Why are social inequalities reproduced online?
- Published: 12 June 2010
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When creating online avatars, people reproduce the racist, sexist and ableist structures of real life, writes Dr Eve Shapiro.
Many early utopian theories of computer-mediated communication asserted that as people “moved online” they would cast off gender, race, class, and body limitations to exist as undifferentiated equals.
But the suggestion that race, gender, class, and nation or any other embodied characteristics will cease to matter online ignores the fact that biases such as racism, sexism, and ‘ableism’ are not only individual prejudices but also structural inequalities.
Unequal opportunities, outcomes, or rewards on the basis of group membership or individual identity and built into social institutions.
When people assert that prejudice disappears in cyberspace, they inadvertently naturalize its occurrence offline by suggesting that the inequalities that exist in real life are inevitable.
The fact is, however, that race, class, and gender hegemony are manifest both through intentional discrimination and through social structures that reproduce inequality and construct default assumptions about what is normal, good, and desirable.
One of the first things I noticed when I began wandering around in Second Life was that almost all avatars in Lindenland were thin, tall, and White.
It is unlikely that this is an accurate reflection of the real-life identities and bodies of participants, given the demographics of North America and the self-reported participation rates within gender, race, and age categories.
I was intrigued and began to do some asking around in Second Life and some informal research outside of it to figure out what was going on.
The first thing that became clear was that the ability to construct non-White avatars was limited; many ‘skins,’ which are literally skins for your avatar either purchased or selected from the Second Life library, are only available in light skin tones.
Many skins do not allow you to adjust facial features to reflect phenotypically non-White characteristics such as a broad nose, for example, or lack of an epicanthic eyelid fold.
In the early versions of Second Life it was almost impossible to create non-White avatars, and while the set of available choices has expanded greatly over the last few years, the domain is still set up in a way that reinforces hegemonic beliefs that White features and skin tones are normal and natural, and non-White features are atypical, outside of the norm, undesirable, and perhaps even proscriptive.
What does this limited availability to portray non-White identities say about how deeply racialized hegemonic norms are integrated into our identities and beliefs as individuals and as a society?
If you can be anyone online, why would people independently but intentionally produce only a narrow range of hegemonically ideal bodies? And when creating a world in which people are encouraged to expand their identities and horizons, why would designers limit the choices for non-conformity?
When I asked friends, students, colleagues, and other Second Life participants this question, most people responded that if you could be anyone, why not be what everyone desires—why not be the ideal?
At its most basic, this offers a clear example of how hegemonic gender and racial identity paradigms shape the things people desire and the identity choices people make.
There is another layer of significance, though; if the ideal—who we should want to be—is thin, White, tall, able-bodied, and normatively gendered, what does this say about racism, sexism, ableism, etc. in our society?
Are we really leaving prejudice behind and charting new identity territory online? Lisa Nakamura, one of the foremost scholars of race and racism online, thinks not.
In a recent essay on the geographies of virtual reality she theorizes that, “when players choose blackness, whiteness, or brownness . . . users voluntarily create racialized space.” What Nakamura suggests is that in the process of constructing online avatars people are reproducing racialized inequalities.
Again, the utopian/dystopian argument about information technologies is revealed as overly simplistic and as one that elides how new technologies both enhance and constrain social change.
Online forums provide spaces for both individual identity work and for the reproduction of social inequalities and hegemonic norms.
Reproducing Inequality Online
It is not just individual choice that encourages this racial homogeneity, however. Just as in real life, there are sanctions for deviating from the racialized norm.
One way individuals may be penalized is through harassment; for example, many people of color who participate in Second Life report experiences of overt racism including name calling and refusal to engage in conversation.
Similarly, many feminine avatars possessing non-normative characteristics such as portliness, small breasts, or short stature report misogynist interactions. The limited research that has been conducted so far on the influence of race in online virtual worlds supports these individual experiences.
In a recent study Paul Eastwick and Wendi Gardner examined interaction in a virtual world similar to Second Life and found that there was a statistically significant decrease in the willingness of participants to help darkskinned avatars, “implying that reciprocity concerns took on greater importance when the requesting avatar was light-skinned.”
In other words, Eastwick and Gardner found that race mattered online in much the same way it does in real-life and that, “real-world racial biases, as they are inextricably intertwined with the rest of the human social mind, may also emerge in virtual environments.”
