Second Life as My Reality

While choosing classes last semester, I contemplated if E-Black Studies would even be a class that was worth taking.  Most classes I take center themselves on race, but in a traditional way; reading and writing about the issues.  Even when discussing the details of the class with Dr. Nieves, I was under the impression that I would be reading, researching, and analyzing the internet and its content in reference to Race.  Instead of just having a class where we analyze Race we end up having to leave it in a virtual reality.  As we read and learn about the internet we all incorporate our lived experiences and how Race has affected us.  When we think about how that fits in with the internet we begin to think about the disparities between people of color and Caucasians in life, but more specifically on the internet.  Before we began to use Second Life we were creating a website, which we decided would be used to help empower people of color and to counter what resources are realistically available on the internet for them.

            We have discussed many factors that affect the disparities within technology and race, but in Michelle M. Wright’s article the debate is brought up once again.  Our class says that both factors are important, instead she argues that “the barrier, it seems, as it is so often, has less to do with race than with money.”[1]  For me, it is too difficult to separate the two factors; they are so intertwined that you cannot say one is more prevalent than the other.  If the two factors could stand alone then issues like poverty within urban areas would not be so prevalent and the discrimination that causes it would not matter.  The problem is that we, as Americans, want to believe that they are separate issues, when in reality they work together.  Nothing is isolated.

            Second Life opens another element of what race means in the internet and more so in cyberspace, that I had never thought about or been interested in.  I am not the type of person to look into the internet and analyze it, which is why I thought it would be important to unpack the disparities the internet has from a scholarly lens.  Second Life goes to the next level because it is a virtual reality.  It is a place where people come and create an identity, either their own or an imaginary one.  But then comes the component of how we create these identities.  Second Life sells skins, which are bodies in distinct skin colors, and then also clothing that fits the respective ages and types of people.  This idea that the creator of Second Life can give identities to others is outrageous.  This means that whatever white man is sitting behind a computer designing all these types of people, skins, and attire has the power to represent anyone however he wants.  In Wright’s article, Virginia, one of the interviewees, states that “we [Black women] have the education but we don’t have the power”[2] exemplifying that even if you are educated it does not mean that someone else is not in control.  People of color do not have the power when the vehicle is Second Life because that world is dominated by the white man.  It is not only the white man, but a white world that has access to computers and time to invest in activities like Second Life as opposed to in the real world that most minorities have to live. 

            As we have also been ‘guinea pigs’ for this course at Hamilton College we have also learned how difficult it can be to gain support from the larger institution.  The library has been a great support, but when you explain the mission and purpose of the class is something that this particular institution is not sure of what it means.  Geert Lovin makes the argument that “the lack of compelling theory is not due to a narrow focus on the internet… it is due to a lack of cultural studies- oriented instruction at a university level… lack of institutional support and intellectual community (62)”[3] which matches accurately with our own institution.  We are giving e-Black Studies a meaning on this campus and we are using a space that “white America” can understand.  Since most of our campus demographic is white, upper class America, it is not only good, but useful that we learn to use a venue or space that they are comfortable in.  The advantage of using Second Life and creating an avatar is that fact that we are gaining awareness and knowledge about a “white space” that we would not normally use.  My outer appearance in real life and in Second Life does not allow for much racial discrimination, but my interactions and thought process does set me aside from most within the dominant culture.

            My experience in Second Life has been unexpected to say the least.  I never thought I would learn so much about myself as a woman through a computer.  The creators of Second Life do an amazing job at producing an environment that is for men; I have never felt as uncomfortable in my own skin until I used Second Life.  Women are far more blatantly objectified in this alternate world than I am on a daily basis and then you still have to deal with feeling isolated because of physical appearance.  Even though this experience might be my most surreal experience, I would never take it back.  This course and creation has allowed me to look at this space and value what others deem as their own world and even begin to claim it as another part of mine.

[1] Michelle M. Wright, “Finding a Place in Cyberspace: Black women, Technology, and Identity,” Frontiers Vol 26 No. 1, (2005): 50.

[2] Michelle M. Wright, “Finding a Place in Cyberspace: Black women, Technology, and Identity,” Frontiers Vol 26 No. 1, (2005): 51.

[3] Geert Lovin, “Talking Race and Cyberspace: An Interview with Lisa Nakamura,” Frontiers Vol. 26, No. 1 (2005): 62.


Virtual Can Make A "Reality"

Second Life is a great tool because you can recreate environments to emphasize the parts that you want to emphasize or in this case create visibility or hypervisibility to areas, events, and people that may not be recognized in reality. Last year I was in Dr. Carter’s “Knowledge and Methods: Seminar on Ethnography” class and he did something really interesting. He gave us an alternative campus tour that highlighted the histories of people of color on campus. We walked around the campus and suddenly all of these histories that were invisible were highlighted. The tour included the founding history of the college as Oneida College, a school for Natives and white people to interact, the ALCC, and even the controversial history of Alexander Hamilton being a Black man.  It is not like many of these histories were dark secrets but because of the environment, in terms of where these places were and the lack of identifiers, all of these histories were made invisible. An example is in the library there was a portrait of the first Black student to graduate from Hamilton College. Although there is that recognition by having a portrait and plaque summarizing his life, the place in the library is not very visible and there is no follow through about this alum. With histories that have been traditionally made invisible in order to really celebrate them there has to be more than a random portrait in a very obscure place, it has to be made hypervisible.

    This all relates to how Second Life can be a very viable resource for Hamilton College in articulating difference but also showing perspectives that are invisible. If we can recreate Hamilton College and show how different people interact in places than that would be one way in creating hypervisibilty to non-dominant perspectives. An example would be the Afro-Latin Cultural Center. If we could create a virtual ALCC that would a) show the past history of it such as the sit-in that happened by the Black Student Union to get the house made or how Alex Haley came to the space and worked on his famous book “Roots” and b) show who and how the people, organizations and departments use the space. This would make awareness not just on the space’s history but also its significance to many students specifically students from non-dominant cultures on campus.


