White Until Proven Otherwise

It tends to to be that unless a race or ethnicity is specified, it is presumed that the assumed race is “White” or “Caucasian”. When physical appearance is absent, concealed, or inexplicit, the assumed race is White. Similar to racial controversies that have occurred during the castings for films and interpretations of novels, the issues of race identity on the Internet are present as well. Online presence and institutional racism on the Internet is often disregarded or overlooked. More specifically, diversity within online gaming is not as present or representative as it should be. “’Blacks Deserve Bodies Too!’ Design and Discussion about Diversity and Race in a Teen Virtual World” examines the way in which design, race, and representation function in the virtual world of Whyville.

Whylville is a virtual community where participants engage with one another through forums, games and other online activities. While taking a look at the racial and ethnic representation of avatars, it was found that the assigned avatars were “peach” colored faces. This avatar is suppose to represent the person who is active on Whyville. Kafai writes, “Even after a player had developed a mature avatar with their own preferred face parts in whatever color they chose, the ‘tator’ face could still play a role in their lives because occasional server glitches cause all player’s faces to revert to the default peach smiley face” (6). Assuming the representation of players is white not only not an accurate representation, but a hurtful one. The Whyville community does, however occupy various faces that are ethnically diverse. The problem is that they are just a few faces, and do not have the avatar body parts or clothing to match. To attach a white body to these diverse faces and limiting the ability to have participants accurately reconstruct their identity is “whitening”. By assuming the race to be white, there is a clear disregard, erasure, and absence of different ethnicities, cultures, and perspectives.

These assumptions are made throughout various mediums. More recently, there was controversy about the African American actress, Amandla Stenberg playing the character of Rue in The Hunger Games movie. Fans of The Hunger Games were upset because Rue’s character was played by an African American girl. Some readers had assumed that Rue was Caucasian and thus, were angered by the depiction of Rue on screen. This occurs in casting as well. While the roles are not race-specific, there is acceptance in the assumptions of whiteness. This speaks largely to not only, online cultures, but the way in which the physical non-virtual world is infiltrating into the virtual one. These are reminders that although it may seem that online cultures have no physical face, they have many, and they are not accurately represented.

Kafai, Y. B., M. S. Cook, and D. A. Fields. “”Blacks Deserve Bodies Too!” Design and Discussion About Diversity and Race in a Teen Virtual World.” Games and Culture 5.1 (2009): 43-63. Print.


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