In addition to personal harassment, the very structures of most virtual worlds reinforce the hegemonic beliefs that normal equals White, thin, able-bodied, etc.
Not only is it more difficult to find realistic looking dark skins, for example, but when you do, many of the details and life-like features of avatars disappear. Similarly, most of the available skins and clothing fit poorly on fat or disabled bodies.
In one blog discussion about body size in Second Life, a participant reflected incredulously that:
I don’t consider my avatar to be plus size, let alone fat, but apparently many of the content creators in SL must . . . I have to edit skirts so much it’s not worth the effort. Boots are almost impossible to fit on my calves. So many fabulous pants and shirts look terrible once the texture is stretched over my shape. Even animations and poses can cause my hands to be imbedded in my body.
The inability to find skins, clothing, or even gestures that accommodate larger avatars reinforces the idea that normal equals thin and that no one should or would want to be fat.
One Second Life participant, Marissa Ashkenaz, decided to do an informal study in Lindenland for an academic panel at the 2008 National Popular Culture Association/American Studies Association conference.
She asked eight people to spend one week in Second Life as fat avatars and to keep a journal about their experiences in Lindenland.
What Ashkenaz found was that not only were individuals unable to find hair, skins, or clothing that fit their bodies, they had a hard time getting others to engage in social inter -
actions, were often ignored, and even experienced significant overt harassment from other Second Life participants.
These experiences confirm that, like race, participants in Second Life bring social scripts for normative body size and attractiveness into Second Life and scorn bodies that fall outside of these norms.
Again, in a social space not bound by real-life bodily limitations, people are working very hard to reproduce hegemonic bodies. Instead of reflecting the diversity of body sizes found in North America, the average height for both men and women in Second Life is more than six feet and almost all bodies are underweight.
This offers another example of the reproduction and even refinement of hegemonic ideals and attendant prejudice in online virtual worlds. In other words, although online spaces can and do facilitate identity negotiation and transformation, they can also reproduce the inequalities and stereotypes that are written into existing identity paradigms and social scripts.
Lisa Nakamura calls the reproduction of stereotypes online ‘cybertyping’ and suggests that existing racial and gendered inequalities are written into information technologies in a variety of ways.
Not only do people practice prejudicial behavior online, the structures of online spaces themselves (for example, the racial categories that are available in surveys) construct and reproduce racial difference and inequality.
Most significantly, however, Nakamura highlights how the Internet can be used for “identity tourism” wherein people reduce race to skin color and take on highly stereotypical racialized characters (a popular one, for example, is the Japanese geisha).
Taking on racialized, gendered, classed, or national identities in cyberspace without recognizing the ‘real-life’ circumstances and disadvantages of these identities.
Nakamura’s critique is that just as real-life tourists in ‘exotic’ places see a sanitized view of ‘native’ life, online identity tourists “use race and gender as amusing prostheses to be donned and shed without ‘real-life’ consequences.”
This leads to the reduction of race and other embodied social statuses to seemingly meaningless features devoid of real consequence, which in turn perpetuates social beliefs that racism, sexism, and other bigotries do not exist.
These exact circumstances are evident in blogs about race in Second Life. Many of the online blog responses to an essay on racism in Lindenland, for example, attested to the lack of racism by noting that they (White individuals) put on Black skins on occasion.
One commentator wrote, “I myself recently purchased an absolutely beautiful black skin which I wore almost constantly for over a week. (And I change skins almost hourly, so that’s saying something!).”
One danger of the Internet, then, might be the ability to play at other identities without an awareness of the lived experiences and inequalities that are part of that real-life identity.
How do we make sense, then, of the immense breadth of possibilities that computer-mediated communication opens up juxtaposed against the simultaneous presence of narrow, limiting social scripts and racialized, cisgender ideologies that shape identity work online?
Dr Eve Shapiro is assistant professor of sociology at Westfield State College. She received her Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of California, Santa Barbara and has published in a number of journals including Gender & Society, Sexualities, and the Journal of Gay and Lesbian Social Services. Her current research elaborates the dynamic relationships between identity and community, including how new information and biomedical technologies are changing the gendered lives of cisgender and transgender individuals.