Race, Ethnicity, and Diaspora in the Digital Age

Race, Ethnicity, and Diaspora in the Digital Age

Race, Ethnicity, Diaspora, and the Other
This forum explores the reproduction and (re)configurations of race, ethnicity, and diaspora in digital spaces. The history of race and ethnicity as a scientific/sociological concept and social fact are complex and multifaceted. Both terms are now widely recognized as being social constructs, albeit in significantly different ways and to very different results. These two terms have become organizing concepts in relation to identity with race broadly referring to physical or genetic/morphological characteristics and ethnicity denoting tribal, linguistic, national, religious, or other cultural characteristics. These terms, introduced briefly here, have long histories steeped in issues of power, domination, and inequity, but they have also served as a means of uniting and mobilizing sometimes-disparate populations.

Presently, the term diaspora emerges in regards to groups experiencing various forms of migration (e.g., forced, voluntary, labor), and whose consciousness concerns homelands, group histories, and transnational connections. The development of diasporic communities rapidly grows following and accompanying periods of war, colonialism, and globalism. The rise of digital communications tools and improved travel technologies have facilitated vast diasporas, which have resulted in destabilizing the notions of home, nation, community, and self. Diasporic inquiry compels us to reorganize rubrics of nation and nationalism, while refiguring the relations of citizens and nation-states. Therefore, the concepts of race, ethnicity, and diaspora refer to both identity and social relations. As a nation, we have tried to move beyond race, to a post-racial age, and yet we continue to differentiate, distance, mistreat, or turn a blind eye to others.

The Promise of the Digital and the Realities for the Other
The negative, positive, and complex negotiations of these concepts follow us into digital spaces as people draw on new digital technologies to address and reproduce them. Dialogues that have occurred for centuries regarding race, ethnicity, and difference remain important as we move into the digital world and explore new ways of commemorating, representing, and engaging with individual and collective identities in digital and non-digital spaces. Though early discourses of the Internet declared it a purely democratic space where people could enter and participate regardless of race, class, creed, or location in the "real world" (see John Perry Barlow's Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace), this has not proven true. As such, the Internet and digital world environments are now vital locations for advocacy, critique, research, and recruitment. A number of anti-racism groups now make use of the Internet and new information technologies in their work against hate groups (Southern Poverty Law Center's Hate Group Map), to provide instructional material on race (American Anthropological Association's "Race: Are We So Different?"), and to critique policies and cultural artifacts that perpetuate inequity or detrimental stereotypes (e.g. Racialicious Blog, Media Action Network for Asian Americans).

Academics with interests in analyzing race, ethnicity, and diaspora in new media and virtual worlds are increasingly visible (e.g. Boellstorf's Coming of Age in Second Life, Lisa Nakamura's Digitizing Race, and a forthcoming book Nakamura edited with Peter Chow-White called Digital Race Anthology.). But where valuable advocacy and criticism has been subject of and facilitated by digital media, it has also been a powerful tool used by hate groups who seize these new forms of communication to recruit and spread their messages of intolerance in online chat rooms, websites, and even on Second Life in one-on-one interactions.

Our Task

As academics, researchers, or simply interested individuals, it is imperative we recognize that when it comes to race, ethnicity, diaspora, and otherness, there is still much to be discussed and that we are far from being post-racial, if that is even a plausible or desirable goal. We mustnt be timid or afraid to engage with each other in discussions that might be uncomfortable. Some of the important work in this area includes:

 - Race and Social Network Sites: Putting Facebook's Data in Context, by danah boyd

 - Learning Race and Ethnicity: Youth and Digital Media, by Anna Everett

 - "Race and Software," by Wendy Hui Kyong Chun (in Alien Encounters: Popular Culture in Asian America)

 - Ethics of knowledge and information systems (often anthropological archival work) by Ramesh Srinivasan

 - Lisa Nakamura's presentation, entitled Race, Rights, and Virtual Worlds: Digital Games as Spaces of Labor Migration. This presentation "focuses on digital migrants, workers who labor in virtual worlds for other virtual world users. A lot of the work is done across transnational networks, such as gold farming in World of Warcraft performed by laborers in China for users in the United States." You can listen to a podcast of her presentation at the link above. 

 - Mia Consalvo did a presentation, Western Otaku: Games Crossing Cultures, which examines how digital games - and particularly MMORPGs - act as spaces of "transnational cultural exchange and places of hybridity formed by cross-cultural contact." The podcast can be accessed here.

 - Race and ethnicity in Games (both console and online): Minority Gamer experiences and Specifically in the Massive Multiplayer Online Game World of Warcraft

The examples here are admittedly brief and broad, and there are many more that have not even been touched upon. These diverse texts include video games (including Massive Multiplayer Online Games), online social networks, electronic literature, video, film, blogs, etc. These various objects can be examined from a variety of disciplines, theoretical perspectives, and utilizing very different tools. These include but are not limited to Critical Race Theory (CRT), Postcolonial Critiques, Cultural Studies, Globalization studies, Third World Feminisms, and others. Many of these perspectives motivate investigations of race, ethnicity, and diaspora in relation to other structures such as neoliberal governance, transnational economies, and flows of culture, people, and information.

Ultimately, race, ethnicity, and nationality endure as categories of othering which have important ramifications on the lives of those who participate in and are affected by digital culture.

We invite you to join us and discuss the following topics (please do not let the questions limit your responses and engagement):

 - How do our disciplinary backgrounds affect the way we approach the subject of race and ethnicity in this contemporary moment and in these new digital spaces? This forum (as well as HASTAC) is the result of much back-and-forth and compromise between humanist and scientist/social scientist perspectives. How can we encourage more such collaborations and ensure that they produce fruitful results? Does HASTAC's motto of "collaboration by difference" help us think through this idea?

 - Where do we see racialized, de-racialized, or multi-ethnic identities emerging via digital technologies (Internet, video games, etc.) for individuals or communities (e.g. gaming communities, CouchSurfing)?

 - How has the present discourse concerning political correctness in the "post-racial" era, following the election of President Obama, affected discussions about race in the 21st century? (For example: Glenn Beck argues "'African-American' is a Bogus, Made-up, PC term")

 - How do concepts of the 'post-racial' relate to discourses of race in the digital, networked-age? Do Donna Haraway's ideas of the cyborg (further expounded upon by Chela Sandoval) or Katherine Hayles's posthuman help us to further conceptualize race in this present age?

 - What is the role of digital technologies in combating racism and intolerance in the modern world?

 - How is racism and intolerance reproduced in digital environments? What are some strategies for addressing these new forms of hate or methods of confronting it?

 - What theoretical perspective, if any, do you draw upon to investigate these concepts? How do you apply them to the digital?

 - How might the very mechanics and conceptualizations of networks, interactivity, play, and the digital, reframe or reimagine even the notion of race, ethnicity or diaspora? What is it about the digital that invites such an imagination? Why might that formulation invite critique?

How have other media produced interesting conceptualizations of race or ethnicity? Share your experiences with the following:

 - Do Second Life and other virtual spaces become simply environments for racial tourism, as Lisa Nakamura terms it, or do they also become places for identification, mis-identification, or intentional play?

 - How have other visual media (like film, advertising, animation, graphic nonels, etc.) and surrounding discussions become platforms for addressing racial/ethnic unease? We see this occurring in films like Avatar (a few interesting articles on race and Avatar, including "When will white people stop making movies like 'Avatar'?"), elided in others like The Last Airbender (Avatar Casting Makes Fans See White), and in research we also see their effective results in viewers (like those of anime.)

 - How has Avatar, specifically, affected dialogues of the digital, race/ethnicity, media, networks, colonialism, identity, etc.? Here is one forum host's blog on Avatar and the white hero.

 - Radical Cartography - rethinking maps and the way they represent groups, also the role participatory collaboration plays (e.g., counter-mapping, participatory-GIS)

 - Community organizing - either around a specific issue, or around a specific group of people having something in common.

(**the last image was created by one of the forum hosts. The animals and humans at the bottom are taken from a 1800s book about the 'Three Races of Man' and the specific animals each race would have evolved alongside of in their local environments (e.g., Europe, Africa, Asia). The image is meant to juxtapose the historical creation of scientific racism with modern conceptions of visual ethnicity.)

We look forward to engaging with you here -- welcome to the forum!

Hosted by HASTAC Scholars:

Edward Gonzalez-Tennant

Anne Cong-Huyen



My interest in co-organizing and participating in this forum comes from my involvement with and research of racially charged collective violence. I am particularly drawn to questions of how systemic violence continues to harm specific communities in America both today and historically. By systemic (or structural) violence, I mean the violence of poverty, hunger, racial inequality, social exclusion and humiliation. Obviously, one of the central ways in which these ocurr today is through the lens of race and derived forms of racism.

Obviously, race and/or ethnicity is only one frame (or axis) through which people interact, in both positive and negative ways. Class and gender provide additional and complex frames of interaction between individuals and groups. My research focuses on those instances where systemic racism boils over into subjective, interpersonal violence and my PhD focuses on sites of race riots (Virtual Rosewood), lynchings, illegal internment, and even modern day places like migrant farmworker camps as sites of activism (see brief report here).

I am not interested in exploring these sites and experiences as a voyuer. Instead, I am experimenting with new media and digital information technologies in order to generate dialogue about ongoing inequalities in America. My academic background is firmly rooted in the social sciences (specifically anthropology).Thereotically, I draw from Critical Race Theory and Diaspora Studies.

My background and training explains my excitement for this forum. I look forward to hearing how other people and disciplines frame, research, and represent the broad categories of race, ethnicity,and diaspora. Of course, how we as a generation of researchers are exploring these ideas in the digital age truly represents an emerging field of research, and that's very exciting on many fundamental levels.

Excitedly yours,

-Ed Gonzalez-Tennant


Thanks to the organizers for this important and massive provocation!  There are many different lines of inquiry that I could follow -- I, myself, look at race/gender/sexuality in digital domains like World of Warcraft and through the critical lenses of the posthuman/transhuman -- but I think a useful place to begin is with my pedagogical experience in/with teaching race: it's hard to talk about (particularly given the current post-race and colorblind ideologies in popular culture and scholarship).  The "trouble" with race is that we're ill-equipped to talk about it and constrained by the desire for political correctness; race (unlike gender or class) tends to be embedded/embodied in a way, I think, that traps the discourse in the uncomfortable and reductive territory of "I can't talk about race because I'm not a person of color/As a person of color I have to speak for all people of color."  So, perhaps, if we can open the discussions with the understanding that talking about race is going to be uncomfortable, messy, and strategically problematic, then we might get past all the worries and caveats and abstractions and policings. 


Thank you, Ed, for your thoughtful and provoking comments and for getting our discussion off to such a great start! You and Edward are perfectly right in pointing out that race and ethnicity are always further complicated by issues of gender, sexuality, and class, and none of these are mutually exclusive, though for the sake of the forum we limited our dicussion to race. (You, however, are more than welcome to bring it up, and thank you for doing so!)

You also make a really good point here about pedagogy, political correctness, and talking about race. Edward and I knew that in putting this forum together that we would be asking people to look at a subject that is often treated as taboo within the larger public, and we hoped this discussion would facilitate more discourse in it. Your sample statements ("I can't talk about race because I'm not a person of color/As a person of color I have to speak for all people of color") bring up some something that was not really brought up in our introduction, but is incredibly important to interogate furhter: whiteness as a racial/ethnic category and the privileges and problems involved therein. The Avatar article posted above by Anna Newitz, for example, was followed by a very critical reception with much backlash against a such a critique of the film and criticism for its "white guilt" (her response here). Similarly, poet and performance artist Bao Phi was criticized for even bringing up race in comments to his recent essay, NOCs (Nerds of Color), about the racist politics in "nerd" culture. As we can see, talking about race is definitely uncomfortable, and many are unwilling and even violently opposed.

At this particular moment, I don't know how productive it is to question why there is so much resistance, but I do think it's important to be engaging in this discussion now. And it is fruitful to look at the means and manners in which these discussions are taking place in classrooms, in the media, and on the Internet (in blogs, newspapers, viral videos, etc.). So yes, let's keep this conversation going!