Our Audience

I look at the social issues that we are archiving about from a womanist perspective. From this perspective come the ideas of the intersectionality of roles and identities in society. On this perspective also comes an activist agenda of wanting to build better communities. I think that the group that embodies the intersections of identity and the intersections of marginalization is women of color. By focusing on the issues, perception and education of women of color we can develop ways to empower and change the way women of color see themselves and how others see these different intersections of identity.
My audience is women of color from the ages of 15-25 years old. I would like to focus on women of color in this age range because this is the traditional ages of students (high school and college) and the formation of identity during these years. I think that students will have the most access to this site but I am hoping if we focus on the perspective of women of color then we can target a diverse array of other communities including different classes and sexualities.

Shopping Is Hell In All Realities

I remember in high school when I would go shopping with some of my friends. We would hit up Charlotte Rousse, Express, and A&E and I would wander around by myself looking at accessories because I was too embarrassed to admit to my friends and myself that there was no way I would be finding anything my size in these stores. I am doing this assignment from a perspective of a Black woman who is still battling insecurities with herself. It is important for me to talk about my emotions and the insecurities that came up through my process of creating this avatar because “the personal is political” . My experiences in creating my avatar are not in a vacuum, but on the contrary it is a reflection of societal marginalizations. Nakamura states in her work Cybertypes that “The celebration of the Internet as a democratic, ‘raceless’ place needs to be interrogated, both to put pressure on the assumption that race is something that ought to be left behind in the best of all possible cyberworlds, and to examine the prevalence of racial representation in examining the prevalence of racial representation in this supposedly unraced form of social and cultural interaction.”   

Nakamura’s scholarship mirrors my experience in creating an avatar on Second Life. There was not a starter avatar that looked like me in race, shape, color, or culture. The closest I could come to that had a similar coloring as me was a tall, skinny, long haired, mocha complexioned, punky woman. I thought it was interesting that the darkest avatar had the whitest features including long, straight hair, an Avril LaVigne style, and punky looking tattoos. Her body did not reflect the curves that a lot of Black women have and she represented a standard 15 year old white woman’s body. The only part of her that was not racially ambiguous was her plump lips. Actually, all of the avatars even the tokenized “avatars of color” had distinctly white features. Of course, everyone has different features but why do the default features have to be long hair, tall, skinny shape, light eyes, and narrow nose. Nakamura calls this “default whiteness ”, instead of encompassing different features as a default it seen as neutral to create “whiteness” as the default. This is problematic because programs such as Second Life are recreating the systematically conditioned ideas of race but in a subvert way of creating “otherness”. The norm and the default are “white” and the “otherness” is people of color or ethnic.

I want to point out that in the beginning when we were creating our avatars (before it became a midterm assignment) I was tempted to just “pass”. Especially as a person who is insecure about her body, I was tempted to not really reflect on how I look and think about my features and shape but just kind of emphasize the parts of me that I appreciate and default on the other parts of me. Going into the “Appearance” part of the editing avatar feature and making my thighs bigger, arms flabbier, and nose rounder was uncomfortable and enlightening. It was uncomfortable because I was trying to create me amidst European looking features and ridiculously awkward looking shapes, yet it was enlightening to see how uncomfortable I was presenting me and how and why I saw certain body parts as flaws. Nakamura talks about “passing”  in the virtual realm and how even in virtual reality the assumption is “white” so when you go against that environment and you do not pass you are made into an “other”.

When I was finding a skin, I had to go to the “Ethnic **Shybooty**Shapes and Skins” store in order to buy a skin and shape that look more like me. Once again, I had to go to a store that catered to the “other” which is a broad range of people with the use of the word “ethnic”. Once I was at the store I saw how much the skins cost and I needed to figure out the best skin with a likeness to me, but reasonably priced. To even begin my experiences in the virtual reality, I have to pay more to represent my identity. Thus once again in this virtual sphere as in reality, Black people have to work extra hard and be more privileged to just be able to be in the game. If I did not have Hamilton’s funds at my disposal I would not be able to buy my skin right away and participate in a way that would make me feel comfortable. This is also a general class problem, but the difference between how it affects my white counterparts is that buying skins and shapes is an extra instead of essential because they have more options in white avatars with European features that they can manipulate. In Kolko’s “Representing Bodies in Virtual Space: The Rhetoric of Avatar Design,”  she analyzes how GVRs are gendered and how these multi-identities effect how people communicate and relate in cyberspace. Kolko uses gender as her focal point but her analyses relates to all the intersections of society and she makes an emphasis on entitlement of space and program because of how the avatars are designed. This relates to my experience because although I was only in a couple of the Second Life environments and for small periods of time, I still felt a lack of entitlement because the people surrounding me did not look like me in reference to skin color and body shape.

After I finally created an avatar that looked like me the next step was finding clothing. Throughout my process of creating mini-me, I had bought outfits and demos of outfits. I thought Second Life did a great job in showing the reality of how clothing is only suppose to fit skinny women. Since I bought a number of outfits and the clothing did not fit me well or was flattering in the least. The last outfit I purchased I thought would be perfect because it was a cute sweater dress. How could a sweater dress be unflattering? Well, I was wrong and like my real life shopping experience I could not find anything cute and flattering for my body. Buying clothing really summed up the lack of creative and innovative ways the designers had to make their virtual simulation more inclusive than reality. In Kal Tali’s “The Unberable Whiteness of Being: African-American Critical Theory and Cyberculture”  he makes an argument that shows how invisible Black ideas, books, cultures, and people are in this new virtual reality, even though information is and can be only a click away. Tali argues that cyberspace should and can be a place where the dominant culture isn’t just reinforced, but traditionally marginalized groups can be better emphasized specifically of their influences in the dominant culture. I agree with his point of view and I would like to emphasize the need for people to think outside of the dominant box and really utilize all of the information and informants to create a more inclusive space where people can have more resources to show all points of their identity.

