SXSW Interactive: Racism, Avatars, and Identity Online

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 collage of four sets of photographs of people positioned next to their online avatars. The first is a heavyset young white male. His avatar is a blond, bearded knight-like man. Next is a young Asian woman in a pink shirt. Her avatar is a blonde braided warrior woman with butterfly-wing glasses. The next is an Asian woman with glasses and short hair. Her avatar is also a headshot, of a brown-skinned man with a topknot. The last is a young white boy with what looks like an oxygen-supply device. His avatar is a robotic soldier with its arm raised in greeting.
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.

by Kjerstin Johnson
View profile »

Kjerstin Johnson is a writer and editor in Portland, Oregon. She is the former editor in chief of Bitch. She tweets at @kajerstin

Get Bitch Media's top 9 reads of the week delivered to your inbox every Saturday morning! Sign up for the Weekly Reader:

3 Comments Have Been Posted

thank you for Kjerstin's report on E-racism


Thanks for another great entry @t BitchMedia. Learning about the ways racism manifests itself online and knowing the simple vocabulary that exists out there to name the different situations allow me to talk about these issues with my friends easily. For that, I cannot thank this report taken from SXSW enough. because you said ‘E-race’.

othering and -isms in halo

i used to play halo a lot online (before my xbox broke). dealing with the shit people said in game rooms was difficult for me, and i was a good player! i also wasn't obviously minority, i was familiar the the gaming jargon, and i was a straight, cisgendered male. when you're in this online game forum it seems the object is to offend the other team as much as possible with NOTHING out of bounds. anti-semitism, sexism, racism, homophobia, &c are the norm. it is an extremely common thing to 'teabag' a player you just killed while mocking their name, color, anything. people would try to outdo each other with insults. and ladies who braved this world to play had to be unbelievably good and bow to gender stereotypes to get a modicum of respect as a gamer. if your avatar wasn't completely pink with some flowery symbol on your shoulder you were immediately a lesbian, the word spat at you as an insult. if you weren't better than most of the players you were just another bitch trying to play a man's game. if you were REALLY good and beat everyone, you became an object of desire and dudes would start propositioning you. people who had handles that were perceived to be minority would be bullied in the most incredible language. i eventually started playing in closed groups so that i wouldn't have to deal with that. i never spoke up or thought of myself as a potential beacon, or realized that leaving was making it worse. that's something to think about.

thanks for this post! it's nice to learn something about yourself and to have a discussion about something there's generally no forum for.

Discrimination online

The article was very informative. Yet, it assumes that real-world morals should apply online. Not everyone online is there for the same reason. There should be a "warning lable" on every website: This web site is for users who
A) are totally immersed in the game (Immersive personality)
B) are without concern for their actions, how they affect others or themselves (Dissassociative game playing personality)
c) are playiong the game or using an Avatar as an outlet for thier personality and are neither totally immersed in the game or ambivalent of the affects of their actions.

If people are aware of the role the other Avatars are playing they might realize their actions are not prejudice.
When people's actions are prejudice, we have an opportunity to learn about and correct those actions.

Add new comment