I agree that this particular forum might not be the time nor place, given it's focus on specific questions about race/diaspora/digital humanities.  But I think the resistance and reticence often indexes the very concerns that the forum questions are trying to get at.  I guess this is a meta conversation to the conversation. 

As I mentioned about teaching undergraduates (in particular) about race, racial logics, racism, the discussion of Morrison's Sula or why the Trolls speak with a Jamaican accent in World of Warcraft or Peggy McIntosh's "Unpacking the Knapsack of White Privilege" can't even get underway until the meta question about talking about race is addressed, even a little. 

The challenge, of course, is that students don't want to feel complicit or judged.  They don't like being called "racist" because that's what they hear when the subject comes up and they are told they aren't thinking critically enough about it.  I have tried many tacks with this, even beginning a framing conversation on the first day claiming that everyone in the room (including myself) is racist, sexist, classist, homophobic, able-ist, and so on.  We talk about hegemony, social structures, stereotypes, and so on.  The conversation eventually steps back from the sensationalist provocations to think about the pervasiveness and power of ideologies, -ist logics, and our own inculcations, particularly ones that have become so naturalized and assumed that they don't even appear on the critical radar.  It takes a great deal of classroom juggling and it helps to write yourself into the complicitness. 

I think, overall, I posed the question about resistance above because a) I got a call from HASTAC to post, b) the forum was eerily quiet (compared to the launches of previous forums), and c) I found myself wondering about the tension of needing to speak up as a Person of Color and a digital scholar and queer scholar and a gamer and a teacher (and all of the intersections therein). 

As with all of the HASTAC forum topics, this indeed has been a great opportunity to think, discuss, and collaborate.  Thanks!


I do think this is the place to talk about resistances. Thanks for sharing your strategies to open conversations about race in your own teaching experience. I use McIntosh's list of privelege's to get students thinking about their own places in the broader society, and how this affects them in ways that they are not often aware.

I brought up McIntosh's knapsack a couple of days ago, and given the direction of some comments from yesterday concerning things like "is the default race online White?", do you think its even possible to begin creating a list of online priveleges? Do these priveleges change in places like SL when we change our appearance? The obvious answer is yes, but I think there might be more to it. Also, what about blogs and other places where race is often esentialized (he looks Black, Asian, White, etc.)? Do certain grammars arise based on immediate views of appearance and the rhetoric employed (deployed?) by authors in such places?

Thanks for continuing the conversation. Also, thanks for being the first (non co-organizer) for commenting on the forum.

-ed (the other one :-)


I am interested to start a thread about post-raciality (if that is even possible)... and to argue perhaps (following N. Katherine Hayles and others) that the prefix "post-" does not necessarily mean race is over, disappeared, but rather the logics and formations of/around "race" are now different, extended, rearticulated (from "before") by things like digital technologies, post/transhumanist scholarship, bioengineering, and such.  What are the possibilities (dare we risk utopian) of arguing for post-race or after-race perhaps in a Paul Gilroy sense, who argues in Against Race about doing away with the category/formation altogether?  What are the dangers and the impossibilities (though not necessarily dystopian) of tossing race into the bin, dangers that folks like Lisa Nakamura and Thomas Foster argue are intensifying via the very technologies that promised independence, freedom, choice, and liberation?  Moreover, how might we disarticulate race from the usual intersectional trinity (race, gender, class) in useful ways and more fully articulate how race functions co-constituitively with other formations (in particular sexuality, nation, technological "literacy")?  Again, these are big provocations, too, I apologize, but they are the ones that are currently afloat in my own day-to-day work. 




Hey Ed (the other one :-),

I've read Gilroy's Against Race (and several of his other books) and it speaks directly to me as an anthropologist. Indeed, the concerns he raises are not new to my discipline, and those actively trying to transform it beyond these concepts are a small but growing minority. I think it’s incredibly appropriate that you invoke Gilroy and this book specifically as one of his main 'solutions' to moving beyond race is to create a planetary humanism where diaspora becomes a central aspect of our identities. This obvious parallel to his previous work and others about the power of this concept to counter heteronormative, nation-based ideas remains central to current thinking across numerous disciplines. The power of diasporic identity to destabilize old tropes is potentially phenomenal.

This is, of course, ultimately a utopian project and the work required to achieve his "change in mood" is immense. I think his arguments and books would be stronger if he expanded his analysis beyond culturally-bounded groups (e.g., African American). Also, while he may wish for a postanthropological (trust me, sometimes I do as well), his apparent belief that somehow humans as entities before/without the enculturating (or socializing) structures of race requires a nuanced understanding anthropology and sociology provides.

So, thanks for stimulating comments, sorry to go off on a bit of a tangent there. A couple of your other comments also intrigued me. For instance, you briefly mention teaching about race. I think this is an especially important topic, both pedagogically and comparatively. The immense obligation those of us who teach about these topics face reminds me that we need to take seriously the calls for an engaged pedagogy (I particularly like the work of bell hooks). That point aside, how do you frame race in your classes. I don’t mean to ask this with the suggestion of your forming a concrete definition, but I’m personally interested in how an English or Literature class might talk about these issues.




Thank you, Ed and Anne, for organizing this forum.

Ed, I just want to quickly respond to your inquiry above, namely: "I’m personally interested in how an English or Literature class might talk about these issues." 

As someone who teaches and studies primarily 20th century Anglo-American literature and contemporary e-literature, I've been able to teach and learn about race (esp. as it intersects with labor and technology) through print texts by stressing who can document cultural histories, material conditions, and life experiences through the novel, when, and to what affects on the medium.  For me, any of Baldwin's work always makes for a great tutor text in modernism, and Delany and O. Butler for sci-fi/postmodernism. 

Here's one issue I've been facing, tho, when speaking to electronic literature: the studies of that evolving corpus  rarely engage race or ethnicity.  For instance, consider the keywords for e-lit collection, vol. 1.  There, most of the keywords are aesthetic, technical, or generic (i.e., about genre) in character (with "women authors" being one exception).  How might traditions in cultural studies (especially texts about race and media) engage such an absence, which, in many ways, is largely about how this corpus is framed and designed?  Of course, it is also a question about representation.  In my own studies, I have encountered only a few people of color who are composing electronic literature.  I'd be interested to hear other people's thoughts on this issue. 

All of which is to say, Ed: Through literature, I generally stress who is producing texts, when, for whom, and to what effects, one reason why (for me) labor, technology, and the aesthetics of the novel are relevant intersections. 

Thanks again for your thoughts thus far.



Great posts, something I find extrememly interesting. I think it would be important to talk about post-race not in the race is over context, but rather how as you put it "the logics and formations of/around "race" are now different, extended, rearticulated" through digital technologies. I think that this is prominent in the blogging world where race still seems to be a touchy subject to talk about, yet everyone wants to discuss it under their own lens. It would be interesting to talk about President Obama and how his race is constructed in the digital world. Is his race framed differently than it is in traditional news media?


Edward and Anne, great discussion!!

Recent events show that race is still a *real* 'issue' (euphemism intended) in the US... However, and for some reason, it was the section in SL in your forum that drew me to post.:)

In 2005, James Au, the famous SL journalist wrote a captivating article "The Skin you're in". In it, he talks, among other things related to SL and race, about Erika Thereian, who decided to have a black avatar rather than the real life white blond she is.  She was insulted, shunned by her friends, received racial slurs in SL....

Au's article caught the attention of Joe Essid (Director of the Writing Center at the University of Richmond). He asked his writing students to spend a week in SL as another race and/or gender and post their thoughts on the experience wiki that in deference to James Au he entitled 'The Skin they're in".

At least one student said she was not offered as many objects as an African American avatar, as she was as a white avatar. Others mentioned passive behavior towards a black avatar. However, Essid stressed that the students' posts suggest that "newness to SL and the degree of customization, more than any racial or ethnic characteristic, get an avatar accepted or snubbed." 

Nevertheless, I end with these interesting posts from the SL blog community that I'll leave as anonymous... Comments are welcome. I find them curious to the extent that they "de-compose" the race issue to the nuts and bolts of representing oneself in a 3D world.

"When I started, [SL] gave me a few avatars to choose from but said that everything could be changed. Since I'm bald, I chose the bald avatar, who happens to be black. Now, I can't change my avatar from black to white[...]  Is there a way for me to change my avatar's race to white?”

One of the responses to that post reads: "GO TINY. No races to worry about, EVER. Plus we have the most FUN in SL,[...] and all without Drama."

And last but not least: the Linden Labs say that you can turn any avatar into any color you want. Still, for a while there were no 'default' black avatars and even now there are substantially fewer blacks than whites. You can change the color of your skin, sure. But don't you tend to see more PowerPoints based on templates than not based on templates? ... And no, it's not an oversimplification. It's the same principle acting with the perfectly white, 'default' avatars...



Thanks for the great post. This is precisely the kinds of reproductions which demonstrate that we are nowhere near a post-racial age, and digital technologies are becoming (always were?) vital locations for understanding how visual difference still marks invdividuals. I know individuals who share these sorts of encounters all the time. It reminds me of the hate speech which characterizes online gameplay on xbox.

This reminds me of a topic that we seem to be skirting, namely privelege. I think the invocation of privelege fits perfectly with the comments in your post about the original lack of African avatars.

Would anyone else be interested in unpacking the invisible, digital knapsack? (McIntosh - Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack)

Hope I didn't highjack your post :-)


Great post, Ana. I, too, was drawn to this forum by the mention of SL and virtual worlds.

I would posit that one of the reasons folks in the SL community (perhaps in particular) "de-compose" as you say race into the issue of representation is that that's how they actually see it: that, first, your avatar is a representation (whatever that might mean), and second, that you have choice--read as total control--over how the avatar looks.

The first premise is complicated, and perhaps needs to be dealt with in another thread if not another forum; but the second is absolutely true, at least on the surface. Linden Lab has gotten much better about the default customizations available in avatar design. However, their options aren't the only ones; if you're skilled with certain software (like Maya), you can create your own skin, or even your own non-human avatar of any shape. Additionally, if you have the money, you can purchase avatar skins and shapes in almost endless variety. (When I joined SL in 2007, the default customization did not permit me to get my avatar's skin as dark as my real-life skin, but after a few months of patient searching and a not-insignifcant expenditure of money, I have a near-match between my skin and my avatar's. These days, "natural" skin tones in SL are much easier to find no matter how light or dark you are.)

And this is, indeed, a matter of choice; more importantly, it's *perceived* as a matter of choice. The blonde woman in Au's article consciously chose to present her avatar with other skin tones, regardless of her reasons for doing so. The perception that it's a choice is also reflected in the article of a semi-formal ethnography on avatar size, "You Mean You Chose to be Fat?" In this study, though, people are often blamed not for the avatar image itself, but for *choosing* such an image.

It shows plainly that our avatar-design choices are not made in a vacuum. In fact, there are a variety of factors that influence the choice, at least anecdotally. Some people feel that creating an avatar that does not match your real-life appearance (at least in terms of sex or race) is a form of deception (literally misrepresentation). Others (among whom I include myself) feel an internal urge to create avatars similar to themselves (perhaps as idealized versions of themselves) or to what they feel are their truly "inner selves." And still others simply pursue the outrageous (things like the Flying Spaghetti Monster) for the sake of being truly different. But these choices get moderated or mediated by and through cultural expectations and responses. "Why," I have seen it asked, "would a disabled person choose to have a wheelchair-bound avatar?"

While this line of thought goes beyond race, it is relevant in that such attitudes--which, in a race- or ethnicity-based context, become racist--exert at least a little pressure on users of all backgrounds to alter their representations. They serve to make people uncomfortable with the skin they're "in," and they import race-related problems into the online arena.


Fascinating post Ana!


Hi all,

What a great forum. Tons of intriguing questions. danah boyd is really big in my field so interesting to see the name pop-up. Since we're talking about race, I thought I'd raise an additional question in addition to those you've come up with: what about access? Granted, the issue of access to digital technologies goes beyond race to issues of class, gender and censorship.

