In reading both “Blacks Deserve Bodies Too!” and Digitizing Race: Visual Cultures the double-edged nature of digital anonymity revealed itself to me. In Kafai et al.’s “Blacks Deserve Bodies Too!”, the analytical focus on the popular virtual teen world, Whyville, unveiled the persistent nature of racism even in the digital age. In spite of this study, I feel that it is important to note that the article was written nearly seven years ago and research which is now almost eight years old. Digital venues such as Whyville and Haboo Hotel have decreased exponentially in popularity in the face of social media such as Facebook and Twitter. Though this shift is undeniable, racism and the stereotypes which perpetuate it continue to fester on the Internet as well as variety of other digital media.
The problem in Whyville, ironically, derived from the multitude of options that users were given to create and decorate their respective avatars. Though choice would seemingly be a good thing, too much of any good thing can quickly become chaotic. In allowing users to make racially diverse looking characters, the creators of Whyville introduced the most widespread tool of oppression: aesthetic variance. Sure, ideally this means that the users would be happier in having more options as to how their avatars appear on-screen, but it works out much differently in our reality. The guise of anonymity serves to protect many types of oppressed peoples, be they ostracized by sex, gender, race or class. In Whyville, these limited options allowed for the users to interact without fear of prejudice as they had no clue whatsoever what the person or people they were talking to looked like. White, black, Japanese, Gambian or Indonesian, everyone was equal and was subject to equity because of their forced similarities.
Now, if you find yourself reading this and disagreeing with my argument, expecting me to say that people should be able to be and look however they please both in reality and on the Internet, then kudos to you. You’re right: everyone should be able to act and look as they please. But that isn’t the case on the Internet or off of it. In a New York Times article from 2010, a black man wrote about his daily commute on Metro North and how 9 out of 10 times, white people avoided sitting next to him when there was a perfectly clean, comfortable seat available. Needless to say, Obama’s America is far from post-racism. Racism, more specifically the outward appearance of darker skin pigmentation, will always be a multifaceted issues, spread across media new and old. We clearly see this in spaces such as Whyville, but it extends past the virtual hangouts and overlaps with our reality.
So, anonymity and pseudonyms seems to be both a part of the problem and solution in the Whyvillian Age of the Internet. One can choose to be different and essentially suffer the consequences or look and act like everyone else, blending in masterfully. A corollary of this anonymity is that, with white as the default tone for characters and avatars, anyone who looks different can be attacked with easy. Behind the white-and-peach colored mask, any user or group of users can effortlessly abuse those who might look different with little repercussion. Emphasis being on “little” considering if such offense were taken in real life, there would likely be a far harsher retribution for the offenders in question. As I stated before, though these studies were conducted about eight years ago and things have changed, unjust expectations and insipid stereotypes still exist. Black people are still ostracized in many ways, but their culture is constantly being stolen and re-appropriated, then fetishized and marketed back to the white masses. Prominent examples of this being “ratchet” culture, “twerking” and Miley Cyrus or even the example brought up in class of MTV Raps! and it’s convenient time-slot on Fridays, when the government and police least wanted blacks on the streets.
From black video-game characters such as C.J. in Grand Theft Auto San Andreas or Franklin in Grand Theft Auto 5, to the “ideal black family” portrayed by the Huxtables in The Cosby Show, there is no complete escape or equity for blacks or other minorities, no matter what might their background might be. Looking outwardly different equates to being different and this opens the user or individual up to an onslaught of slurs, attacks and criticisms. It is a catch-22 at it’s finest: if a person of color decides to play as a Caucasian character, they will be questioned on their loyalty and affection of their own race if found out and if they choose to play as a character who resembles themselves, they will be harassed and potentially offended.
The proposed solution, as stated in Kafai and company’s analysis, is that the programmers augment and diversify their code and introduce new aspects of identity into their worlds for individuals to customize. Ideally they would allow users to express their race or preferences and create an open forum wherein they can interact with others. There was a time when people of multicultural backgrounds were forced to fill out the “Other” bubble on forms, as if they weren’t an important enough group to be accounted for. Now, we are able to describe our relationships as “Civil Union” or the ever-controversial “It’s Complicated” on the ubiquitous Facebook.
I believe these changes are still in motion in Web 2.0 and we are slowly, but surely, being united through our different experiences as opposed to dividing based on them. Anonymity is only important among YouTube comments and forums and the use of one’s true identity on the Internet is becoming more and more omnipresent. On Facebook, Twitter or Tumblr, unlike the days of MySpace or Xanga, we are encouraged to portray our truest selves, down to using our very own images as our avatars or profile pictures. Progress is being made and the codes are being rewritten, but acceptance still has a ways to come even in our virtual realities.