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Race in Cyberspace

Editor: Beth Kolko, Lisa Nakamura, Gilbert Rodman
Publisher: New York and London: Routledge, 2000
Review Published: February 2001

 REVIEW 1: Emily Noelle Ignacio
 REVIEW 2: Andrew Jakubowicz

Studies on computer-mediated communication and cyberspace are, in general, concerned with how technology will affect traditional social units such as communities and the self (Baym 1998; Jones 1995; Danet 1998; Turkle 1994). Thus, they often document either the development of new identities or the transcendence and/or erasure of traditional identities, and they express a concern that cultural identities will be homogenized because of the current U.S.-centric nature of the Web. These studies argue that the Internet can be a space in which identity and community can be radically altered because it's a constantly changing arena that transcends not only time zones but also traditional political boundaries. Other authors have focused on gender identities and explored the links between postmodern subjectivities and the Net (Jones 1995; Poster 1995); however, very few have shown how people on-line systematically and radically alter national cultures, race, and/or ethnicity. Race in Cyberspace, edited by Beth Kolko, Lisa Nakamura, and Gilbert Rodman, is one of the first anthologies that attempts to fill this gap.

In the introduction, the editors remind us that in discussions about the "real world" it is very difficult to explain that racial categories are socially constructed. One of the authors describes a heated discussion all too familiar to those of us who teach race and ethnicity -- that those who postulate race is a social construction are participating in mere intellectual masturbation as it is "obvious" by our outward appearances that people are biologically different. This, of course, is a misinterpretation of social constructionism as a whole, as social construction refers to the attribution of social meanings attached to various characteristics, physical or non-physical. But, with respect to cyberspace studies, the nature of the invisibility of participants in cyberspace is of utmost importance. As Joe Lockard asked, "[I]f racialism is demonstrably fraudulent in the physical world, what possible analytic validity might it possess in a virtual world?" (176). The authors have proven, in various ways, that despite the invisibility of the participants and despite the realization that, as a New Yorker cartoon asserted, we don't know if the users are dogs, race still matters. Thus, rather than describing cyberspace as a "parallel world," the authors have shown that cyberspace is indeed a perpendicular one, with participants creating a new community in this transnational location while drawing upon lessons learned in their physicallocations.

Many articles in this volume have documented that some of the common practices used to establish racial categories outside cyberspace are employed on the Net. For example, the articles by David Silver, Tara McPherson, and Beth Kolko show that race is often established through the imposition of color-blindness. Through choosing not to include an ethnic and/or racial category in the Blacksburg Electronic Village (Silver) or by choosing to construct the category of "Southern gentleman" through reaffirming one's "AngloCeltic heritage" (McPherson), it can be argued that white skin privilege can be maintained even in this largely text-based virtual arena. In fact, several race theorists have argued that the twin tools of language and categorization are more important to establishing racial categories than either images or even physical contact. Showing that these processes can be used in an arena where no physical contact occurs or where interaction is largely text-based (i.e., the BEV newsgroups and listservs) only confirms this point and reaffirms the notion that race is, indeed, socially constructed.

Social constructionism from the "bottom-up" as well as "top-down" is also apparent on the Net. In addition to the above articles, those written by Joe Lockhart and Mark Warschauer remind us that, on the Net, our identities are heavily dependent upon not only what we say, but on the language that we choose to write it. These authors show that racially and/or ethnically subordinated groups often attempt to demarcate themselves from the dominant (in this case, white American) group by refusing the almost universal, hegemonic Cyberlanguage of English and instead write posts using various ethnic languages, whether Hawaiian or so-called urban, black language. It is interesting to note that, on one level, it doesn't even matter whether the user typing such words is in "real life" Hawaiian, Black, or a dog. The fact that users are using another language in opposition to English shows that they are very much aware that American English is considered the normal means of communication on the Net. In addition, it shows that users have carried the technique of resistance through the use of a different language onto Cyberspace.

However, it is important to note that, as outside cyberspace, the mere appropriation of a different language can lead to what Mary Waters (1990) calls "the paradox of pluralism." Waters argued that without a thorough knowledge of the effects of history and structural racism/ethnocentrism on different races and ethnicities, people will wrongly assume that the experiences faced by dominant and subordinate races/ethnicities are largely similar. This can lead people of the dominant race/ethnicity to believe that race/ethnicity is voluntary, merely an option. As Waters and many other scholars have shown, in the United States, only members of the dominant groups have "ethnic options." Chapters by Lisa Nakamura, Jennifer Gonzalez, and Jonathan Sterne show how structural racism is maintained through the use of color-blind rhetoric in technological policy and avatars. They show that although language is one major tool for defining one's identity, pictures also speak a thousand words. As Nakamura and Gonzalez reveal, when images are used on the Net, a user's ability to pick and choose which characteristics to assume can mislead him or her into believing that race is harmless -- a belief that may travel outside cyberspace and affect the already tenuous race relationships within that person's location.