Just to ground this in something happening now, I'm really intrigued to see where the standoff between Google and the Chinese government goes. If Google leaves China, do people who are raised there have a fundamentally different WWW than we do? To a large degree the places we visit online and the articles (news/scholarly) we read are driven by our search engine of choice. Although Google presents different search results in different countries, the underlying mechanisms for determining the popularity of the websites are fundamentally similar. When we're already having trouble connecting with one another as it is, what are the implications of having distinctly different online experiences based on our race?


Peter, you bring up an interesting issue that we only touched on briefly, that of nation, and how it affects the "digital divide," which in this case may be a bit different than we often think of when it comes to issues of access and digital media. Here, I think the digital divide is a real, tanglble one with very observable differences that are present because of (sometimes artificial) geographic borders and politics. These advanced communications technologies are presumably supposed to break down these barriers and give everyone equal access to information and communication, but as you point out, that is clearly not true. Somehow, large governments and socio-political infrastructures still manage to encroach upon and impose restrictions on this ideally democratic space. Not that this has always stopped people...

Some further examples you might find interesting, not just because a couple are examples of institutional censorship, but because they are also fascinating sites of activism and subversion:

  • Phone usage in India has increased exponentially with the introduction and cell phones, which require less physical infrastructure, and promote ingenuity in expanding networks.
  • And the blocking of certain sites like CouchSurfing in some countries like Syria and the UAE (prior to August 2008), which led CouchSurfers in those countries to use (illegal) proxy servers to access the site anyway.

Over here in a recent blog post, I've tried to tease out some of the problems with internet-freedom-as-a-nationalist-foreign-policy.

Fred Turner gave a talk here at the University of Illinois yesterday in which he argued that digital utopianism often ignores the ways in which these new technologies allow people to construct communities around likeness (who is cool like me, who looks like me) and can actually foreclose the potential to speak across differences.  There are clearly amazing possibilities for openness and connection using digital technologies.  But when they are managed by states and corporations--and when those technologies seem to be used more often than not for corporate, national, and personal branding--those possibilities sometimes seem a little out of reach.

(Turner's article about Burning Man as racist infrastructure for cultural elites is really interesting in this context.)


Thanks for this. I missed this lecture. It reminds me of a recently released book called, The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom. By Evgeny Morozov. See a review at the Economist: http://www.economist.com/node/17848401. This focus on the use of social media by totalitarian regimes is rarely discussed in the media, but should be more of the conversation...


The issue of China's online censorship is one of the points I thought of as well. This might be more a question of nationality than race (since there are ethnic minorities in China too, of course), but given the status of state control there, I think it does become a concern for a significant portion of a racial group's experience of the Internet.

This also reminds me of another sociolinguistic (and thereby quasi-racial) aspect of the Internet. What percentage of webpages are in English? Over half, according to some accounts now several years old. More recently, however, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers has decided to allow non-English domain names (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB125688380931818169.html). As more and more people gain Internet access, will we see further splintering of cyberspace by nationality, language, or race? Is this a negative development, or a natural process of the virtual world mirroring the world it arises from?

For now, I can't think of any examples of differing experiences online based on race. But if our technology somehow becomes able to distinguish a user's race, we could be in for some surprises.


The language problem is already a problem. I'm a historian of modern China, and the same subject of my research (to use one example) exists on several wikipedias in several languages, but the content and narrative is not the same.

I also see the censorship in China as more of a national issue. As a scholar who regularly follows this issue, I suggest this multi-authored blog for all your Google China news:



Yay! I am always really excited about this topic, for the simple fact that I hope by continuing to talk about ethnicity/race - literally, putting it out there every day - will make more people aware of the issues relating to class, gender and sexual orientation and how they interdigitate with ethnicity/race.  There is something Anne said in her post, which questioned the possible lack of productivity in discussing resistance to forums and posts on race, on which I wanted to comment. I think getting at the root of the resistance is integral to discussing ethnicity/race and digital education/communication in a way that actually accomplishes something.

When we find out why people are hesitant to acknowledge others' comments, complaints or discussions on ethnicity/race, we understand how to better address that problem in our classrooms, student groups or with younger students who may not have the tools for adequately expressing their feelings on the subject.  It's a hard topic to bring up and sustain in a classroom, especially in those environments where there is tension among groups, or such a disparity in numbers that some begin to feel "outnumbered" and as a result, shut down - especially when we are presenting the specter of ethnicity/race on a topic where people aren't used to discussing it.  For instance, not many people think of the politics of ethnicity/race when it comes to punk culture, or 'zine culture, or how academic discussions on being interdisciplinary often times turn quiet when someone brings up looking to black/Asian-American/Latino studies to support or supplement "traditional" studies in English, Rhetoric, History or the like.

But in this kind of forum, where we all are committed to approaching the topic thoughtfully and respectfully, we can become better teachers and better community members.  I'd be interested to hear how others teach issues of ethnicity/race in classes and how they address students/colleagues who are hesitant to address the subject in their classrooms.


I may have spoken hastily, but thanks for responding, Kim. I'm always happy to be able to promote more discussion. =)


Kim, thanks for the excitement! I couldn’t agree more that a primary method for raising awareness is to discuss these issues in detail. Furthermore, this does not make one a racist or racialist as is so often the accusation by those who are uncomfortable or unwilling to discuss the ongoing impacts of racism, intolerance, gender discrimination, and so forth.  

Your point that we have to identity (and I’d say ‘map’) the hesitations and negative motivations in regards to discussing these topics is well made. Indeed, these are deep pedagogical issues. I personally draw on bell hooks’ ideas of “professor as confessor” in creating safe classrooms where students and instructors meet as socially-aware equals (my syllabi uses this exact wording). The teaching of critical skills for understanding the complex identity politics outside the academy has to be one of our primary concerns as academics. Fostering this ability requires an engaged pedagogy, and is no simple task (as I think you are already well aware).  

In regards to ‘mapping’ these hesitations, I think that an investigation of privilege is fundamental for myself, students, and individuals in general. The realization that most Americans benefit from a variety of priveleges is often a rude awakening, especially in the context of an honors class where many students are firmly entrenched in the belief that meritocracies are color-blind.

Thanks for the great comments, keep ‘em coming!




What a thoughtful and well-put comment.  I especially liked your point about how discussions turn interdisciplinary when issues of race arise in traditional disciplines like English and History.  As a literature instructor in a rural area, I find that these conversations can be uncomfortable for my students--especially when, as you say, there is a disparity in numbers.  Do you have any advice on how to bring up issues of race in a classroom where there is only one or two (visually apparent) students of a racial/ethnic minority?  What about when there are none?  And how might we imagine using technological resources to facilitate these conversations?  I would love to hear your thoughts!



Great discussion--thanks!

I teach at a large urban university right in the heart of Detroit (Wayne State University). Teaching at Wayne, I'm fortunate to draw on a number of ethinicities right in the classroom.  In those instances, the students are the best teachers. For example, we have a large Muslim population at Wayne, and during one class discussion on gender/dress, one of my female students explained to the class why she chooses to wear a hijab while her mother does not. It was fascinating, and educational for all of us. Obviously, this example is one that the student initiated (I don't know if I'd feel comfortable ask "why").

With only one or two students whose race is visually apparent, it might be off-putting to put them on the spot.  Bridget, in your case, I think it might be an interesting activity to have your students actually sign up for Second Life or WoW (free trial!) and design their avatars. If you have access to computer classroom, you could do this in class. Otherwise, ask the students to e-mail you a screen shot or print one (in color) and bring to class. This might be a good place to interrogate why they selected certain races, or why they stayed consistent/drifted away from their offline selves.  Was there something particular in their choices (skin color? dress? adornment? name?) that indicate something different or revealing about their "real" identity? I haven't tried this, but I've always thought it might be fruitful.


Thanks for sharing your experiences, much appreciated. After reading other posts here, I've decided to utilize SL as a teaching tool and have students create avatars with different phenotypi features than their own and see if they encounter uncomfortable situations online. Your advice to have them send in pictures is a great idea. I can imagine the interesting dialogue that might occur when these images are shown anonymously in the classroom. Then, after the class has seen the images, I could invite people to claim their own. Very cool ideas, thanks!



Thanks, Kim and Ed!  What great ideas.  What kind of classes do you both teach?  Would you mind telling me a bit more about how you fit (or would fit) this avatar project within your curriculum?  And how might you recommend pitching/framing this idea to students? 


I teach composition, and I think this type of project would work best with my intro to writing courses. This project might work well in conjunction with some readings about the perception of race.  Ask your students to create their avatars before they read the essays (or whatever), then inquire why they selected certain aspects of their avatar's appearance. If their appearances aren't too dramatically different than they are IRL,  talking about naming would be a good place to start (Itabari Njeri's "What’s in a Name?" is an interesting essay).  I'd preface any reading with the avatar formation--that way you could go back to their own "experiences" as a reference point.


I primarily teach classes on general anthropology, activism, and racial violence as well as technical courses in GIS and computer mapping. I've taught a course titled "Academic Activism" where we investigate the roles of academics in positive social transformation. I could see using this technique at various points to remind the students (who tend to be honors students) how embedded race and racism is in our modern society. I might even draw on this as an in-class lecture of sorts for my general anthropology classes, whcih normally number between 150 and 200 students. I'm currently creating a course called Race in the Digital Age that I plan/hope to teach for the African American studies program, perhaps cross-listed with Asian American studies (I've taught a course on the Chinese Diaspora as well).

In the new course, I think this project would be a perfect class assignment in exactly the same way Kim describes it. In terms of framing it for students, I would openly tell them that it is still possible to encounter overt forms of intelorance, and that online is a primary site in many ways for doing so. Also, I'd ask students if any of them had already encountered these sorts of things online.

Ultimately, I might even take such an assignment so far as to make it a research project. Since the course would be rooted firmly in the social sciences, I will require the students to go through a formal ethics process including the creation of an IRB (institutional review board) protocol and the like. Anthropologists are looking at the Ethical Consideration for Digital Fieldwork: Cyberethnographies and IRB, as part of the larger digital ethnography project.



Hi Bridget and Ed - 

Thanks for your responses. I've been trying to keep up with the posts and there are so many (which is awesome) but I start reading and forget to respond! ^-^ In re: your response, Ed. you're right. it's a *super* deep pedagogical issue. As I'm assigned to Public Speaking, I use a lot of stand up comedy, which sounds a little odd, but I find that using Chris Rock or Moz Jabrani, etc. gets them laughing and then they all feel a little less self-conscious because they're all in on the joke. They can understand the bare bones of the issues the comedian is talking about, but then when I start to task deeper questions they can think a little more deeply on them. 

For instance, I use the Michael Richards (aka Kramer) stand up meltdown on the very first day in class and ask them to analyze the speech. people talk about his body gestures, his speech, the fact that so many people remain in the audience even after it's clear he's not "joking," but not one person yet, has mentioned that in the video, the curse words all are bleeped out, but the N-word never is, which is indicative of ideas about what kinds of words are "OK." The students get real quiet, real fast.

The privilege thing is extremely difficult and I find that my 18year olds are just not ready to address that part of themselves yet; they have trouble wrapping their heads around why I am making them read newspapers and give speeches about news events instead of memorizing theories about Ciceronian ideals and doing mock debates like the other speech classes. Addressing privilege hasn't worked out just yet and I find that my position as a Person of Color in front of a classroom of mostly white students makes that a bit uncomfortable for me, and that I need to tread carefully. I don't want them to think I'm accusing them of racism and then they check out on the rest of the class b/c they feel I singled them out. I have made my class an open "safe space," for issues like that, and more than a few students have brought up topics in discussion that have addressed privilege on their own (usually my juniors and seniors).