Invisible Spaces: ELS Building and Student Assembly

The concept of making an invisible experience visible was extremely difficult to consider at first. However, when reflecting on my previous years at Hamilton, I realize that the “invisible experience” is rendered hyper-visible in settings where the minority is forced to confront a pervasive view or perceived “norm”. In my previous response, I lamented my horrible experience with the Howard Diner – this was often the center for a great deal of my misery as a first-year student. While many of my “invisibility” moments have occurred in settings involving alcohol, I’d like to address a particular space on campus that is viewed with seriousness – an epicenter for leadership and student assemblies: the ELS Building.

            The ELS Building has two very different but equally uncomfortable associations in my memories of Hamilton: 1) ELS is the building where many seedy and belligerent parties are held in the facility’s crowded, beer covered basement and  2) ELS Building is where Student Assembly meets once a week to discuss issues pertinent to this campus and student organizations. The latter greatly affected me as a first-year student and introduced me, very early in my career at Hamilton, to the secretive ways invisibility manifests itself even in student government, which strangely is always advertised on Hamilton’s website as being representative of a collective “student body.” 

             It was Fall 2005 and I was sitting in on the Budget Planning meeting for Student Assembly where students on various committees delegate which on-campus organizations receive funds. One of the treasurers was a girl, for the sake of this story, named Dolly Childs. I was told that she was the right person to speak to or at least attempt to have in my favor being that she was on the funding committee for student assembly. At the time, I was there filling in for the president of the Black Student Union (now BLSU) to ensure that we received funds for a number of events we wanted to hold that semester  (i.e. volunteering, speakers, performances, etc). Although our budget was roughly a few thousand, it was nowhere near the enormous demands from other student organizations, particularly those within athletics.

            The set up for this meeting was one that I noticed at first glance: first, I was the only black person in the room – a precarious circumstance that has begun to feel normal the longer I stay in school. Secondly, everyone knew someone previously from a committee or project  and they all sat in a circle with only a few chairs scattered about the room. The chairs in the circle around the table were all saved seats for certain students so that when I attempted to sit in a vacant chair I was politely shunned and had to move elsewhere. Eventually I sat on the circles peripheral with the back of several committee members facing me –a physical positioning that further attests to the invisibility I felt during the time. As the meeting continued, I became more and more anxious for the moment Dolly Childs would read the BSU’s proposal, approve it, and give me the sign to leave what appeared as an amazingly stifling environment. During this meeting, I watched many of the students fraternize, laughing intermittingly between shifting topics on the agendas. Everyone seemed very comfortable with each other; everyone got the jokes and understood the Hamilton traditions that were being referenced in the meeting’s agendas. Everyone fit right in except me and no one attempted to ask my name or what organization I represented.  I was merely a lost first year student - invisible.


The person who exacerbated these feelings was particularly Dolly Child. Dolly Childs presents an archetypal character that could be recreated in Second life: a chipper and prim student who wore sweaters around the neck, pearls, and hails from a privileged background. Apart from Dolly Childs, other specifics of the ELS Building/Student Assembly meetings that could be recreated digitally  are: the exclusive camaraderie between fraternity brothers who are also on the SA board; “the circle” of chairs in the discussion room made to include and at times, exclude others; the chalkboard in ELS used to jot down committee notes and figures. The chalkboard stands as one of the distinct objects I always remember in the ELS Building because of the numbers I saw jotted in the meeting I attended as a freshman. I was amazed at the THOUSANDS of dollars that were allotted to organizations like the Equestrian Team yet my request that year for BSU’s relatively small funds was denied. In fact, the remainder of the meeting was spent with Dolly Childs arguing that we should consolidate all of the cultural organizations into one and provide them with a single account. It goes without saying that I left the meeting enraged and it has forever changed how I perceive the Hamilton student government which is supposedly representative of the entire campus.

From this experience, I’ve imagined several different aspects of the ELS Building/ Student Assembly that could be recreated online to address issues of invisibility and also the underlying culture of Hamilton “tradition”:

- A Second Life version of the Continental Magazine (which was founded by Dolly Childs); the way Hamilton advertises to its alumni presents a particular narrative that includes and excludes certain voices/experiences. An online PARODY of this magazine has the potential to be very provocative and controversial.

- The student assembly election day/virtual platforms – it would be interesting to hear what some of the speeches would entail and which groups nominees seek to promote and represent.

- A “choose your student assembly leader” feature on the virtual Hamilton; it would be interested to see which students choose certain leaders and why

- The ELS Building’s dual function for social events in the basement where many first-year students are inducted into the Hamilton College drinking culture.


