Issues of ethnicity, another important (and perhaps arguably fundamental) aspect of identity, do not solely manifest in online spaces and although their virtual presentation confers a set of challenges that remain unique to that environment, lessons from real life racial politics can still apply.
Before proceeding, it should be noted that I draw distinctions between the terms “ethnicity” and “race,” although they are often used interchangeably in literature and vernacular. A result of my background in Biology, I conceptualize race in terms of biologically derived aspects like skin color while I define ethnicity as comprising of cultural elements that include locale, religious practices, and/or traditions (i.e., the physical layer versus the social layer). Given this schema and their dependence on the presentation of physical traits, online issues of racial identity, then, might be different in MUDs/MOOs and MMORPGs, as the latter potentially possesses fewer graphical constraints. Defining oneself as “African American,” for example, has different consequences in the various constructs considering the available resources available to players to create such an identity—given a lack of appropriate visual cues, using “African American” in a MOO might be interpreted as racial or ethnic identity (or, more likely, as a confluence of both), presenting an ambiguity that a visualized avatar does not.
Yet, regardless of our individual definitions of “race” and “ethnicity,” we can examine some of the various real world strategies employed to mediate racial differences in order to obtain overarching lessons and warnings. Looking at metaphors for ethnic diversity in the real world, we often hear the term “colorblind,” indicating that a subject (e.g., a person, a group, or an institution) professes not to see the differences presented by various racial groups. Although a good-hearted gesture, “colorblind” and the related concept of “melting pot” ultimately serve to essentially erase the notion of race by subsuming all individuals into the dominant racial or ethnic group; we no longer see color because we are all the same color. A much more difficult model has been introduced and labeled as the “fruit salad,” which attempts to encapsulate the idea that each ethnicity brings something different to the mix and that the final product should celebrate these differences. Translating this to the online sphere, it seems only prudent to encourage individuals to understand their virtual ecology, respecting the various niches and roles that other users might fulfill or perform.
Kim and I were relaxing on the couch after an informal birthday dinner watching a casting special for Make Me a Supermodel.
“Wait. Is that…a boy?”
Sure enough, in front of us stood a body that was obviously male but with a head that could easily be mistaken for female. The inclusion of such a person on a modeling show did not surprise me much as androgyny certainly has its place in fashion. What amazed me, however, was the idea that this individual derived joy from his ambiguous nature.
For the last two years or so, one of the things that I have noticed in television is the trend of the token transgender person. I think that we’re all familiar with the movement, so I won’t go into too much detail but media has continually tried to be representative of cosmopolitan culture by including minorities—only these “token” additions are often characterizations of what the majority imagines the marginalized to be. From African Americans, to Native Americans, to Asians, to immigrants, Jews, Indians, and gays, American society has purported to be accepting of others—as long as they fit into a neat box.
Shows like Ugly Betty; Dirty, Sexy, Money; and America’s Next Top Model have all prominently featured transgender individuals (both pre-operation and post-operation) in recent seasons and while there’s certainly something to be said for acceptance resulting from exposure, the cynical side of me can’t help but think that those who are different are used as a type of stunt casting. We, the audience, are supposed to be shocked or marvel at how progressive a show is because it includes some kind of heretofore-underrepresented type of person. Perhaps it’s not such a big deal if both sides are using each other for their own ends and each is getting something out of the bargain?
I’m inclined to applaud the integration of transgender identity into mainstream media. I think that part of the reason that I was initially uncomfortable with the concept stemmed from the fact that I had never acknowledged any trans people while growing up—I didn’t even know anybody who dressed in drag so transgender individuals were definitely unfamiliar to me. I didn’t understand what was going on and so my natural reaction was to label instances of cross-dressing and transgenderism as “Other” and fear them accordingly. Had I been exposed to the practice at an earlier age, I think it would have been much easier for me to see these people for what they were—human beings.
Yet, with every step forward, it seems like we take a step back. How are we as a society supposed to accept those who identify as transgender when we refuse to let go of our distinctive notions of “male” and “female”? For me, things like Madea, Norbit, White Chicks, and Mrs. Doubtfire serve to reinforce the notion that men who dress up as, or become, women (and especially large women) exist to be laughed at in our culture. These characters are not respected, and their existence encourages the audience to chuckle at the implicit awkwardness of a man trying to take on a female role. After all, why are any of the Madea movies funny? Would anybody see those films if they were just about a real Black woman acting sassy instead of Tyler Perry dressing up in a suit?
In the end, as uncomfortable as it might be, I think we owe it to ourselves to become familiar with those who are different from us. I don’t think that we have to necessarily end up liking, or agreeing with, everybody but we have two options when confronting the dissimilar: learn from others or shut ourselves out.
I believe that education is always the answer.