In terms of tech resources, Bridget, I've tried in the past, but I've not found an effective way just yet. I tread cautiously here, b/c I worry that if I jump into a discussion on avatars for instance (some really good points were made about them in this forum) pushing through points on the ground level: that the issue is *really* about understanding race prejudice and a "lack" in the first place, not picking out a cool black avatar are glossed over despite my attempts to bring it back to what I was hoping to talk about in the first place. ^-^

One really neat thing I tried that they really liked was to take a photo of the week, a commercial, an ad - anything visual they could present the class on an overhead screen- and to analyze it. Who is the imagined and addressed audience?  Who is missing, what assumptions are made about the target consumer (class, ethnicity, etc.). The person speaks on it for a few minutes and then the class jumps in and analyzes the picture together. We've come up with awesome teaching moments. Even my quietest students jump in. And they see me working through the exercise with them, cause many times I've never seen the ads, either. So in effect, we're all on the same page together. I think this is the part that makes everyone a little less uncomfortable b/c I'm trying to put us all on equal footing when I can. 

Even if there are any minority students (or teachers), it doesn't mean we shouldn't or can't address the issues. We just have to be really honest about our motivations for why we're doing it when it doesn't seem to be an issue, like in our fav shows like Gossip Girl, Sex and the City (were there no blacks, Latinos, or Asian-Americans in Manhattan?), the Bachelor (are there only blondes left in America?), etc.

I am lucky that in my classes thus far, there has always been one or two minorities, but even they get shy about speaking about this stuff b/c, really, who wants to be "that" guy? But I find that introducing work by people no one hears about too often - like Shirley Chisholm instead of Gloria Steinem, Bobby Jindal, Bill Richardson or Deval Patrick instead of Arnold Schwarzenegger - and then analyzing their words for hidden/shaded speech that addresses their particular community and the American community at large is a puzzle that infuriates some but enlightens most.


Thanks, Kim, for sharing these very practical tools and the classroom experiences you've encountered. You make some excellent points about the potetialities and dangers of using digital media, like Second Life, and about the role of the minority instructor, which I think are really significant for a lot of us here. Like you, I've often found myself a minority figure in front of a classroom demographically very different than myself, and it is definitely very hard to negotiate the desire to teach students critical analytical skills when it comes to raced/ethnicized/gendered/othered representattions, while not alienating them or making them feel uncomfortable, defensive, or guilty.

The "safe" or "demcocratic" classrooms (to use the words of bell hooks) are key, I think, in facilitating this type of engaging and rewarding learning environment, and it sounds like you've made enormous efforts to do that for your students. In the same way, I think the use of familiar media, like film clips, advertisements, and essays, are a great way to make the material and sensitive subject manner more accessible and approachable. And humor is really helpful in this sense too, so I loved hearing about your use of stand-up. Personally, I've used youtube clips and comic books, which are nice because they're short, and offer a wide range of texts from historical representations to the critical and humorous responses. In particular, I like to ask students about representation, power, and subversion when it comes to popular media, since this is somethingthat is familiar. For a recent class, we asked students to think of ways that Asian Americans had been portrayed in US media and culture producers (comic books, movies, books, etc.) and then gave them the introduction from the new Secret Identities Anthology of Asian American Superheroes that critiques these in a very overt and graphic way. This served as a useful foundation that is accessible and relevant, and at the same time it isn't as off-putting since students are not yet directly asked to examine themselves... that, I think, is something that we build up to.

Also, I've had some friends teach in Second Life, and it can be a really valuable tool, but some students can be distracted or frightened by it. A friend of mine recently had a class horribly disrupted when a mob of 4chan griefers interrupted her class. Interestingly (and disturbingly) enough, some of their griefing included shouting racist and sexist slurs, which presents a very overt example of how racist and sexist language and action have translated into digital spaces.


Anne, thanks for sharing your experiences as well. In some ways I’ve had the opposite experience, I think. For instance, when I first taught a course on the Chinese Diaspora (again, a cross-listed course between Honors and Anthropology) I was the only White male in a classroom predominantly populated with Chinese descent students (only one White student at all).

So, we began the class talking about the oddity of a (visibly) White instructor ‘teaching’ a majority Chinese class about their own heritage. Needless to say, it was one of the coolest teaching experiences I’ve had. We spent a-lot time talking about representation of Asians throughout time, and how that has changed over time.

I’ve not used SL, but am getting increasingly interested to do so at some point based on the great conversation in this forum. Also, thanks for the link to the Secret Identities, very cool!





I want to second the importance of comedy as a pedagogical tool, one hooks talks about in her most recent book and I use as well, although nothing as formal as comedians – just my own silly observations and a dose of self-deprecation. I think it works.

About discussing privilege in class, it’s always tense, but I’ve not found students incapable. I think this is for two reasons, which you and Anne mention. First, it sounds as though my courses are more diverse. White students as a single minority typically outnumber any other single ethnicity, but only make up 50% or so of the total class. Well, the classes where these sorts of issues come up, I don’t get a chance to talk about privilege in every class. For instance, I’ve not found a place for it in my GIS class. In most ways the difference in experiences between teachers is incredibly complex and out of our control. This includes our disciplines and which students are traditionally drawn there (what populations do our majors speak to?), the specific institution (a historically Black or White school?), the background of the teacher (White, Black, Asian, Cuban, or Hybrid?), and the overt topic of the course. I’m fortunate, the course I’ve taught on Academic Activism is cross-listed with Honors and Anthropology. This attracts a certain group of students.

Second, I’m a great case study in privilege for my students. Phenotypically (outward appearance) most respond to me as White or White Hispanic (regardless of my actual ethnic background). I self identify as a person of mixed ethnicity and state this clearly to the class. After a short explanation about hybridity, I turn the conversation to privilege afforded people like me based on outward appearance. In my experience it becomes easier for White students to confront this in their own lives. Of course, this doesn’t happen overnight and I have no problem discussing certain points for days at a time, even if for the benefit of only one or two students. It’s a balancing act to generate a classroom environment where discussions are benefiting the few without singling them out, but we’ve done it to great success.

Also, privilege isn’t always the most difficult topic in my classes. Indeed, in the most recent activism course I taught, homosexuality proved the most controversial. A student in the class became so outraged that academics were interpreting the Bible that they were physically shaking during the discussion. This was one of those crisis situations for a teacher, you can’t deprive the class of the content and discussion, but you can’t ignore the intense passion the single student feels. As a class, we provided a safe environment and had a great discussion. It wasn’t easy, but it was very important.

This issues you bring up are incredibly important. I don’t want my comments here to suggest that certain teaching styles, personalities, or backgrounds are more appropriate, quite the opposite. I think your comments demonstrate that as a pedagogical community, we are far from having a complete toolkit for teaching these complex ideas. Particularly, when dealing with the complexities of student and instructor personal experience. Also, translating these ideas between disciplines strikes me as extremely fertile ground in terms of discussion.

Thanks again for providing important comments, much appreciated!




Hi everyone,

I'm so glad to see this forum. I've been involved with a project at a place where bringing issues of diversity to the forefront and discussing them is a given (UC Santa Cruz). I work on a few things for the Center for the Study of Pacific War Memories (http://cspwm.ucsc.edu) and specifically on issues related to conflcting memories of World War II. As you might imagine, we often run into questions of race.

I feel often times like the previous (before CSPWM) projects I've been involved with in the digital history field are a bit lacking in any attempt to reconcile with racial diversity, or any diversity period. Now, I've probably seen projects where a few historians get together and put together something online that looks at questions of race in history, or where a museum has put together a terrific exhibit that showcases racial issues. But one of things I have noticed about World War II memories, for example, is the presumption that one or multiple (even competing) narratives can be presented, but there is little room left for alternative voices to chime in and participate in the development of that historical narrative. Most of us realize that race has played a huge role in 20th century historical memory -- and look at what 9-11 is doing now. But most of this has not translated into project that truly put racial diversity at the center, whereas in the classroom (at least at UCSC) it plays a HUGE role in discussions. In my field, for example, when you start discussing intergenerational experiences post-WWII, racial questions are at the heart of looking at veterans and veterans of color, first/second/etc generation of Japanese-Americans, those in internment camps and race-relations committee records, Korean comfort women and their treatment by various governments across the world, etc. And then there's the occupation of Japan post-WWII, which often brings up even more interesting questions tying together race, nation, and other kinds of McCarthy-era details.

I get very frustrated when I see how much energy and enthusiasm comes to the classroom for these discussions pertaining to WWII, and I am excited (and a little nervous) to see this play out in an online environment that includes people from around the world. Frustrated also because I see how energy is channelled to digital projects or digital devices, but how little of that goes towards issues of diversity. In this case, with WWII memories in the Pacific, many, many young people in Japan and the US, have the digital devices and are learning about these events in two separate spheres. What if we could move that into the online environment and see how new narratives and memories get formed? Will they open up a space for discussing questions like race in WWII in a more diverse way, particularly in relation to the genertaional differences?

Finally, I noticed that most recently-funded projects might have a lot of technological value, but they are not that groundbreaking in terms of research on subjects such as race and ethnicity. Is it too difficult, too much too handle, or do we not have the right people involved in DH projects? In other words, why aren't there more projects that take into account both the theoretical questions behind race and ethnicity as well as the theoretical issues grounding the DH? I feel like the DH is really behind on these issues.




by the way, when I say "grounding" the DH I obviously use that term very loosely!


I enjoy your comments about WWII and historical memory. The oral history program here at UFL is currently documenting various experiences of WWII. The director of the program (newly arrived from Cali) is Paul Ortiz, and he comments on how current political landscapes often change the narratives. Indeed, the soldiers themselves are increasingly willing to comment on the complex political climate of the 1940s in relation to Japanese Internment or the use of nuclear bombs, instead of simply adhering to the ‘official’ story which dominated WWII narratives for so long.

You identify a fundamental critique which I share about digital technologies and their refusal to interact with complex racial issues, a foundational split between the non-digital and digital aspects of many disciplines. My own research combines digital technologies and a complex investigation of both horizontal and vertical affects of racism on various communities through time. However, none of my committee is experienced with digital technologies to the degree that most HASTAC scholars are. Instead, they are social scientists who investigate racial formations and racist ideologies as historical realities still present today. They rely on me to translate these issues into the new domains of digital media and information technologies.  It sounds like you have excellent ideas about overcoming this hurdle. Is the issue simply one of time investment? Does the time required to understand these theoretical concepts preclude the ability to learn about or actually create technologically-savvy explorations of those complex ideas? I don’t think so.

The new technologies that we can draw upon are manifold now. The arts and sciences explore them more readily than many in the humanities and social sciences, but usually to very different ends. I can’t help but wonder about the role of disciplinary inertia in restricting these multiple domains from interacting. The coercive hand of our specific disciplines play a large role in defining simple things, like what’s an appropriate topic or project. I’m challenging these currents in my own discipline of anthropology and have a committee of people who have made a career of doing the same (to varying degrees of course). I find that digital technologies provide an excellent toolkit for such experimentation.

Thanks again for your stimulating comments,


Hi Kim and all!

I think the question you ask is fundamental - what are we doing in our classes to promote an open discussion of race? Coming from Portugal, a colonizer, whose media have stereotyped the colonized, and the ‘retornados” – the white colonists who returned to Portugal after our revolution in 1974 -  I would say this:

I think one major step for teachers, independent of level – from kindergarten to Higher Ed (really!:)) - is ‘media literacy’. By this I mean to first instill, and later develop a refusal to passively receive media, and a proactive expectation of good journalism. So that when you watch a piece like Anderson Cooper’s ‘rescue’ of the Haitian child (watch it here ... or not:)) you wonder if it is good journalism to show in prime time the exception in troubled Port-au-Prince - violence and looting - rather than the norm - solidarity among Haitians. And why isn’t that prime time being used to discuss the reasons for the ‘ruffled feathers’ in some Haitians at the sight of US troops? Maybe better journalism would be to question the historical US support of French demands for compensation for their “loss of assets“ - slaves - which was greatly responsible for the country’s state of poverty…

In sum, Kim, my personal answer to your excellent question is: media literacy from kindergarten to College! Because sensitive topics such as race tend to be portrayed as the ‘audience’ expects them to: simplified (“No Drama” like the undisclosed blogger I mentioned in my previous post says). 


Something that's been at the back of my mind--is there a default or assumed race online? In purely text-based environments that allow anonymous or pseudonymous authorship, I find myself automatically thinking of most writers as Caucasian. Is this because I live in a majority white society (though I'm not part of that majority) and don't use many international websites? Or is it some function of technology, or of personal bias?