Recreating the Digital Self: Race and Avatar Design


The creation of my second life avatar served as a method of interrogating racial and gender-based stereotypes in a digital space. Reinventing my “real-world” appearance online positioned me in the paradoxical role of being both subject and creator, making this process more difficult than expected. Creating an authentic digital version of myself required introspection and honesty, two virtues that were occasionally lost in the seemingly playful nature of avatar design. What first appeared as a trivial switch from a ponytail to shoulder length hair summoned a multitude of questions I often ignore while franticly changing clothes in front of a mirror: What color is my “natural” hair? How do I perceive body image? Are dark brown eyes boring?  Am I suggesting something sexual by wearing this v-neck shirt? These questions highlight the self-reflection that ensues when the acquisition of new appendages and skin tones are merely one detached click from the user, demonstrating what Beth E. Kolko,  English Professor at University of Texas, defines as “the rhetorical act” of avatar design. In her essay, “Representing Bodies in Virtual Space: The Rhetoric of Avatar Design” she argues that “what [avatar design] will no doubt someday seem a quaint transitional moment from textual to visual representations of virtual worlds holds great promise as a cultural indicator of how bodily presence affects communication.”[1] Although the majority of my time on Second Life consisted of avatar design rather than interacting with members of the SL community, the “cultural indicators” pertaining to my identity as a Black woman became clearer with every alteration in my avatar’s appearance.  Creating an authentic version of my physical appearance on Second Life forced me to confront the racial, sexual, and gender-based tensions underlying the aesthetics of Black women, revealing how Second Life operates as a tool for perpetuating and challenging cultural stereotypes within the digital landscape.  
In creating my avatar, the first racial hurdle I confronted occurred with the reception of a default Black avatar after registering my account. Before entering the virtual world, I already acknowledged Second Life’s perception of a universal Black female. While it was assuring to discover that there were default characters who were not only Caucasian, I became extremely disappointed with my Black rocker chick. Her appearance seemed to coincide with a very particular vision of a Black woman – a thin, darker skinned prototype of Avril Lavigne adorned with full lips, a posh haircut, and slanted eyes for a more exotic appeal (Appendix A). Her hair didn’t possess a single curl and her frame was extremely slender. While I’m aware that my own observations are not entirely objective, this notion of the white “default” avatar in online worlds continues to be a point of exploration for digital scholars. In her discussion of default avatars, Kolko references a study by Lisa Nakamura on a game called Lambda. Nakamura notes that the game’s default Asian avatars were “marked” by their race, raising “the troubling issue that to be unmarked is to be Caucasian; to be anything else requires an explicit discursive act, one that is often taken by other members of the MUD [game] as confrontational.”[2] By establishing default characters that only vary in relation to Caucasian appearance, Second Life creates “an almost cartoon-like example of what it means to have a body whether human or bovine. These avatars are what I would call visual aphorisms, and like verbal aphorisms, they reveal what a culture takes to be self-evident truths."[3] In my first steps to transform my default character, I had to comprehend that Second Life’s “self-evident truths” were steeped in a perception of Black female avatars as tanned deviations from a popularized white aesthetic.
To initiate my avatar’s shift from default to a more personalized appearance, I searched for a body that could closely resemble my figure. Similar to the real world, discovering virtual boutiques that accommodated voluptuous females was challenging due to the popularity of landmarks catering to users seeking a thinner frame. My attempts with the “ethnic” skin landmarks resulted in equal disappointment being that the skins often exemplified an “urban” models figure. The difficulty with finding my avatar’s figure persisted until I discovered a landmark in the Second Life classifieds titled “Fluffy Girls" (Appendix B).  I was equally repelled and intrigued by the ad’s tags that read “thick women, big ass, large breasts, fatties, negro body” among a list of different hyperlinked words (or insults).  “Fluffy Girls” attempted to celebrate curvaceous women but it hardly prepared me for the shocking display I encountered there: fleshy, scantily clad women boasting sensuous curves. When browsing the displays of models, I was immediately reminded of the overarching issue of hyspersexuality explained in an article from WIRED on Slustler, a Second Life pornographic magazine created by Thomas Struszka. In the article, Struszka explains the allure of sexual fantasies in digital worlds, stating, “The phenomenon is better explained by thinking of '3-D virtual worlds as user-friendly rendering software' that allows fantasies to be staged much more easily than in real life.”[4] Fluffy Girls is the epitome of a “staged” fantasy where female bodies are placed as eroticized objects on display. Interestingly, each of the virtual “Fluffy Girl” models displayed some body part that was grossly exaggerated – whether it be breasts, hips, or behind – as if seductively creating a sexual experience for users rather than selling the actual “Fluffly Girl” skins.
These representations of female bodies were not only eroticized but extremely racial. In choosing a body type, I noticed that each of the Black models possessed some physical attribute that was extremely European - typically long careening blonde hair, angular facial features, or light blue eyes. These features combined with the caricature-like quality of many of the Black female bodies reminded me of the Venus Hottentot (Appendix C). To select a body that closely fit mine, I not only confronted my own insecurities with weight issues but also the racial and sexual assumptions surrounding the lasciviousness of Black female bodies. Due to the hyper-sexual portrayals of these women, choosing a body was an uncomfortable experience that revealed how “even as ‘warranting’ (the process of making the physical body legible) becomes problematic, the corporeal codes or “tokens” of identity tourism or cross-identification can still be fetishized.”[5] Despite the extremely hyper-sexual nature of the female bodies, I chose the figure that closely resembled mine. After putting on my new Fluffy Girl skin I confronted several problems. First, the body did not “fit” my avatar properly and instead appeared as a pornographic cut out from a BET Uncut Video (Appendix D). My chest and behind were huge while my stomach was irregularly thin. To rectify this problem, I created clothes that were “loose fitting” in the waist to make my stomach appear larger and more true to my actual figure (Appendix E). Having to enlarge the appearance of my waist highlighted the recurring theme of being “marked” by difference even in a digital space; each change from my default character signified some sort of abnormality.
 The same problem occurred during hair and eye adjustments. I struggled to find a curlier hair texture and many of my options for hair were either bone-straight or afro styles without much variance. Due to the lack of variety in hair, I created my own hair with extra volume in order to simulate my natural texture (Appendix H).While hair texture was difficult to create, finding an eye color was less complex pdue to the weighted significance placed on natural eyes during my upbringing. My mother vehemently hated colored contacts and the moment I noticed the green eyes that accompanied my Fluffy Girl body I was determined to find a new pair (Appendix F). My immediate shift from green to brown eyes (Appendix G) emphasizes how even the smallest of physical features can become personal for users in digital spaces.  Each minor attempt to adjust my avatar reveals how “‘race is constructed as a matter of aesthetics, or finding the color that you like, rather than as a matter of ethnic identity or shared cultural referents.’ ”[6]
Although my final avatar (Appendix I) isn’t completely identical to me, the experience of actively choosing my own race disproves the idealized notion that virtual worlds are devoid of racial distinctions. Michelle Wright undercuts this myth in her essay “Finding a Place in Cyberspace” where she writes, “I would add that this belief [myth] is then paradoxically supported by the notion that these identities are also in fact rooted in the body, and because the body is literally not visible when one is in an on-line chat room, those identities also cease to exist. I would also note that this myth is not limited to the Internet: it is also a favorite fantasy of conservative and libertarian academics who still seek to erase issues of race (and, usually, gender and sexuality) from academic discussion.”[7] As Wright notes, the process of creating a Second Life avatar, noting its progressions, and reflecting on the deliberated changes in digital features, proves that race, gender, and sexuality occupy the mental forefront of many users in Second Life. The lewd depictions of women, sex, and race perpetuate stereotypes of “othered” cultures while simultaneously introducing a hyperbolized world where these images can be interrogated. Second Life, despite its exaggerated perversions, offers the opportunity for interaction between avatars that could propel insightful and honest discourse. This communicative advantage remains true of the internet and “its emphasis on hyperinclusion, fluidity, and the need for understanding alliances as a series of intersections rather than coercive categories.”[8] Online worlds have the ability to “hyperlink and thus offer every text as a set of intersections, the black feminist and queer mandate mentioned earlier can in fact be realized.”[9]  Second Life encompasses the same openness permitting users to transition beyond exaggerated caricatures to a discourse on the socio-constructed implications of an avatar’s appearance, reiterating how the digital world and reality are more linked than they appear.