The combination of these strategies -- the color-blind rhetoric and the ability to choose images -- have maintained instead of erased race in cyberspace. Chapters by Rajani Sudan, David Crane, and Jeffrey A. Ow show beyond a doubt that even in a location where users cannot be seen or heard, race still matters. It is important to note that the racial classification within the United States is what dominates cyberspace and, as in life outside cyberspace, is most often created "top-down." Sudan, Crane, and Ow show that when images are shown, the white (presumably heterosexual) male is still at the top of the hierarchy and is still constructed in relation to other races, and that our assumptions of the "culture" of various races translates even into science fiction. Ow's chapter on the 3D computer action game Shadow Warrior is particularly disturbing because it shows that this notion of a color-blind, raceless cyberspace and/or technological future silences anti-racists precisely because of the assumption that racism cannot and does not travel onto the Internet. For example, he shows that when people complained of the racist depiction of Asians in the game, the producers argued that it was just a "parody of kung fu movies" and dismissed their detractor as "politically correct" (54-56). Worse, their argument contains the thinly veiled accusation that it is the detractors who are the real racists. This is the double-edged sword that all anti-racists face online and off -- if race is indeed socially constructed, then anyone who attributes racial meaning to images (especially computerized images) are often accused of maintaining unequal race relations! Thus, the authors of Race in Cyberspace compellingly argue that it is of utmost importance that we expose the oppressive effects of erasure, color-blind rhetoric, and simple pluralism online and off.

Because cyberspace is indeed perpendicular to the "real world," future work on race in cyberspace can also benefit from studying more extensively what happens to racial categories when they are discussed in areas that are particularly designated for discussions about race and ethnicity. My own work on soc.culture.filipino has shown that many diasporic members are turning to the Internet to form virtual homelands, but once there, their notions of ethnic and racial identity (as well as gender) necessarily splinters because ethnicity and race are largely built on political issues specific to a certain location (Ignacio 2000). This could certainly add another dimension to all the author's arguments about the importance of understanding historical processes when studying race.

Of course, this is not to deny the importance of highlighting the digital divide. Sterne's chapter on the structural racism inherent within technological policy has shown how racism is maintained within the educational realm in the United States. Future work on the global digital divide is also imperative. As Sterne has shown, the notion that computers will help modernize underdeveloped countries is suspect as computer companies are hesitant to delve into areas where profit will be scarce. As the astute website http://blowthedotoutyourass.com reminds us, many parts of the world are not Wired and cannot participate in "Utopia." Indeed, pictures on this website poignantly remind us that youcan'temailbreadasattachments.com. Yet, for those who are connected and do participate in cyberspace, this collection reminds us that racial divisions still take place, even in Utopia.

Nancy Baym, "The Emergence of Community in Computer-Mediated Communication," in CyberSociety: Computer-Mediated Communication and Community, edited by Steven G. Jones (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1995): 138-163.

Brenda Danet, "Text as Mask: Gender, Play, and Performance on the Internet," in Cybersociety 2.0: Revisiting Computer-Mediated Communication and Community, edited by Steven G. Jones (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1998): 129-158.

Emily Noelle Ignacio, "Ain't I a Filipino (Woman)? An Analysis of Authorship/Authority Through the Construction of Filipino/a on the Net," The Sociological Quarterly, 41:4 (2000).

Steven G. Jones, editor, CyberSociety: Computer-Mediated Communication and Community (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1995).

Mark Poster, "Virtual Ethnicity: Tribal Identity in an Age of Global Communications," in Cybersociety 2.0: Revisiting Computer-Mediated Communication and Community, edited by Steven G. Jones (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1998): 184-211.

Sherry Turkle, The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984).

Mary C. Waters, Ethnic Options: Choosing Identities in America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990).

Emily Noelle Ignacio:
Emily Noelle Ignacio is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Loyola University Chicago. She received her Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1998. Her recent research focused on community and ethnic identity formation on the Internet. In addition, she also studied the effects of computer-mediated communication on high school students' learning ability and their teachers' teaching practices. Her research areas include race, ethnicity, Asian American studies, communication and media studies, transnational and diaspora studies, and gender.  <eignaci@luc.edu>

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