Technology doesn't blind us to race if we continue to imagine or construct race while using it. Which isn't to say that unawareness of race is what we should expect of technology. I think this also ties into the prompting question about political correctness. If there is no more need for political correctness, as some claim now that a person of color has been elected president, then is there no longer a need for critical race studies and related fields? My gut reaction is that of course we still need those areas of inquiry, but as a social scientist specializing in information, I feel underqualified to make the case.



Yeah, I've had this very same question as I'm sure have a lot of people. I was reading through a description of someone's breakup the other day with a friend of mine who was female and as I was reading she exclaimed "I knew she was female." I had been reading as though the author had been male, but when we searched the text there was no gender specific language to even give a clue one way or the other, and we had both been entirely reading our personal biases onto the text.

On a more academic note, in the context of discussions of race, whenever this phenomenon comes up I always have to pause and wonder to what extent my personal assumptions and biases in how I read and interact make me "a racist." Particularly in terms of the discussions earlier of the dilemma of speaking about race for the person of color and not of color, one has to wonder to what extent a lapse in control of our assumptions represents something problematic about our position in a discourse of race, and to what extent it is simply an immutable facet of what reading is.


Hi Eric,

One scholar that has written on this (and on critical race studies of online experience in general) is Michele White of Tulane.  I heard her lecture at the first HASTAC conference, with the fantastic title "The Hand Blocks the Screen: A Consideration of the Ways the Interface Is Raced."  There is a link to her paper here. She examined in particular ad campaigns for internet companies projecting the image that the "intended" users of their products and services are heavily Caucasian, male, and in professional office settings. Her portal into this inquiry is the use of the white, or white-gloved, hand as a cursor that the user maneuvers during computer and internet use. Rather than my attempts at paraphrasing her argument, I recommend reading the paper when you have a moment.

And thanks to the hosts for setting up this forum! I look forward to reading and contributing further.



Ooo, this is a very interesting paper I hadn't seen before. Thanks, Jonathan. 

It makes me think of another kind of interface bias -- the obvious one that it looks like no one has brought up yet -- webcams. I'm thinking in particular about the reactions to last month's Hewlett-Packard controversy, which seemed to fall into one of two camps: 1) the webcam is "racist" (shock and horror spreading through Facebook) or 2) the programmers made an "honest, innocent mistake." The either/or nature of the discourse seemed to block a more nuanced discussion about how very early decisions in the design and structure of programming can have long-range consequences -- or, more broadly, how cultural norms are embedded even in ostensibly neutral practices (like programming).


Yes, another fantastic example.  I'd love for this to be a model for reimagining how personal technology tools are really used, but you are right that such a lesson was mostly lost in outrage and other strong emotions.


Lisa Nakamura explored the question of a default racial assumption online in her article "Race in/for Cyberspace." She comes to the conclusion that, in American cyberspace, the answer is: yes, most of us assume, in the absence of any evidence, that an online personality is white. She explores the possible reasons for this and its repercussions, most notably the different ways in which identity becomes very racialized when race is mentioned, as well as the ways some whites enacted racial fantasies ("racial tourism") by taking on other racial identities. Political correctness plays a part in the discussion, too.

Interestingly, although she does use the term "passing," she does not address the fact that a person of color who does not disabuse people of the default assumption might attempt to pass as white (or at least to elide/evade the race issue, which in that context is almost the same thing).

It's important to keep in mind that this article focuses on just on online space - LambdaMOO, the (in)famous text-based world - and is, I think, a decade old. Nakamura acknowledges that part of the reason for the default racial assumption is that, at the time, most internet users were indeed white. She has done more recent work on race and online identity, though I haven't had access to much of it (although I was fortunate enough to see her give a paper on Chinese MMORPG gold miners a couple years ago). It would be interesting to find out whether our cyberspace has become any more cosmopolitan than it was ten to twenty years ago, especially with all the attention that has been given to the digital divide. Has anyone seen more recent scholarship that addresses the question of default assumptions in graphical online spaces or other arenas like Twitter?


Race is actually an interesting frame for some of the things I've been encountering lately. One thing I find very interesting in the context of digital race is the existence of racial categories (elves, dwarves, robots) that do not obviously or easily correspond to existing notions of racial groups. I was playing world of warcraft recently and encountered someone who made some comments that would be racist in any other context but raised some curious questions in this one. He spoke dismissively about a particular race in the world of warcraft (the alien Dranei) and insulted their appearance. Evidently he calls them "Blueberries" because of their bluish skin tone. It's hard to describe, but his statements constituted more than dissatisfaction with the character art, and gave me a real and surprising twinge of "was that racist?" just because of their sheer condescension towards a specific "race"? The question raised, then, is how do these imagined racial constructs function as "racial" groups, and how do those constructs filter the social forces to which users are exposed? 

To speak more to the "ethnicity" as raised by the initial post, warcraft is divided into two large factions that cannot mutually communicate, but can kill each other. It has always interested me throughout my time playing how frequently the inability to tell another player "I'm not here to kill you, I just want to do X" has lead to preemptive killing on both sides and a constant state of elevated paranoia. It's hardly a secret that language barriers complicate diplomatic and personal interactions, but this has always felt like one of those things I think has interesting commentaries on something embedded in it that I haven't quite put my finger on yet. 


To be very simplistic and reductive, yes, it's racist.  Or, if we want to be more nuanced, it's definitely relying on racial formations that link up to "real" world understandings of race and racism.

I do work on WoW as well.  And the shorthand for "difference" used by developers, which is mapped on to fantasy race, depends on the very same logics of "real" world race for all intents and purposes.  The irony and problem here is that players feel that they *can* be racist because they are not talking about real world race -- fantasy racism is excusable -- even though WoW uses real world racial/ethnic cues as a way to tell us that Humans are not the same as Draenei are not the same as Dwarves are not the same as Orcs and so on.

The intrusion of real world race into WoW is fascinating and emblematic of Nakamura's digital racial formation (etc.) because real world racial stereotypes and markers are deployed as a way to make the fantasy race legible and understandable.  In other words, if the fantasy troll were rendered in a totally fantasic way, which did not rely on conventional or stereotypical Earth logics, then would they be understandable or identifiable (in all senses)?

The problem here also points to the post/late modernist move to distinguish between race and ethnicity (which Hall explodes), which may in fact be just smoke a mirrors.  If being a Draenei is a function of ethnic difference (cultural difference), then does that mean it's not "racist"?  I think accounts of race/ethnicity (cf. Balibar and Foster's technicity) might be intriguing ways to articulate this tension and rhetorical/discursive move.


Great post, Ed.  Quick question re: "The intrusion of real world race into WoW is fascinating and emblematic of Nakamura's digital racial formation (etc.) because real world racial stereotypes and markers are deployed as a way to make the fantasy race legible and understandable." 

I know we've had numerous conversations about cultural studies approaches to fantasy; nevertheless, I'll continue to explore them here. 

How does the very existence of fantasy (and its discourses) enable the divide between worlds?  And, in the case of WoW, has does that divide differ from, say, studies of film or the print novel? 

I ask these questions because I'm constantly struggling with how I talk about such distinctions, everything from print/digital, virtual/actual, real/possible, and so on.  At points I've used "worlds," or "domains," or just treated the adjective as a noun. 

In short, in your work, what does the use of "worlds" afford your arguments? 

Thanks again!




I have been eagerly reading this forum over the past few days looking for an opportunity to connect my observations of racial issues in digital spaces. My primary research is not as focused on race as it probably should be but I have noticed that in my work analyzing YouTube, that "flame wars" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flaming_%28Internet%29) are notorious for devolving into racial slur contests.  I have also noticed that first person shooters with an online component often contain users that hurl a variety of racial slurs throughout the competitive gameplay.  This forum began with the notion that many of us are reluctant to speak about race online and that there may be an assumption that the default race of online users is white, but I see something different going on in these examples. 

It is almost like the anonymity of the experience of playing online allows a user to say things or use racial epithets that they would never use in everyday existence.  A further confusing factor is that in a first person shooter (when playing against another user) the other user's racial and ethnic backgrounds are often unclear.  So is the decision to use racial language related to the avatars (as has been suggested on this post) or is it brought on by the nature of the space (whether it is YouTube or Counter-Strike)?  Is it also similar to the vicarious feeling that can be initiated by losing oneself in a movie?  I am not a racist but I can identify with a racist character in a film if the story builds that identification into the narrative.  Are people similarly reading into the character or the character of the space that they find themselves online?


Thanks for the post, very interesting question(s). I think a cultural studies approach to these topics remains  valid. I draw on numerous cultural studies people, particularly in my understandings of diaspora (e.g., Hall, Gilroy). I think your question has multiple answers. The following is most likely not a revelation, but I'll add it anyway :-)

I'm not sure the divide is real in any meaningful sense. Like many, I comfortably trace the virtual back to non-digital things, like the proscenium arch in theater. Fantasy demonstrates how false the dichotomy virtual/actual is because its a genre in which people transcend this boundary in their minds. Whereas in the past fewer people engaged with this sort of world (imaginary) today's technologies have enlarged the number of people who explore imaginary places. Is this one reason that fantasy and sci-fi entertainment is so accessible to the popular audience? A trajectory mirroring or at least accompanying the rise of personal computers?

Also, I truly believe that imaginary places are real in a very serious sense. This is for me a primary understanding in framing things like race, ethnicity, and diaspora. As this forum is pointing out, most understand these terms to be social constructions of the socialized/enculturated (human) mind. The understandings of oneself in relationship to others is explored through the imaginary. This can be negative as when people use superficial characteristics to distance each other, or positive when such difference is not just celebrated, but understood and accepted.

So, in direct answer to your question, I think fantasy allows the division between worlds because it taps into our powerful ability to imagine things. Furthermore, our imaginaries also break down these divisions. Personally, I've begun using terms like digital and non-digital, virtual and non-virtual to differentiate with the hopeful intention that such simple changes in vocabulary will help me better express the idea that these things fundamentally exist in the same place, our own minds.


Just a few thoughts. Sorry if they're all over the place...

Jentery: Though I can't speak for both the Eds (who have been a brilliant participant in our forum, and much thanks to them!), I wonder if Grusin and Bolter's notion of "remediation" could be one way of thinking about fantasy and alternate worlds. Though they talk about types of media (both new and old), I think we could use it as a model to think about how these fantastic or virtual spaces allow us to reimagine "real" spaces and events. Just as film can mediate novels, and novels mediate life, virtual worlds and video/online games may be a way of mediating certain aspects of the world we live in, much of it unconscious on the part of the participants (programmers and gamers). Fantasy/realism, digital/analog, virtual/real. None of these can exist without the other, and are dependent on each other to produce meaning. I think what I'm trying to get at is that fantasy and the virtual don't necessarily need to "divide" worlds. They are inextricably related and contingent upon the other and looking at them in relation to the other is significant (possibly necessary?) in our respective fields. 

Ethan: You make some excellent points about the anonymous and liberatory (though increasingly less so) nature of the internet that facilitates racist discourse. I've seen this happen with people playing in MMOs like Call of Duty or WoW where children are sometimes shouting racial slurs at strangers they've encountered in these narrative spaces, and because it's not in "real" person, they think its ok. As Sherry Turkle argued over a decade ago, just because it's virtual doesn't mean it isn't real. Maybe these controversial films that make us sympathize with the "bad guy" can serve as a significant means to help us destabilize notions of right and wrong, politically correct and taboo, private and public, which I think are constantly being called into question with the current digital age and its communication technologies. (Just look at MySpace and Facebook employment issues.)


Anne, I think the virtual-real dialectic is a false one that enables the troubling types of activities you mention.

While Edward has a point in that "these things fundamentally exist in the same place, our own minds," there is another perspective that might help "lay audiences" get their heads around the idea. At the risk of sounding objectivist, one quality that is used to define "virtual worlds" as such is their persistence, that is, they continue to exist even when any given individual logs out. Just like the "real world," shared online spaces exist independently of our own minds.

