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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

This first collection on issues of race in cyberspace provides a significant breakthrough in applying the insights of sociology, anthropology, media studies, and communication to the Internet and its culturally diverse denizens. If we think of cyberspace as a zone in which competing cyberia (cyberium in the plural) are extending their webby fingers, then we have the metaphor for understanding what happens when cyberialism (imperialism in cyberspace) reaches take-off point. In many ways the contemporary moment is an electronic re-creation of the globe in the sixteenth century, the early phase of European expansionism into the rest of the world. Large dot com corporations mirror the marauding and self-justifying chauvinism of the early trading companies which sought to carve up the physical planet amongst themselves, employing or allowing privateers to raid the competitors for the spoils to be taken on the high seas. As imperialism brought about the creation of "race" as a social category, so cyberialism creates its own racially marked categories, and reflects racial hierarchies and power struggles within the globalizing electronic world.

As the editors note in their introduction, in the digital realm race seems to be either "off" or very much "on," a flashpoint for anger and rhetoric. Yet as the collection demonstrates, even in the apparent exclusion of the zeros, race continues to exert its influence as a concept in the ordering of information and the arrangements of electronic relationships. The editors attempt to canvas a range of locations through eleven articles, in which race is either off or on, or exists menacingly in the flickering interstices.

Lisa Nakamura opens the book by taking us into the heart of the new imperium -- the dot com giants and their appropriation of a post-modern, post-national global vision. In their advertising these corporations (Nakamura uses Compaq, IBM and Microsoft -- which will do very nicely as exemplars of the Dutch East India companies of the third millennium) carry out a classic Orientalizing exercise qua Edward Said, collecting images of the exotic Other to offer to the assumed central subject -- a wealthy White Western (male?). As Microsoft promises to allow "you" to travel wherever you wish, it is the "wish" that you have that is crucial -- and to help you realize your "wish" the images of desire are those of unproblematic exotics. Black bodies are polished and glowing with health, lithe and sensual, yellow bodies erotically seductive -- in the cyberium there are no limbless beggars, or child sex-slaves. So we begin to sense that the cyberia constituted in the advertising of the hardware and software required to enter them, may be something other than the Other on first offer.

Some proponents of the new limitless world claim that the individual subject is magically freed from any constraints of race or gender when s/he enters cyberspace. Jennifer Gonzalez in her discussion of virtual bodies, rejects this utopian idea, proposing instead that such explorers "inevitably enact and perform their new identities through the sign systems they already inhabit, and through which they are already interpellated" (43). So Jeffrey Ow chooses Lo Wang, the "Digitized Yellowface" Cyborg Terrminator of the cybergame Shadow Warrior, to test out what race means for the testosteronically inflamed libidos of adolescent boys who are the main consumers of computer games. Ow argues that Lo Wang, despite his "Chinese" ninja face, is actually an (extremely misogynistic) "white male, middleclass, cultural colonizer" (54) -- but interestingly, one that has now been superseded by the inclusion of non-stereotypical race and gender personae for female gamesters in industry leaders like Quake and Doom.

Both Rajani Sudan and David Crane explore the way cinema deals with race in cyberia, in the first case the imperialist conflicts between Japan and the USA in Rising Sun, and in the latter a more internally colonialist comparison of films including the William Gibson-derived Johnny Mnemonic, and the modern western Hackers. Here the mean streets have embedded code, and the patois comes in binhex. But cinema is not cyberspace -- Tara McPherson takes on the hard guys directly, in her examination of the spread of White Racism and the electronic recreation of the Old South through a cyberConfederacy. She draws our attention to the increasing sophistication of the webRacists, and how they reassert the dominance of White values under the veneer of Gone with the (cyber?)Wind.

The Internet also lives as part of real flesh and blood communities -- one of which Blacksburg, Virginia in the USA, David Silver examines. He argues that community nets tend to reflect dominant ideologies of acceptable difference -- and thus "route around" potential areas of community debate in relation to gender and race. Thus new virtual communities with a locational "fix" can do significant damage to intra-communal communication, by not putting gender and race on the board for discussion. One could imagine a Blacksburg discussion list on Afro-American Culture -- it does not exist in reality.