[1] Kolko, Beth E., “Representing Bodies in Virtual Space: The Rhetoric of Avatar Design,” The Information Society (1999): 176. 
[2] Kolko, p. 181.
[3] Kolko, p. 183
[4] Ruberg, Bonnie, “Cyberporn Sells in Virtual World” Wired (2005): 1.
[5] Nguyen, Mimi “Queer Cyborgs and New Mutants: Race, Sexuality and Prosthetic Sociality in Digital Space.” (2003): 296. .
[6] Wright, Michlle, “Findig A Place in Cyberspace: Black Women, Technology, and Identity,” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies (2005): 48.
[7] Wright,p. 59.
[8] Wright, p. 57.
[9] Ibid.































































































































Second Life: Not the Utopia It Appears to Be

              Second Life, appropriately named, is a virtual reality that many have adopted into their lives as their preferred reality. This program prospers on the fantasies, desires, ideals, and insecurities of its audience and creators. Second Life will be celebrating it sixth birthday this summer, and each year it has thrived as people use this virtual reality to meet others, maintain their livelihood, teach or to simply explore. Many have not only invested their time, but their money as they exchange their dollars for linden. Second Life, like any technological advancement has both positive and negative aspects, and as this virtual reality continues to develop and flourish it is necessary that participants truly analyze the social issues surfacing in Second Life. This program has the potential to be a tool that helps society analyze social interactions between races, but it is becoming another realm in which inequity and intolerance exist. Second Life mirrors reality as the marginalization of people of color and misogyny continues. Creating an African-American female avatar was a difficult task that required an abundance of patience, but the process allowed me to explore Second Life. The digital divide has been one factor that has lead to the insufficient representation of people of color and women in virtual reality. Second Life will continue to be an exclusionary and misogynist experience for all participants if creators do not use academia as a source to raise their own awareness and represent other viewpoints. Second Life cannot be used as an educational tool until social issues are combated instead of being implicitly and explicitly perpetuated.

Students were instructed to create an avatar that resembled ourselves. Initially, I wanted to create an avatar that bared no resemblance to me, and essentially was a fabricated character disconnected from myself.  In the past virtual reality has been classified as fictitious in my mind, not to be taken seriously in real life. Yet, this is untrue as we virtual reality becomes a means to replicate actual reality offering participants unlimited control of their identity. Maria Fernandez talks about how virtual reality essentially is based on real life in her article Cyberfeminism, Racism, Embodiment. She says, “Cyberspace has been construed as something that exists in binary opposition to “the real world,” but when it comes to questions of power, politics and structural relations, cyberspace is as real as it gets.”[i] I have grown up in a household where my activity on the Internet was strictly monitored, and I was taught to avoid chartrooms. This assignment was difficult because we were asked to create a “real” identity, and I rarely see technology as a venue to express myself. As I created my avatar I gained a better understanding of Second Life, the control and power that draws participants, and learned more about the social scene as I navigated through this virtual reality.

Second Life offers a limited selection of default avatars for beginners, which does not reflect the diverse demographics of the world. This is one demonstration of how the Internet can be seen as a space catering to the majority of its audience, which are white people. The gap of the digital divide is closing slowly, but as demographics change more should be done to support the underrepresented groups. Misogyny, sexism, and racism are entrenched in our society, and a ripple effect has forced similar issues into Second Life. The digital divide has exacerbated this problem, as people of color are not able to help in the creation of this virtual reality, which leads to the silencing of critical viewpoints. People of color are marginalized in reality, and such institutions of oppression become more universal and inescapable as they are established in virtual reality.  This is unfortunate because I believe that social issues can be solved more easily in virtual reality, but this can only happen if creators’ consciousnesses have been raised. When virtual reality continues to mimic and replicate issues that are affecting people in real life, the problems will escalate and people of color will feel emotions that are stronger than discomfort in Second Life. Before entering Second Life, the selection of avatars implies exclusivity for those who are not of color, simultaneously alluding to an environment that inadequately acknowledges people of color.

The ability to purchase skins is a perplexing aspect of Second Life. Essentially, Second Life is a market place of ethnic identities that one can purchase to replicate one’s self or takes part in identity tourism. As a woman of color, it was difficult to see how these skins were marketed and displayed. These skins are nude, only wearing jewelry and stilettos, and posing in very provocative manners. The female skins promote a narrow image of beauty, expecting women to be skinny, have a tiny waist, a large chest and derriere. In my opinion, the images were pornographic. These images are less explicit than the pornography Bonnie Ruberg discusses in her article, Cyberporn Sell in a Virtual World, but equally degrading and objectifying. Thomas Struszka says,  Even in a virtual environment, where players can fix bodily imperfections with a few clicks of the mouse, beauty comes in many different forms. "I'm open to nearly everything and everyone."[ii] This statement is false because, all the women in Struszka’s slideshow depict a beauty that is static, and in compliance with the beauty and femininity that has been presented by the media for generations.