If you think about it, the implication is that multiuser online/digital/"virtual" spaces are in actuality no less "real" than offline/analog/"real" spaces. The problem lies in the fact that it's too easy to associate the virtual with the fictional, leading people to then use other adjectives like "imaginary" and ultimately "not real" when talking about online spaces.

One of my mottos is "Just because it's virtual doesn't mean it's not real." The sooner we can convince the majority of people that this is the case, the sooner they'll begin to bring everyday sensibilities into the online arena - regardless of anonymity.


Thanks Bola, you expressed that much more articulately than I did. (I really should avoid posting in the wee hours of the morning!) But yes, I believe we both agree that "Just because it's not virtual doesn't mean it's not real." I mentioned Turkle earlier, and though she's a bit outdated now, i think she's still really relevant. The discussions of online dating sites and porn, in addition to the MMOs games and virtual worlds really reinforce this. Experiences in these show that though these interactions may not be happening in the "real" world they still have very real effects.


to Anne and Bola for your responses here.  I appreciate it!  This has been a great forum. 


Interesting. You took that in a direction that was a bit different from what I was thinking about. The act of 'being' racist I can certainly see comes out of 'real' race formations, but what I wonder about in particular is the other side--whether such racism can 'feel' racist. 
The narrative put forward around this forum about people playing black second life avatars and being vicariously traumatized by racism seems maybe not to be the case in a situation where, despite definite connections back to 'real race,' the races are largely divorced from such indexing. Specifically, does a Dranei player experience the same virtual-to-real feedback that a black avatar player does, and how are those different? It hasn't been my experience that these are comparable, and so it leaves me wondering specifically where the trauma is located for the non-black with a black avatar that isn't traumatic to the Dranei player.



On a basic level, I don't know that the traumas are different. I've been discriminated against for a wide variety of reasons on different occasions throughout my life in both digital and non-digital arenas, and while I can say each is different, I'm not sure I can make any other meaningful distinction between (for example) how it feels to be discouraged from pursuing an academic track because of my color or how it feels to be discouraged from applying to grad school because of my age. When you are the target of discrimination or prejudice, the actual feeling - the "trauma" - is probably comparable regardless of the reason. Is it therefore any different to be treated that way online because you chose to play a Dranei? Hate speech is hate speech, is it not?

However, it might also be valid to ask whether someone who has never experienced prejudice feels it differently if they are only exposed to it online, as part of a persona that he or she can shed at will. In some of the class exercises discussed in this forum, for example, while such an activity might be shocking, eye-opening, upsetting, or sobering - among other things - how does the experience compare to that of someone knowing they have to live their whole life with brown skin (no customization sliders available!)? Is there even any way to find out?


Representation and abstraction of what we know to be meaningful terms that are ill-defined, shifting or even purposefully misleading is incredibly challenging.  Of course, I'm talking about "Place".  After all, what is a "place"?  Is it an event plus meaning?  Or an agreed upon normative category?  Or is it a necessary, arbitrary, abstracted snapshot acknowledged to be utilitarian and required for the exploration of larger issues related to spatiality, hierarchy or demography?  Is there a place when the attributes of that place all change (or even disappear) over time?

These are real problems with the representation of a concept that most of us agree as to being uncontroversial.  Obviously, when an even more abstracted and controversial concept like race and ethnicity is introduced, the difficulties in tracking, mapping and analyzing change over time and space (and the causative/correlative relationship with change in other socio-political elements) are increased a hundredfold.  I think that as we grow a more complex vision of previously accepted concepts (such as place) we can grow a more dynamic and complex concept of race/ethnicity/nationality/genetic heritage that allows not only for changing conceptualizations but also competing conceptualizations that exist in the same space.

For me, the value in creating digital representations of complex concepts such as these is that it enforces theoretical rigor.  If I'm going to track some "ethnicity" or "race" attribute, I need to define it, and if I want anything more than the most simplistic representation, that means I'll need to adapt very high-level techniques for representing it.  If my experience with representing place is any indication, then just this process will lead to an increase in knowledge related to the subject (as well as interesting new questions to be asked and radical new views of the available data).


Thanks for the great comments! I'm particularly enthused about the ideas of tracking groups and or terms. As I see it, this refers both to the subjects of inquiry and the definitions we construct to refer to them. I think this is what you meant as well (sorry if its not, please correct me!) Furthermore, the definition of terms to support the foundations of research is immediately important. I think that many on the forum have implicit understandings of ideas like race, space, and even landscape (I certainly do). These implicit framings derive from both academic inquiry and personal experience. I don't feel the defining of terms automatically generates imperialism, especially if we remain open to modification as we challenge our own work and analytical lens.

In regards to race and place on the landscape, I can't help but think of Appadurai's ideas about the denial of coevalness to others. After all, the denial of co-being in time reflects directly on the 'spatial-ness' of groups in the present and fosters all sorts of colonial enterprises in the here and now.

A discussion on the problematics of representation in regards to terms which escape essentialism the moment one takes a close look is useful, paramount, and instructive. For me, this manifests through the development of a historical consciousness about the interplay and shifting (slippery?) meanings of terms like space and race. As you say, simply exploring and traveling these avenues generates important dialogue. Thanks for your post!


That's exactly what I'm talking about, Edward.  I'm not familiar with Appadurai's works, and it sounds like whatever work he explores this denial of coevalness is something work examining, especially given how we use digital means to represent such things with our implicit frameworks making implicit claims.

It's that explicitness required by digital media that I find most intriguing: you need to categorize race in the dating sites that Allison Curseen refers to, because if it was just an open text box, you couldn't efficiently sort the results and allow users to filter out "unwanted races" (how fishy does that sound?).  And so the question of race or ethnicity or definition of human character based on physical attributes is boiled down to some software engineer working with a marketing exec on their implicit assumptions that they probably don't even think of as controversial.

And yet we know from the raft of popular genetic tests that race is a highly questionable category that, even if accepted, must be "marked up" and dynamic.  This is all possible in the digital world, if someone spent the intellectual effort to make the claims explicit, and then worked with folks who knew the technology to make that more complex description possible within a logical framework necessary for software, but so far it seems easier to coast on casual, implicit representations and the soft tyranny that they bring with them.

I could imagine a critique of my position being that Facebook or Match.com or World of Warcraft is meant for a lay audience who doesn't want to be embroiled in the academic interrogation of race, but that same lay audience is neck-deep in the software engineer's academic interrogation of physics and network protocols and databases, they just don't realize it because it goes on under the surface--that's how their Match.com sausage is made.  I think it's a shame that we as a society are spending so much intellectual effort on the technical aspects of these enterprises and so little on the humanities theoretical aspects.

It reminds me of the dystopian Warhammer 40K fictional universe, wherein incredibly powerful technologies of destruction are wielded by small-minded bigots who spend none of their time contemplating the transcendent.


Thanks for this. Your discussion on place and race brings up another difficult term, community, which seemingly includes both race and place, to different degrees in different contexts. Some would argue can also be talked about in the absence of place, or placeless virtual communities. How do we represent all the often conflicting, sometimes overlapping, always interesting definitions of community swirling around both in the academic literatures and in the popular imagination?


Sorry if this posts twice. Having validation issues...you folks must get a fair share of "griefers" (as we call them in Second Life) on this forum.

I want to thank Ana for noting my work with race in SL. I'd like to make a few corrections and clarifications.

Ana wrote,

"Still, for a while there were no 'default' black avatars and even now they are substantially fewer."

Actually, there are now more, depending on where your register for Second Life. One of the default male avatars, a businessman, is dark-skinned. There is also a "club-goer" female, modestly dressed (a rarity in SL!) who is dark-skinned.

Linden Lab commissioned experienced merchants and designers to create these choices. If one registers through their Web site, they can be chosen. I brought my Fall, 2009 class into SL through New Media Consortium's portal online, because it enables new avatars to avoid the ruckus of SL's public orientation island.  Unfortunately, both the male and female default avatars from NMC were rather whitebread. Students who wished to change race could, however, find the Linden avatars in their inventory files.

I'm pleased to be doing pro-bono consulting for Rezzable, a designer of virtual worlds, on an educational simulation of Howard Carter's "dig" in Egypt's Valley of the Kings. From the start, the simulation offered avatar-explorers multiple races for their avatars. I chose a Ron-Glass-clone, less from racial tourism than aesthetics; the white-male avatar on offer looked rather pasty, and I always liked Glass on the old sitcom "Barney Miller."  Rezzable has added more male and female avatars recently, in many skin tones and with realistic (not body-builder or supermodel) figures.

As for Evan Donahue's remarks about WoW races that don't exist in reality, yet can be subject to racial bias:

This also happens in Second Life. If SL is racist, it's a displaced racism. "Furries" and newcomers are the most likely to be abused. I've never witnessed any racist slurs in my 3 years in SL, but they exist.  If anything, the culture is more accepting of difference than our flesh-and-blodd world; Linden Lab's Terms of Service state that intolerance (including racist or homophobic speech) are not permitted. Doing so can lead to account suspension or even a ban from SL after another resident files an "abuse report." The company lacks the technological power or staff to police thousands of regions filled, on a typical day, with 50-80 thousand avatars.

One sad coda to this: one student, posing as a black man, had racial slurs--in Greek!--hurled at him in the virtual recreation of Athens. He'd been there many times as a fair-skinned avatar and he'd found a warm welcome. He's a Greek-American and bilingual, and this change greatly disturbed him. The others were both Greeks in Greece and overseas.  He logged off, relogged another day as white, and reported that he was again welcome in "Athens."

I report on my students' experiences here.

I guess it shouldn't surprise me about virtual Athens. I'm a second-generation Lebanese-American, and I grew up around some astounding anti-black racism, including especially nasty words in Arabic for African-Americans.  We recent immigrants can become very haughty, it seems, as soon as we have one foot on the American ladder to success. Pity.

We don't need avatars to discriminate, sadly.  It's up to service providers like Linden Lab to provide spaces where racism won't be tolerated and will be reported when it occurs.




So glad you posted! Just a quick note: I was actually 'locked' from editing but what I meant was "for a while there were no 'default' black avatars and even now there are substantially fewer blacks than whites" rather than "for a while there were no 'default' black avatars and even now there are substantially fewer."

Meantime the HASTAC team kindly edited for me. Thank you for stressing that point though! Wouldn't it be bad if the companies behind SL, There or Activeworlds went from the very few default black avatars they started with to even fewer! :)




First, thanks for the great post! It reminds me of an insight I draw from Critical Race Theory, although I’m sure it exists elsewhere in various forms. Placing the of burdon of "reporting it" upon the people who experience racism in SL repeats the same advice given to people about hate speech in the non-digital world. This is the classic “blame the victim” argument we see repeated in response to racist speech and graffiti, as well as dominant ideas about combatting other violent crimes like rape. For instance, a quick glance at most anti-rape posters does not show men being punished, but women portrayed as helpless, frightened victims.

The elite response in such situations is to call upon the victims to report the crime. Of course, this can be dangerous in the non-digital world. When individuals experience hate speech they are typically outnumbered or in some other way vulnerable. Also, this absolves members of the elite majority from taking responsibility. For instance, how many of us have reported hate speech in SL? I see it all the time, but hesitate to report it. First, I don’t want to get somebody banned, especially when they can just create a new avatar. Second, it does nothing to address the deeper social problems responsible for generating such hate. Instead, I interact with the people and try to explain to them that such speech has psychological impacts beyond the moment because it draws upon deep historical injustices for its power. Of course, many just tell me to shut up and fly away.

That said, Linden Labs is to be applauded for seriously taking these issues into consideration. However, its not their lone duty, all of us have a role to play in transforming the world, whether its digital or non-digital.

Again, exciting post, and nice to hear from an ‘insider’ :-)



I think this forum is great and so is the energy.  I want to go back a little to the Avatar conversation and the notions of choosing your race in SL.  Well specifically, I want to talk about the notion of choice and preference.  More choice is part of the fundamental appeals to the internet.   It is part of why we can always be tempted to hail it as a potentilally ideal democratic space. And yet I think the more choice, greater emphasis on preference makes the interent the site for the "the neoliberal collapse of the public into the private--the rendering of all social problems as personal" that Giroux argue in Take Back Higher Education is responsible for the dissapearance of "political solidarity, social agency, and collective resistance" and the rise of a dependency on a market-place politics (121).  It might be precisely the more choice that makes internet so liberating that condemns it to simply imitating our physical offline lives for driven by choice, the internet in blogs, SL, live feeds, at any place where the individual and groups of individuals assert themselves on the scene tends be sectioned off by our already existing biases. 