However reality in cyberspace usually speaks in English and carries assumptions about the participants which reflect the cultural predelictions of the most powerful cyberinstitutions -- American corporations and their wealthy white male controllers. Mark Warschauer reinforces this insight, and then goes on to explore how the reality can be undermined and the technology used to reinscribe the culture of Hawaii onto the Americanness of the Net. He details the struggle to use new technology to rebuild the Hawaiian language, indicating that it is the relative anonymity of the Web that allows those hesitant learners to find a place which is comfortable enough for them to grow. Here without having to experience the more threatening emotional challenges of direct engagement diffident participants can accrete layers of confidence building linguistic success, at their own pace. In the process, they help constitute the new virtual linguistic community of Hawaiian speakers, a world with its own capacity to grow and build culture. Indeed, there is a good deal of evidence to show that electronic discussion lists and on line learning as a complement to face to face learning, can critically enhance the quality of learning for students more often marginalized in the classroom -- through lack language skills, gender power, ethnicity and race prejudice or discrimination, or disability.

Joe Lockard's discussion of "techno-universalism" highlights the embedded power relations we have already seen as the underpinning to a political economy of Cyberia. He suggests that we are seeing the emergence of an online nationalism, the self-delusionary ideology of an imagined community, in which power relations are never recognized, and netizen status is open to all. By now we are clear it is not so -- and the old points of cleavage can neither be denied, nor do they disappear or transmutate. Jonathan Sterne's careful analysis of race and the computer corporations in education demonstrates that even though the corporations claim an awareness of the issues of differential racial access, in practice the huge divisions continue between the public and private education systems. In particular the quality of computer education in Black and Latino-majority district schools, compared to White-majority districts, is very much lower, as is access to the hardware in the schools, and in the home environment. In part this reflects the power in the wider social environment -- but it also reflects the paucity of content which might activate minority youth to feel that Cyberia is a territory into which they can confidently stride.

Then there is subjectivity -- the "whom" we speak with, interact with -- when we plug into cyberspace. Beth Kolko's final essay in the collection addresses the processes through which we become part of the cyberium -- how our sense of ourselves is locked into the digital universe. LambdaMOO -- a very large multi-user domain MUD -- is critiqued for its lack of capacity for players to specify race, whereas gender and age are required inputs. Quoting the creator of TinyMUD James Aspnes, Kolko notes he had emailed her to say that race was not taken out, as none of the designers had ever thought it might be useful to have it in the program. Kolko notes that race is marked in role-play games, but usually in terms of intergalactic divisions - trolls, Vulcans etc. She took on her own challenge in 1998, to build MOOScape, with an @race property. The central question then became -- what are the characteristics of such a descriptor? Kolko chose to leave it open to the player - and wonders what her players will choose to place there.

So the new territory of cyberspace remains an exponentially expanding universe of opportunities. Since the book was written -- and some of the papers have a genesis half a decade ago -- many things have exploded. Benetton for instance, has put its Colours magazine on the Net, with a virtual exhibition of race objects and images, while Third World Liberation movements and nationalist bodies abound. There are at least three Kalistan organizational pages, each reflecting an alternative Sikh political program for the Indian Punjab. The Zapatistas in Chiapas were probably the first full on cyberspace revolutionaries, with their Web site offering details of their manifestos and their struggle for cultural and political recognition in Mexico. Increasingly, Black and Latino sites in the USA promote alternative understandings of American society and racism, while in the international sphere the Internet has become a channel for thousands of alternative visions of race to emerge. Ranging from hate sites (eg. White Power) to sites of cultural affirmation (eg. Romany) these outposts in cyberspace mark important points of struggle.

While serious activity has been focussed on blocking paedophile sites and allowing parents to protect their children from exposure to pornography, race hate sites have been more difficult to police. Possibly protected in the USA behind the first amendment, hate speech prospers on the Net -- seeking out school kids through intelligent use of site markers that young people will pick up on when looking for more benign materials. Increasingly, governments are being asked to examine how the intervention they have approved in relation to sexual exploitation might be extended to racism -- though what is seen as racist is rather more contentious.

As this book demonstrates, race is everywhere in cyberspace, so that the new cyberia will reflect as complicated a pattern of intergroup conflicts as the flesh and blood world. And interestingly, one wonders how this book would have worked as a Web site or as a multimedia production -- with the stills replaced by links and active/interactive exploration? Then it could join the armoury of intellectual and cultural weapons engaged in the struggle for a non-racist but racially responsive cyberspace.

Andrew Jakubowicz:
Andrew Jakubowicz is professor of Sociology at the University of Technology, Sydney, Australia. He is the executive producer of the CD-ROM project "Making Multicultural Australia - a multimedia documentary" (1999) and co-author of "Racism Ethnicity and the Media" (1994). He is currently working on a book on multiculturalism "This Mongrel Breed," and the Web site for MMA - due for launch in 2001.  <A.Jakubowicz@uts.edu.au>

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