One can expect hyper sexualized images in pornography, but the sexual innuendos in the marketing of skins and women’s clothes are superfluous on Second Life. Most Second Life female models poses are sexualized as they lean forward, bend over, place their hands behind their head, or backs turned to the camera to allow their derriere to be seen from a better angle. It was also very apparent that these images played into the stereotyped of African-American women having wider hips and larger derrières than white women, which was a trend seen in most photographs. This was not surprising as I considered generations worth of  hyper sexualized depictions of African-American women. Many can argue that sex appeal has always been used as a marketing tool in this economy and that race has little to do with these images. Yet, I would beg to differ as I look as the poses, clothing or lack there of, and flawless body constructions. These women are presented in an unrealistic manner, and such portrayals perpetuate a body type that is not held by the majority of women. Second Life creators should be weary of the avatars and skins made available, and focus more on what is normal as oppose to what has been deemed as attractive.

Locating African-American avatars of  light skin complexions was definitely easier then finding a skin of a significantly darker complexions. Many of the hairstyles that I received with my Second Life account were hairstyles and hair types for avatars who are not of color. Many of the skins had a lighter hue, and it could be assumed that they were of a mixed background. I began to speculate about the ethnicities being represented, which lead me to notice their hair. A majority of the people of color had extensions, and I thought that there was a lack of representation for natural, African-American, unstraightened hair. A person of color must put a considerable amount of time and effort into creating their avatar, because they are forced to search for suitable hair and skin.  Lisa Nakamura points out that creating an avatar can be simpler for some, and harder for others because of who the Internet is catering to. Nakamura says,

I think that it tried to say that the Internet’s interfaces made some identity choices unavailable, some unavoidable, and otherwise served to police and limit the kinds of ways that people could define themselves. The Internet hails its audiences in the same ways that texts have intended readers, that films and television shows have intended audiences, and that made environments are intended for particular users. And in its earlier stages the Internet was not hailing people of color; it assumed a normative white user and in fact often still does.[iii]

She touches on the point that not everyone is given an equal opportunity to define himself or herself, and that cyberspace can be very restraining. One example being an African-American woman’s search for hair or a skin that is not curvaceous in Second Life, and coming across restricted choices. The limited options reinforced the invisibility of people of color, because Second Life was created with white as standard, and the normative audience.

Through the process of creating my avatar my attention was drawn to how Second Life can be precarious as it replicates social issues of the invisibility and marginalization of people of color, as well as the objectification of women of color. The e-Black studies agenda  combats marginalization by acknowledging the daily experiences and preserving Black knowledge.  The Next Movement in Black Studies: e-Black Studies states,

Furthermore, like Black Studies, e-Black Studies is unquestionably grounded in the history and everyday experiences of living Black communities, and is wholly committed to the preservation and accessibility of Black knowledge, history, experience, and perspective for the continued education of Black people and all people.[iv]

This excerpt articulates the importance of having academic experts working in the realm of virtual reality, because this group would be able to work on actively towards solutions.  It would also be important to consider the suggestion made by African American feminists, specifically the need to have a team that reflects varying ethnic and technical backgrounds.  African- American feminists understand the intersectionality of gender and race, and too often these identities are separated.  If creators of Second Life were able to see the difference in the experiences of people based on their race and gender, then this program could caters to a larger demographic. In addition, an acknowledgement of difference would help in tackling social issues of racism and sexism in virtual reality. Once these issues are tended to Second Life can be a tool for consciousness raising about difference.

[i] Beth Kolko, Lisa Nakamura and Gilbert B. Rodman, eds., Race in Cyberspace (New York:  Routledge, 2000), 34.

[ii] Bonnie Ruberg, “Cyberporn Sells in Virtual World,” Wired Magazine

(December, 2005).

[iii] Geert Lovink, “Talking Race and Cyberspace,” Frontiers 26, no. 1 (2005):  61.

[iv] Abdul Alkalimat, et. al.,“e-Black Studies Manifesto” (2008).



Our Audience

When I signed up for this course I thought I would be learning and examining cyberspace and how race factors into it, but this is only a small fraction of what we do.  We are in charge of designing a website that can, basically, have anything on it, in reference to race in cyberspace.  Although I use the internet constantly I never put into perspective how my own race played a role in how I view things (on the internet and elsewhere) or how things are “presented” to and/or for me. 

Before I came to Hamilton College, I was already very aware of my race and how it set me apart from others in my communities.  I was bused daily to the suburbs, outside of Boston, MA, to attend a predominately white middle and high school. At the same time I had to deal with the fact that my neighborhood consisted of Black and Latino families that could not identify with my lived experience because I was set apart of the community; mainly because of my daily commute and the opportunities that fostered. Even though I could not be apart of my residential community, I grew to understand that no matter how good I was or how equal, academically and socially, I was with my peers I was still a Latina and had a culture and experience which they did not care to understand. These experiences made my adolescence that the more difficult because it took me some time to be comfortable with the identity I was given, being a Latina. Some teenagers have to deal with the fact that they need to build their personalities and be comfortable with them, but I had to figure out if I was going to claim my heritage and be proud of it. Many of my peers were able to let go of themselves and just conform to what the dominant culture wanted and was comfortable with, but that was not I was taught to do. I reclaimed my Latinidad; not something I had ever denied but now I vocalized my passion about who I was and how unstoppable I would with and because of my race.
All that being said, I believe that our website should be geared to an audience of: people of color, in high school and college, more specifically this age range.  It might be a stretch but there is something to be said about having a two-fold website; one part focusing on young women, in the respective age range, and the other focusing on young men, of the age range. This would allow us to cover more ground that relates specifically to the needs and experiences of these adolescents of color.
Due to the lack of resources people of color in the age range, 14-25, can acquire I feel it is imperative for us to center our website on them.  Not only do they need advocates, but they need to know that there are resources for them and that they do not need to portray the stereotypes they see or hear.  The opposition to having a website that is centered on people of color is that the dominant culture will feel uncomfortable or unwelcomed, but at the end of the day, they have many a spaces that belong to them.  They do not need to own or dominate all spaces, especially if we want to continue with the idea of Empowerment.  I am all about inclusivity but there is something that is beautiful about granting agency to groups of people who do not have it or have had it taken away for so long.  I also believe that if we create the website in an efficient way then it will affect people outside of the target audience, which is a goal we should have regardless of the audience.