Despite the still existing taboos around interent dating sites, I think it may be extremely fruitful place for us to consider in our discussions on race, ethnicity and the interent precisely because it is the online networking site that both offers not quite an avatar but a profile that supposes to represent you (at least the best of you as you see it) but also presumes that your online profile interaction will have an offline effect in your physical life by bringing someone  special into your lives.  Here we have a great place to talk about the way online personalities and dynamics are both affected by and affect (if only to reinforce) our offline lives.

I'm thinking  particularly about online dating networks like Match.Com, eHarmony, and the cheaper (more diverse?) OkCupid to name just the big ones (and supposedly the non ethnically specific ones like Catholic Match, Black Planet etc). I will put my own experience up for discussion:  I was having fun making the initial free profile and checking out the way a particular one of these dating site works. It's really is quite exciting to think about the type of interactions that might be possible online, connections that the movements and patterns of my physical life would not account for.  When asked about racial preference in a partner I at first clicked all the boxes provided.  I will not say that as I was clicking the boxes I did not have a brief pause because in clicking the box it seemed to make me each time really consider or rather envision myself with someone of x ethnic/racial background.  At any rate when I finally got through the myriacd of questions about my politics and favorite books and was allowed to search I was immediately floored by the fact that while I might have checked all the boxes, not everyone does and further the dating site makes that available for me to see in the section where they indicate what they want their partner to be like.  Within twenty minutes I had viewed 8 profiles that were a "potential match" for me who indicated by the clicking of the boxes any race, ethnicity except African American.  I was not expecting a post racial liberal world but I was not expecting to have to look other people's "preference" so clearly in the face as what felt like a rejection of me (though I knew better to know that it really wasn't about me in that sense of actual private individual choosing of me).

After this experience, I did a little internet research and realized, I wasn't alone in my experience, nor was I or others like me merely just being "sensitive."  I'm posting a link to an OkCupid blog post in which they disclose the racial numbers for race based responses.  http://blog.okcupid.com/index.php/2009/10/05/your-race-affects-whether-p... The numbers indicate that black women and Asian men tend to be overlooked the most  by all other races in their interactions.  The blog doesn't deal with the boxes persay but it does deal with the fact that "potential matches" are not really potential.   

Perhaps one of the most interesting features of the blog is the responses that follow it. The responses range from one user feeling validated, another feeling hurt, to someone giving a rather easy but straight forward vote of solditary by saying "I'd hate to be a black person in the US. What a hard roe to hoe."  What's particularly interesting about these comments is the way they seem to be indicative of the type of rhetorical responses one might expect following Eduardo Bonilla Silva's Racism Without Racists.  Users complain about people playing the race cards.  Others try to explain it's only natural.  But the overwhelming response from those wanting to fend off any alligations of racism is that race or ethnicity in online dating is only a  matter or choice and preference. It is very litterally only a  box that is checked or not check.  There are a couple comparison's between race and height as preferences.  While I think that height too might very well indicate certain prejudices we should examine, what these comparisons do is really naturalize and fix racial differences as a distinct attribute with a distinct consequence in interactions.  While I carry assumptions about how I will as a 5 foot 2 individual will feel next to a 7 foot tall person.  7 feet are 7 feet.  I am in fact that tall.  And while I am in fact black as well, saying so comes with not one physiological garantee about how I will look let alone my personality.  So why is it a category at all? 

I do think interent dating sites and user responses to them and other racially charged internet moments (be it a blog, a game, etc) offer us an enormously wonderful classroom tool when teaching about race.  One of the hardest things about teaching race is always the fear associated with being wrong, being not pc, and then the frustration of having to deal with people's fear.  In a word, it's personal.  Without making the topic any less personal, I imagine focusing class discussion say around the findings in this blog and/or the responses to it could be an excellent accompanyment to teaching Bonilla-Silva or any other way of illustrating the pervasive ways in which people still make highly racialized decisions and the way in which language, text, and the interent as a text heavy place act as a structure for our really not at all color blind "colorblind racism."  

I know this is a long post with a mix of everything, but I hope it sparks or contributes to the discussion in a generative way.


In terms of choice, I think it’s the illusion of more choice combining with design choices in digital technologies, which actually limits our choices in important ways. Lev Manovich discusses such ideas by tracing the choices made in designing new media, and a more recent and more biting critique of this is part of Jaron Lanier’s “You Are Not A Gadget: A Manifesto” (currently the first selection for HASTAC’s new reading club! – how’s that for a plug?). The belief in more choice (whether its true or not) certainly appeals to many.

Thank you for sharing your personal experience with the dating sites. What a great teaching tool, one I’ve never thought of, for unmasking the way racial preference is (re)produced online. Thank you for this crucial insight!




Hey Allison,

I don't know if you've seen this, it just came up on my twitter feed and has got me reeling. But this is a dating site that hooks up men with Asian women: Classy Asian Ladies. I'm not sure if there are other similar ones that are race centered, but I'm sure there are. Their "About" section is incredibly troubling in perpetuating this "yellow fever." I find these especially upsetting, considered the way race and ethnicity are gendered and sexualized, and here we see it being further reinforced online... again!


" Do Second Life and other virtual spaces become simply environments for racial tourism, as Lisa Nakamura terms it, or do they also become places for identification, mis-identification, or intentional play?"

I'm pleased to see the "also" here, because it speaks to ways in which some of my students' black female avatars were "hit on" by males in a way that their fair-skinned original avatars hadn't been.  Their tourism as women-of-color led to some troubling personal reflections about race and ethnicity that had never occured to them.  "Black girls are easy" seems to be an unwritten rule in SL...we did not test this for how avatars dress! Most fashion is revealing, and one has to look a bit harder for more modest attire.

The exercise had realy pedagogical merit. The Ludic, to use Ong's term, has been steadily devalued in higher education. Perhaps, without playing in offensive ways, gender-and-race reversals in virtual spaces can lead to real progress away from the screen. My male students are typically horrified by the ways their female avatars are treated by males in SL. Again and again, they say, essentially, "that is JUST what I saw at the frat party."  It shakes them, and it shakes them hard.

I cannot speak to other sorts of online spaces; my work is in virtual worlds and a bit in traditional paper-and-pencil gaming (where gender and race stereotypes abound--the "noble savage" is a popular theme).

These virtual spaces, and paper-and-dice games create these worlds in our heads, have the power to be redemptive or oppressive; I'm just pleased that their designers are paying attention to diversity.

One promising reference: Northwestern researchers, Paul W. Eastwick & Wendi L. Gardner, published "Is it a game? Evidence for social influence in the virtual world."  They studied reactions to dark-skinned avatars in the virtual world there.com.  The there.com avatars are more cartoonish and, frankly, stereotyped than SL's, but dark-skinned avatars were more likley to be ignored or ridiculed when trying to gather survey data than where their fair-skinned counterparts.

These studies bear repeating in a variety of settings. I don't do empirical research, but it would be a worthwhile project.

Apologies for any proofreading boo-boos...I'm wearing bifocals and dashing off this note before class :)


Your use of virtual worlds as places of perceptual transformation for your students is wonderful. Thanks for the great idea! This is something that could be so useful for anthropology classes.



While perhaps not immediately related, many of the posts to this forum about everyone's research and/or experiences reminds me of recent porn studies (Willisams, 2004, Porn Studies).

For instance, drawing on acurseen's post, are we seeing in the analysis of dating sites a similar manifestation of the grossest representations of race in society? These representations are familiar to most of us and demonstrate in an immediately accessible way the depth of racism in society.

Pornography is a huge industry where racist views on individuals are reproduced unapologetically. Also, as pornography is often credited as initially funding and exploring (exploiting?) new media technologies, do these types of analysis’ help us investigate race, ethnicity, and diaspora online?

In all seriousness,



Ed, I'm so glad you brought this up (and sorry it's taken me this long to respond) but I think this line of inquiry is really interesting. If we are to take the cue offered by psychoanalysis and Marxists like Marcuse, sex is definitely important on larger social and political levels and has as much to do with power as it does with identity formation. And I agree with you that the porn industry (as well as the various sex industries) are fraught with issues of power inequality and exploitation, and much of it is based on racist and sexist ideologiies that the industry profits from reproducing.

At the same time, there is an emergence of individuals and organizations who are using porn as a means to reclaim their agency and refashion their representations in the popular imaginary: female, lesbian/gay/queer, and racial/ethnic filmmakers and actors. It makes me think of an article written by the early Darrell Hamamoto article, "The Joy Fuck Club: Prolegomenon on an Asian American Porno Practice" (_New Political Science_, 1998), which got me interested in this area a while back. In his conclusion he states, "a Yellow porno practice can help recuperate a sexuality that has been distorted by the internalization of core racist values and beliefs that reach into the depths of individual psychology...To engage more specifically in an
Asian American porno practice is to take self-determined control of an unfixed, variable, malleable, but thoroughly racialized human sexuality, shaped and constrained over time by politically oppressive forces" (345). Though he spoke specifically of Asian Am pornographic practice, it's a statement that has much broader significance to the socio-cultural practices we're witnessing in numerous digital medias here. And though the essentializing race or sexuality here can be problematic (and I personally have issues with this), it *can* can prove useful when it comes to activism and organizing.


I like to hold back on these forums for fear people think I'm "concluding" them rather than expressing admiration and hoping they continue.  This is such a thoughtful and thought-provoking conversation.  I almost wish some of it could be moved to Second Life, with its minimal number of Black avatars.   Amazing, to think about what it means to have a virtual world not be color blind (as utopians once hoped) but governed by a kind of digital apartheid.  


I have a question.  I'm wondering if there are additional embodied or virtual digital ways that you teach race, ethnicity, and diaspora that you use in your classes.  For example, I just love this thread based on Au's work (I'm quoting from Anna's post here):

"Au's article caught the attention of Joe Essid (Director of the Writing Center at the University of Richmond). He asked his writing students to spend a week in SL as another race and/or gender and post their thoughts on the experience wiki that in deference to James Au he entitled 'The Skin they're in"."    I plan to do something like this in my course and I will be writing about this exercise in my book as a wonderful example of different things you can do online that give you an understanding outside your own identity of how other identities see and are treated in the world.  I'd love to hear about other ways people use online environments not just to study how racial and other attitudes are formulated there but for a kind of epistemological activism that allows students to step outside their own perspectives.  


You will note that there are some Frierean pedagogical assumptions in my question, that assume that teaching is both about analysis and transforming the modes of analysis.  If the virtual world reproduces and even exacerbates prejudice, how can we use that affordance for transformative pedagogical purposes?   (Can you tell my class is reading Pedagogy of the Oppressed this week?)


Thanks for the post, I am a big fan of Freir, particularly his last book Pedagogy of Hope: Reliving Pedagogy of the Oppressed? I also try to create transformative spaces in the classroom. Specifically, in my Academic Activism class.

I see two fundamental hurdles to overcome to make the class a transformative experience for both teacher and student.The first is convincing students that I as educator am vulnerable. I draw on bell hooks' Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom to launch this discussion. In my limited experience, students like this approach as we cooperatively explore ways to destablize the traditional hierarchy of the classroom and the false dichotomy of teacher/student.

The second hurdle deals with the idea that people have the power to change the world around them. Today, the majority of students I encounter seem to believe they have little power to change the world in significant ways. This isn't apathy as so many mistakingly identify it. This is part of a deep-seated reaction to the world around us, we are constantly shown how enormous it is. To overcome this hurdle, we read Arundhati Roy's Public Power in the Age of Empire. Roy does much more than celebrate the power of participatory democracy, she outlines the dangers faced by social movements today and offers her own suggestions on how to overcome them. Plus, she is a great writer mostly known for her popular book The God of Small Things.

