Friday, December 11, 2009

The Skin They're In, 2009: Race & Second Life

Dance Lessons!

Location: Virtual Office, Grading Projects


This year, more students report getting dancing lessons than hearing the "N word" in Second Life. We just finished our week--and more for several writers--in different skins or genders.

Origin of the Project:
Ian, a Greek male in real life, about a week spent in the skin of another race, wondered this as he got ready:
Second Life is a virtual world, a world apart from reality, yet many things seem to carry over. But do the intangible and sociological borders carry over as well?
I've been wondering that since 2007. I did this experiment last year, to repeat the "Skin You're In" situation that Erika Therian experienced. As Hamlet Au's report noted, Therian met with outright hostility as a black woman, even from friends.

In repeating this test I'm less interested in presenting statistically significant results--let those better with numbers do that!--than with giving my students a transformative experience in SL after they are well accustomed to the virtual world. They then bring great energy to their writing and in gathering evidence to craft a defensible claim of limited scope, rather than cherry-picking a sweeping claim to defend, a bad habit from high school that my class sought to break. Last year, my class found using the "crawl to a claim" method that the newness of one's avatar, rather than its race, appeared to determine one's reception in a virtual world.

When I first mentioned the assignment, several writers, this year and last, noted how scared they were to be a different sort of avatar. As is nearly always case in my four classes that have used SL, students craft avatars that look as close to their real-life selves as possible.

One change this year: nearly every avatar had a gender-neutral name. I also wanted all writers to go to a range of places, and to have some choices about where they would visit. My collaborator and colleague Viv Trafalgar warned me not to send the students to the Public Orientation Island or the Morris/Ahern Welcome area, because of the griefers such places can attract. Yet when I discussed this idea in class, the students agreed that the Caledon Library, while full of avatars, would not provide a cross-section of the SL population. So they dove into several different regions.

Several even got free dancing lessons in purely social spaces.

"Everyone Loves Chocolate"
One writer, whose pictures are too tiny to show well here, put it this way, after finding that seemingly every male she met wanted to do more than dance.

I did not require anyone to dress a particular way, so some of the provocative remarks that black females got this year may be attributed as much to their appearing in revealing clothing as to their skin tone. Of course, in a world of mostly white or nonhuman avatars, the skin might be noticed, then the clothing, and the conclusion could be an implicitly racist conclusion that a "promiscuous black woman just arrived!"

This year, as in 2008, during the assignment period at least, not a single negative experience occurred based on overt racism. My students were scared when reading about what happened to Therian. As Emily wrote, "I felt so terrified of being verbally assaulted on SL, and instead I had a perfectly normal conversation with someone." Here she is with a well mannered older resident at the Memory Bazaar Welcome Area, where my own avatar arrived in SL from Orientation Island in early 2007:

Memory Bazaar

Some stand-out projects:
  • Ian's visits to virtual Plaka where, as a black man, he conversed in Greek with others. As he notes, Greece is "98% ethnically Greek" and in SL most of the Greeks already knew each other. He was greeted in Greek; perhaps the Virtual Athenians merely saw Ian's skin as a fashion choice. It's also funny to read Ian's account of a different spot where, in a twist of fate, he encountered a PhD student researching SL. I'm fond of this picture of him that, while blurry, shows his avatar interacting in the sort of diner/coffee shop I'd live in if I had enough free time:
Coffee Shop
  • Antoine, an African-American man in real life, posed as a white female. He overheard one "N word" comment, but the context made it hard to determine if it were directed at a black avatar nearby or was just part of an ongoing conversation. The avatars in question did not even seem to notice him.
  • Two students were treated poorly, as black women, at Luskwood. Both had received a good reception, by some of the same Furry avatars, when they appeared at Luskwood as white women. This seems odd, since Furries are so often targets of discrimination in SL. Both students were willing to be charitable. One of them wondered "whether their actions are merely reactions to the mistreatment that they have encountered. Here's one of the pair at the public Orientation Island.
Public Orientation Island

  • Jenna not only switched race (to caucasian) but also body-type. Below, she's half way through her transformation:
Instead of being young and fit with a trendy hair cut, she became plump and thick with a less unique hairstyle.
Two Changes

One avatar, full-figured like her, took time to have a prolonged conversation:
In real life people tend to gravitate towards other people who have an obvious similarity to them. This is usually associated with the idea that there is a sense of comfort in commonality. Judging from her willingness to open up to me, I believe the same concept applies in second life. In each region I visited in SL as a plump white female, I was a minority while "hot" white females had a dominating presence in large crowds. I felt more confident in approaching Jasmine because she was big like me. When I asked her what made her pick the body image of her avatar she said "I'm a big girl in real life." She also expressed that her avatar was a reflection of her real life image in both race, style, and body type. She claimed that being "big white girl" in SL did not prohibit her activities.
Jenna continued, "I faced no insults for being white but I did experience being 'invisible' which I contribute to being 'fat.' [The woman who talked to me] only furthered my suspicions in saying that insults directed at her were 'never for being white," but were "just for being a whale.' "

Conclusion: For SL-Experienced Students Only!

It would be foolish to toss new SL residents into this project; I don't recommend that faculty do this as a "one off" in a course that otherwise does not give students ample experience in SL to learn its skills and culture.

Overall, the findings by two groups of first-year writing students in two years may not be conclusive about race, but the apprehensions they all had were not matched by their experiences. Future students of this topic should control for variables such as clothing and, of course, location in the virtual world.

A sad coda to this project occurred after Ian had posted his project. He returned to Plaka, still in a dark skin, and in English someone said "Look at the N****r!" It repeated Erika Therian's experience, and Ian noted that the speakers had, in fact, been talking in Greek before making the slur. I'll still find hope, however, in one student's final remarks:
I had such a good time as a black avatar I don't know that I would want to risk changing back to the way I looked before.
Next year we try again. Meanwhile, here's another finding. Those males who changed gender to female, of whatever race, did encounter sexist remarks and clumsy (or hilarious) pick-up lines, but that is a tale I'll soon tell in another post.

1 comment:

Dud said...

Quite interesting to know others are trying similar 'assignments' as I am in SL for diversity experiences. Your information confirms my students' experiences, too. I may be in touch with you more about this.