Our Audience
Posted At : March 5, 2009 9:24 AM | Posted By : lvassar
Related Categories: Assignments

Throughout my years at Hamilton the greatest source of racial tension I encountered stemmed from a blatant ignorance regarding the experiences of people of color. Prior to coming to Hamilton, it was the same experience. I always confronted the same expectation of “Lyndra can you speak as the black female prophet?” for your race in each class. The people often inflicting these expectations on me weren’t students of color. These people had a face: they were my teachers , peers, and even the girls I sometimes casually called friends. They were people nothing like me. They were white. 

Now by no means does this suggest that the only people ignorant to the experience of “difference” are white people. I’m cognizant of the oppression that ensues within racial cultures and classes; however, I feel that for more progress to be made it needs to address the people who constantly reinforce racial stereotypes; those that normally consist of the majority. 

For this reason, our audience should be late high school – college aged students who ARE NOT necessarily students of color. I feel that the website could definitely address issues pertaining to people of color but it needs to be approachable for those in the majority as well. This is not an argument in favor of white students or those that constitute a larger number in the classroom; this is me blatantly saying that I am tired of white privilege going unchecked and the only way to possible combat this is through education. Now, interestingly, I’m currently using the same rhetoric from the girls who expected me to educate them in high school, forging the question of “Is it always up to minorities to educate white people?” 

I definitely don’t think so. Deep down, each of us just wants to live. However, if they are to ever really become educated about our experiences, who better to instruct them than us? Do we really want white people being informed of minority culture by BET or grand theft auto for the rest of our lives? 

I know none of you do and I can bet that each person in this room has encountered either AN EQUAL or GREATER amount of injustice/frustration spewed from the mouth of an oblivious white student who simply just “didn’t know better.” The pervasiveness of whiteness makes racism almost impossible to avoid. Unless each of us maroons ourselves on an island, which even there I’m sure a socio-constructed hierarchy exists, we are going to consistently confront a hetero-normative, white view of the world that needs to change. As much as I’d love to make my education and the future education of my family mirror the kind of learning done in this seminar, the reality is that this won’t commonly ever occur unless white people are absent or become educated. 

Because the internet possesses a certain amount of anonymity, the wiki could be a tool to reach that group that would have otherwise never enrolled in an Africana Studies course. And yes, I’m aware of the question, “well, what makes you think they’re gonna read about it online if they wouldn’t in a course?” And my response is that the accessibility of the internet and controversy is what could spur their interests. Their shouldn’t be a single component of this wiki that’s “watered” down. It should be emblematic of our experiences, as truthful and disquieting as they are in reality. The wiki, ideally, should be two- fold: 

1. It should definitely address the experiences of “difference” and be a resource to EMPOWER people of color (please don’t think I’m saying get rid of this) 2. But also have some aspect, maybe just a category even that addresses students who are are not like us and have never acknowledged their privilege. You know, the ones who really have never spoken to a person of color until the day they casually tell their black roommate (àpointing finger to myself) they’d like her to move out because she and “her people” are too different for her to live with.

As upperclassmen, we have all discussed our personal transformations since the onset of Hamilton. Some of us encountered racial diatribe as if it were daily news while others never knew it existed. Nevertheless, each of us has grown individually and has developed a changed perspective through a “different” experience, one that pushed us beyond past experiences.

Experiencing Race - Second Life


This video documents an online conversation between Professor Angel Nieves, Professor of Africana Studies at Hamilton College, and Professor Bryan Carter, African American Literature Professor at the University of Central Missouri. Their conversation is situated in Café 101 on Second Life, a virtual world created by Professor Carter for the instruction of students in French and African American Literature. This conversation briefly addresses the question of discovering online “hot spots” where students can virtually acquire a “race-based experience.” In an attempt to address this issue, Professor Carter does a quick search for African American virtual landmarks. He references the rapidly growing communities, such as Virtual Harlem, that have largely been created based on entertainment and arts from African American history. Virtual Harlem contains many of the same historical landmarks from the Harlem Renaissance including the Cotton Club and Savoy Ballroom. Currently there are machinima projects being conducted on Billie Holiday at the Cotton Club in Virtual Harlem. These virtual worlds offer innovative methods of recreating the jazz era of the 1920s for students and educators online.

The conversation closes with Professor Carter’s offer to assist Professor Nieves with establishing a future headquarters for Hamilton College on Second Life. Professor Carter also shares online resources for Second Life and further research on virtual “race based experiences.” Noted resources included: Ebony Style Magazine, SIMTEACH.COM, SLED discussion group, and

As an archived piece, this video could be presented at the Studio Museum in Harlem due to Dr. Carter’s emphasis on the construction of a virtual space for Harlem in the 1920s. The Studio Museum, still located directly in Harlem, could benefit from this video as a resource that could possibly supplement the historical works that have for featured exhibits in the museum.