In regards to drawing on digital technologies to teach about inequality, I am exploring ways to bring stories of racial injustice into the digital world. My PhD examines the ability of these technologies to investigate and communicate about the horrible toll racial violence takes on communities, and how that trauma remains a lived experience for generations. One example of this approach is my work with Virtual Rosewood, a site where a variety of datasets combine to document in new ways the ongoing trajedy of a race riot 90 years ago here in Florida. Ultimately, I hope this site and its related historical methodologies serve as a template for myself and others to explore additional forms of race-based injustices as one path among many to true reconciliation.

Okay, so not a short answer, nor a direct one. This is what happens when I take the weekend off, too many words! Also, sorry if any of this is too repetitive from other posts.

Thanks for your comments, and helping with the forum, much appreciated on all fronts!



You phrase this as a question, but it seems like a claim:

" If the virtual world reproduces and even exacerbates prejudice, how can we use that affordance for transformative pedagogical purposes? "

I do not have a definitive answer for this, yet. Nor has it been my primary concern.

I hestitated to participate in this forum, because I don't teach race or ethnicity in first-year writing. It's simply beyond my expertise (history of technology, writing-across-the-curriculum, virutal worlds). I focus on analysis and arugmentation, with an emphasis on how technology changes the nature of communication.  That said, I was compelled to do one assignment about race in virtual spaces out of both a Freirean participant-observer pedagogy (my avatar is very much in SL with the class) and the role the students' work plays in my own research and publication.

My focus in the writing classroom proceeds from a premise: that students making the transition from high school to college (we are a traditional residential school) need experience in reasoning to a claim rather than from a claim. Then they universally need help marshallnig credible evidence from a variety of sources, some of them experiential.

As I studied SL, I found rather facile the claims that SL is either utopian or irredeemably racist. The latter claim could have been the conclusion, by those in traditional media and academia but not in SL, after reading James Au's account of "Erika Therian's" experience in SL: http://nwn.blogs.com/nwn/2006/02/the_skin_youre_.html "The Skin You're In."

So I decided to test it in class, especially give the occasional reaction to my own avatar.

My avatar is "swarthy," as I am in reality (I'm an olive-skinned Lebanese man). Because of video-card differences on some systems, others occasionally meeting "Iggy" think he's black. Oddly, this happened more often before he wore black dreads--a gift from a SL friend--when he had a shaved head like his creator.

In the Heritage Key virtual world, my black avatar never has gotten a remark beyond "you look just like Ron Glass from Barney Miller."  That may be from the audience there: all educators in their 40s or older.  One does not go to Heritage Key--a type of interactive museum of the ancient world--to socialize.


Just a quick comment about what I thnk may be a central issue for others reading over this forum. As your important comments draw out, even those who may think what they do is not directly related to the forum's theme have vital contributions.

First, your methodology in SL is something that I hope to reproduce, its an excellent way to get at some of these questions in a really direct way. Second, your discussion of teaching critical reasoning skills highlights a central need and I cannot imagine a more important skill set to develop and pass on.

So, not so much a response as an invitation to others to join the converstation. I for one can say that I'm learning a-lot from posts like yours.



The issue of accessing information on the internet in multiple languages is important for multiple populations to use this resource. I recently read a New York Time’s article (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/25/technology/25link.html) about how Google is losing some of its customers in China, yet is able to continue expanding by broadening to new areas. The author, Noam Cohen, discusses the company’s contest that encouraged students in Tanzania and Kenya to translate Wikipedia pages to allow more people to benefit from this tool.

            The idea for international WWII discussions sounds really interesting. As a student, I think it would be very interesting to hear multiple perspectives about different topics in order to gain a better understanding of a historical event, a science experiment, piece of literature, etc. Perhaps this could help break down the focus on one-sided view-points and legacies, like the story of Avatar.  

            However, the internet can show racism and cruelty. People can usually express horrible comments anonymously. They say terrible things about other ethnic groups without fearing punishment or retaliation.

            I was also interested in the article about the racial diversity of Facebook. However, the data only represents the United States. Is not this a focus on the “colonizer?” I would be more interested in learning about the statistics of Facebook users throughout the world. Where are most members located? Who spends the most time on the site? Many of my friends who are international students use this social networking site more than me to stay in touch with their friends and family members in other countries.  


Hi Claire,

Great post! A few comments on what you said:

"The author, Noam Cohen, discusses the companys contest that encouraged students in Tanzania and Kenya to translate Wikipedia pages to allow more people to benefit from this tool."

This is one of things that can become problematic when you start "translating" wikipedia pages. Often, narratives do not exactly translate. In other words, wikipedia would need to be open to the idea that competing narratives can co-exist. The current model does not really allow for this. So, for example, if there's an entry in English about a particular Kenyan figurehead, the non-English entry (which might already exist) might have a different twist. How do you then deal with multiple stories? Indeed, this is part of our goal in the WWII project: how will multiple narratives co-exist? how can people who do not know both languages still access these competing narratives, and not just the one in their native language? What about when you have two competing narratives, one translated into English and one written originally in English? Obviously, human skill and critical thinking skills are necessary to contextualize, analyze, and understand what this means -- something the internet does not and will never automatically offer a user.

" However, the internet can show racism and cruelty. People can usually express horrible comments anonymously. They say terrible things about other ethnic groups without fearing punishment or retaliation."

I'm not quite sure what the compliant is here, if this is a compliant? In my view, this is precisely what the internet should be doing so that we can have discussions about what it means. The internet is never going to solve problems of racism or cruelty, but it does give us a window into society and into people's minds. In fact, I think it tells us a lot more than any past forms of tracking racisim, such as surveying people in-person, over the phone, or via paper survey.


Did anyone else watch the PBS special last night?  I'd love to put that special into the context of this discussion.   I was particularly disgusted by the segments about Korea.   First, the communitarian nature of Korean culture was mashed up into a very American idea that being independent and individualistic is the only way to be in society, so that the more socially-directed Koreans came off (music, camera angles, and dialogue) as brain-washed and the implication was that it was the fault of the Internet.  The segment dripped with Orientalism.   I was appalled.  And then, with that setting, we zoom in to one child supposedly addicted to the Internet who is sent off to a government-sponsored camp for deprogramming addicted kids.   It was chilling.   Later, after a mostly apocalyptic presentation of the Internet as the destroyer of youth (see my blog review, http://www.hastac.org/blogs/cathy-davidson/reimagine-learning-digital-na...), we then see some positive examples where the Internet redeems.  I was suspicious here because most of the people pictured in the U.S. were white middle-class looking kids and adults.  The one school redeemed by the Internet was an urban school of mostly poor Black kids.  Amid all the pronouncements about "the dumbest generation" and brain cells destroyed by video games and so forth, I found this almost as repellant in its subtext as the Korean segment.


Yes, finally, at the end, James Gee, Katie Salen, and Henry Jenkins make moderate and sage-like and positive (i.e. the Internet is here, like it or not, so let's find creative and important things to do with it) statements, but there's a lot of scary and dubious slogging on the way to this sanity.   What do others think?  


Thanks for sharing that, Cathy. I haven't seen the special yet, but it sounds loaded. Here's the link to the program for people (like myself) who missed it: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/digitalnation/


Hi Anne, Edward, and Cathy, 

Thanks so much for organizing this forum Anne and Edward! I really appreciate the focus on diaspora in the social construction of race! I feel thinking, analyzing, and creating transnationally particularly around race, ethnicity, and digital culture is vital.  Apologies for my delay in posting and joining this dynamic conversation, as I’ve had a family emergency the past week, but I have been excited for this forum since I've heard it was happening!  I appreciate the writing on Avatar and the various debates that have emerged from that film. Also, I've always been interested in Tom Boellstorff's work especially on "Dubbing Culture," and the question of sexual and racial/ethnic identities in Indonesia. Currently, I have been recently rereading Lisa Nakamura's CyberTypes and realize there is so much groundbreaking scholarship around race out there I need to read and reread! Great job on getting this forum together, especially with the importance of questions at hand. I feel the diasporic move seems very important, particularly in understanding the relationships of power around “raciology” and the histories of U.S. and Western colonization and imperialism in our contemporary moment of this cultural transformation.   

 I feel Cathy’s post aptly brings up this important issue,  given the forum’s framing. Thanks for highlighting the PBS Special "Digital Nation." It reminds me how “race” and "racism" can travel over, around, and across formats and platforms. The fact that we can watch the program on television, the internet, and it’s shot in S. Korea for a U.S. and/or transnational audience is really fascinating. I think your point about the Oreintalism in regards to characterizing Korean culture as brain washed because of the Internet seems really important. I also wonder if it relates to the ways Asians are hyper-cyberized (not sure if this is a word!) but some previous readings I’ve done, enact a racialization of Asians/Asian Americans are hyper or overly techie, and not the hip geek culture we see now…But a robotic inhumanized way...It's unfortunate that Korean culture and any culture would be reduced down to "Internet robots"... Considering there are so many cultural differences between Korea and the U.S., and similarities as well, it’s disappointing to think PBS did not take more time to consider a more thoroughly researched and/or non-dicotomous non-racialized narrative of Koreans and S. Korea. 

Currently, I’ve been working as a Graduate Student Instructor of a Korean Diaspora undergraduate class, so this question of transnational representation and technology interests me greatly.  I feel there is still so much for me to learn, and I would like to ponder on this further. But I think it brings up important issues of race and diaspora, particularly when we are talking about technology and cultural change.  I am interested in the possibilities you write in your blog, Cathy, how we can grasp technology as a tool for teaching and learning.  I provide your entire quote below, as I think its an important call to action:  "…if indeed the Internet is this powerful new force in our lives, then, as educators, we should be thinking about the very best, most imaginative, most creative ways ousing this powerful force both to educate our kids and to use their own talents and interests to help make the Internet better.."

This inspires us, in taking seriously the ways, the Internet, gaming, and other digital sources can teach students, communities, the larger public about race, ethnicity, and equity. While the social construction of race (racial formation theory) may be known or understood by many people, at times, the biological racialized and essentialist understandings are widely known and practiced as common knowledge. One can remember the very recent 2009 incident where a interracial couple was denied a marriage license by a Louisiana Justice of the Peace.

At this moment, there has been a big debate around the inclusion of Ethnic Studies in San Francisco high schools, I wonder what this could mean in terms of how all students can learn about race, ethnicity, and culture in ways that can be empowering, instead of racializing? And how technology can play an important role in this? I wonder how we can utilize the Internet  and make it better in terms of issues of race and ethnicity... the possibilities seem to be out there. I feel Edward's project, The Virtual Rosewood, http://www.virtualrosewood.com/ is really exciting in terms of this work!  This forum is a really important start in getting this conversation and collective action going, and I hope it continues. 

Thanks again for your comment Cathy, and for this forum Edward and Anne! All my best!  





First, thank you so much for the very kind words, much appreciated! Also, forgive me for taking so long to reply to your email as well, I tried to stay up with all the comments, but alas over comitments overwhelmed me for a while.

I really enjoyed your comments on teaching the Korean Diaspora class, and feel that you and I probably travel similar roads in teaching about many of these issues. I particularly like Robert G. Lee's "Orientals: Asian Americans in Popular Culture" and his discussions on the movie Blade Runner in this context.

I could not agree with you more in terms of the how we as educators should explore the internet's instructive and pedagogical capabilities. Also, thanks for you generous words about my research on Rosewood, its an amazing case study for expermimenting with exactly these sorts of issues.

Now, I need to go check out your forum and contribute there :-)



It needs to be examined how contemporary products -- such as film, video games, science fiction, plastic surgery, blogs, and biotechnologies -- reflect and mediate long-standing but ever-shifting anxieties about race, gender, and sexuality.  How do cybertechnologies enter into our personal, social, and work lives? Do these technologies offer new perspectives on cultural difference? How does cyberspace reinscribe or rewrite gender, racial, and sexual dichotomies? Does it open up room for alternative identities, cultures, and communities? Does it offer the possibility of transcending the sociocultural limits of the body? And what are the political implications of these digital technologies?