura gave the example of a black MMA fighter who quit Halo because of the racist harassment directed at him—from enemies as well as from his own team. Ironically, this man (who in real life embodies that tough, physically invincible, masculinity of Halo characters) was bullied offline.
3. Racism against avatars. "This isn't really racism against avatars. It's racism against people," said Nakamura. Tech industries discriminate against people of color by not offering avatars or good skins for non-white characters. (Ouyang Dan has covered similar issues here and here in her guest-blogging series "The Games We Play"). As an example, Au remarked how in Second Life, you must pay extra for a quality dark-skinned "skin," since the one offered by Second Life is so poorly designed.
4. Identity tourism. This is when non-marginalized people create avatars of marginalized persuasion, either to make a digital stereotype or out of some voyeuristic curiosity. Of course, living life as a black avatar for a day does not mean you now understand what racism is like. You don't suffer real-world consequences..."like not being able to sell your iPod," said Nakamura.
5. Anti-immigrant racism in the virtual world. This is a relatively recent phenomenon, and Nakamura's example was about the game Diablo, where players trade virtual goods for actual money. It turns out that a lot of working-class players from China were playing this game to make a living. They used a certain female dwarf character because of its ability to succeed solo, instead of relying on team members. When other players caught on, they began targeting these white, pink-haired female dwarf characters by harassing them or killing on sight, rendering the character almost unplayable. Nakaruma pointed out how this is an example of how race isn't biological, it's something that's been constructed—in real life or in Diablo.
Unfortunately, this incredibly hostile environment of online racism often ends up perpetuating oppression. Yang pointed out that when some people attempt to ease racial tensions ("You should pick a different username." "You should just choose blonde hair.") that race and ethnicity are erased entirely (E-race, get it?). This also leaves it up to the user experiencing abuse to deal with the issue instead of changing broader attitudes and actions of others. In addition, people who are discriminated against in the gaming world will simply quit the game they're playing because the racism is too much. White players who aren't discriminated against—but who are also sick of hearing bigoted language—will quit playing as well. What this means is that there's an even greater lack of anti-racist players online, creating an even more hostile environment.
However, one of the last things Lisa Nakamura said though was "The lulz [a 4chan corruption of LOL and an excuse to get away with any offensive action with the excuse of frivolity] will never go away. But [cyber space] is a space worth trying to reclaim. It's political."
You can read Jeff Yang's thoughts on the panel, download the PowerPoint (where I yanked the above image from, and where there's more), and see a graphic representation of the talk (which captures more than I discussed here!) at his site.