In this video, race manifests primarily through the actual use of racial avatars, Dr Carter’s and Dr. Nieves’, online chat, and auditory conversations. Immediately, the first signifier of race is the color of Dr. Nieves’ avatar. He has brown skin and is wearing casual clothing – there is no mistake about the chosen race of this avatar and it’s definitely a depiction that catches the eye immediately even online. Similarly, Dr Carter’s avatar, while of darker skin color, also utilized online tools to specify his race and clothing. Dr. Carter’s momentary discussion of the polemical issue pertaining to professional dress code online is closely related to the overarching concept of identity: online users are free to choose their race, identities, and histories anonamously, a very interesting dynamic that plays into the construction of race on the internet. Secondly, race manifests itself through online communication in verbal and chat. Nevertheless, professional backgrounds, networks (both college professors who met mutually at a Digital Diasporas conference) and experiences played into both Professor Nieves and Professor Carter’s construction of their avatars.

Our experiences of race day to day are definitely shaped by our individual backgrounds, whether professional, academic, or personal. No method of identifying oneself is exclusive from the other – all three are determinants of how people see and understand race around them. For instance, in my boyfriends African American theatre class certain students found it baffling that minstrel shows would have been offensive to Black Americans. One students even ignorantly and rather harmlessly raised his hands to ask, “How was Black face offensive and who was it offensive to?” It goes without saying that every student of color had a blank stare of astonishment on their face at this kid’s inquiry – our experiences had made it very clear why something like black face was a touchy issue within the Black community. It doesn’t matter entirely whether or not we’ve witnessed a minstrel show in modern day because our personal experiences, vantage points had already established this as a racially charged issue since childhood. Yet, my boyfriend’s clueless colleague, who admittedly has never even confronted any kind of discourse on race prior to the class, these terms were almost foreign. His placement in society, the people he’s been exposed to (or the lack thereof), almost made it impossible for him to have ever “experienced race” or what it’s like to be “othered” in society. Some people have to enter and understand certain worlds while others have the luxury of ignoring them. Based on background, economic status, and history some people will have a clear conception of race and its affects while others may find it as fictional as the boogey man. It all depends on perspective.

The video clip between Professor Nieves and Professor Carter opens a possibility for students (like the boy from the African American theatre class) to possibly access worlds that would otherwise remain unknown to them. Based on this clip, however, it appears that how representations/people are tagged or presented (i.e. why Professor Carter chooses to maintain a particular style of professional dress although he has the freedom to take any appearance he likes online) will be extremely significant when trying to use an online tool like Second Life as an exploration of race.

Second Life... No Better Name

Step 1: Apply our discussion about Dublin Core, to establish a traditionally accepted standard of classifying this experience. Put yourself in the role of Archivist. Provide a description and the tags (meta-content) that you believe a professional Archivist working in Burke library would create.

This is video documentation of a conversation between Professor Angel Nieves and Professor Carl Rosenfield of Hamilton College (Hamilton Lehrner) and Professor Bryan Carter of the University of Central Missouri (Bryan Mnemonic). It is projected that this conversation took place in February 2009. This a demonstration of networking among professors of similar interests who are looking for advice and techniques in moving forward in their endeavors on Second Life. Carter explains how Second Life has helped him coordinate projects with students in Sweden and France, and offers to help Hamilton representatives create a virtual headquarters. Carter only lectures and teaches on Second Life, and students have discussions, receive assignments, and present their work in this venue. The conversation takes place in a virtual language learning school, and references are made to virtual Harlem, and other locations that may provide a “race-based” experience. Carter says these locations are difficult to find but there is a relatively active African-American community centered around entertainment and clubs. There are some locations where African- Americans congregate, and these would be great place to observe interaction of a person as an “other”. This virtual world is used as means to recreate the atmosphere/ architecture during the Harlem Renaissance, the jazz era, in the 1920s. There is a more in depth description of the Second Life culture as the discussion addresses the shopping sites, the ability to purchase racial skins, as well as magazines. 

Step 2: Now, put yourself in the role of Curator at a museum of your choice, describing your goals for this artifact in the context of the museum you chose. Write the wall text that exhibit visitors will read, answering the following questions: 1)How does race manifest itself in this experience? 2)How do place, visual and aural representations of ourselves, historical context and social and professional networks play a role in shaping our understanding of how we experience race day-to-day.

This exhibit would be housed at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, because this institution focuses on the experiences of people of African descent. I also think that it would be interesting to have an exhibit comparing this artifact, a virtual experience, to another artifact dealing with communication or representations of race from the 18th or 19th century. Race is manifested through two specifics facets in this virtual experience: appearance and conversation content. First, it is obvious in the “racial skins” of the two avatars, both are men of color. It may seem unnecessary to mention this point, but these identities will shape the experiences of these men in Second Life. Secondly, the content of the conversation discusses topics relating to race. For example, Hamilton Lehrner seeks a “race-based” experience on Second Life, and Bryan Mnemonic offers locations where African-American congregate and even goes further in discussing how the interactions of the “other” may differ from those of people of color. There is also mention of the virtual Harlem in the 1920s, which is an area known for having demographics that are predominately African-American. Lastly, Carter shares where one can shop on Second Life, and at most shops one can purchase a skin based on one’s gender and race. These pieces of information prove the intricacy of this Second Life, and how it is a valid representation of reality because of the virtual duplications of practically everything. 

Academia when discussing race often forces us to make general statements, without appropriating essentialist or oversimplified viewpoints. We can attest to our personal racially fueled experiences with a little more certainty, but there will always be some confusion when considering instances that may have been implicitly influenced by race or racism. Appearance, location and social networks have a significant impact on shaping one’s understanding race. For example, one could easily make the argument that race does not matter if they have never experienced racism, or were raised in a group that was homogenous in ethnicity. Through this process it is important to realize that we are deal with some sensitive and complex problems, in that we are trying to isolate race as a factor in one’s social experience, but it is important to remember that all aspects of one’s identity and background are interconnected day to day. This virtual experience is a representation of the thought process behind how professors and students can use virtual reality as a political tool forcing people to rethink race in society by juxtaposing the racial interaction in both worlds.


More Entries

Contact Blog Owner