My big, fat, lily-white Second Life
Would any black resident please stand up?
NSFW Column Roleplay in Second Life begins with the creation of one's avatar, or one's primary character. For many residents, the avatar, while certainly a character, also reflects something of the owner's real-life self. Sometimes this will involve a desire or a curiosity for which real life offers no route to satisfaction or exploration.
For this reason, gender bending is extremely common in SL. I've been told that up to 50 per cent of residents are playing members of the opposite sex, either in their primary avatar or character, or occasionally with an alternate avatar, or alt. My friend Tateru points out that this is potentially one of the more enlightening experiences a resident can have. As she puts it, it does a man good to pose as a woman and learn what it's like to be hit on every 30 seconds, while it does a woman good to pose as a man and learn what it's like to be treated with suspicion merely for saying hello.
Avatars can go a lot farther than that. There's a thriving furry community, for example. There's a vast sci-fi roleplay community, with more than a few humanoid aliens. There are D&D-ish/LOTR-ish roleplay communities. There's Gor, and Midian City, a sort of Grand Guignol informed by Blade Runner and Doom. There's a Pern community, with several RP'ers using their dragon avatars as primary characters. Many players love their characters so much, they choose to experience SL through them exclusively.
But one feature struck me immediately, and hard, when I first joined the game: the whiteness of it all. I almost never ran into a black person. Even in the "urban contemporary" and Caribbean clubs, one has to search persistently for a glimpse at a suntan.
Second Life residents will turn their avatars into any form imaginable: they'll gladly make themselves aliens, cartoons, animals, even insects. But not Negroes.
Why is this, I wondered? People will play almost anything except this one, incredibly obvious, role. Why is changing one's race so much more difficult than changing one's sex, or age, or even species? And so I set about investigating. As a first step, I bought an African skin and shape, and modified them to my liking. And I don't mind saying, I think the results are spectacular. Turn the page, dear reader, and behold the new me.
I think I'm every bit as beautiful as I was, although it seems that not everyone would agree. I've been in this skin for over two weeks now, and my experiences have definitely been mixed. My in-game friends have remained friends: I haven't watched people who I know well suddenly backing away from me. But strangers do keep their distance now more than they did. People tend not to strike up conversations with me, although there are some exceptions. Still, there's no question that I attract fewer new people than Destiny 1.0 used to do. I've also noticed that I get hit on a lot less, by men and women, and I wonder why. What kind of freak would not want to hit on such a gorgeous girl? Are people repelled by my apparent blackness? Do they imagine some presumed "culture barrier" is going to make it hard for us to communicate? Are they concerned that I can't follow their chatter about the artsy-fartsy bourgeois nonsense that so often concerns them? Are they frightened that I'll up and pop a cap in their punk ass?
The class ceiling
Second Life requires a broadband connection and a fairly potent computer to run properly. If you haven't got at least 1G of system RAM, a 128M graphics card, and a 3M broadband connection, good luck. So you can see right there that SL automatically selects residents from the middle-classes, who can afford at least moderately-priced toys.
But there's more than money at play here: SL selects people who believe that an up-to-date computer system is something worth having. There are plenty of users who get by happily on clunky old machines that run their favourite applications well enough.
But to really care about your computer's supposed features, you have to be, first, free to worry about that instead of, say, food and the electric bill, and second, a bit toy-proud in a nerdy way. The lower orders express their toy-pride with power boats, trucks, exotic televisions, and above-ground swimming pools. The middle classes take more pride in toys that suggest a university education, an open mind, a thirst for learning, and comfortable familiarity with information and the language of technology. It's in the heart of white, middle-class suburbia that you'll find the majority of hotrod computers, educational software, cool games, and fast connections.
A myth that I hear repeated by residents is that SL reflects life, because people create it. People like sex, so there's plenty of sex. People like gambling, so there's gambling. People like music, so there's music. People like art, so there's art.
I've found this to be quite naive. SL reflects a slice of life: a very white, Protestant, progressive, bourgeois slice. I can't recall if it was in Paul Fussell's Class, or Lisa Birnbach's The Official Preppy Handbook that I encountered the fine observation that it is the upper middle classes who typically play at life. Euphemism is always low and vulgar ("let's hide the salami"), but it becomes interestingly classy when it invokes a game ("let's play hide the salami").
The idea of playing at life comes to us from the middle and upper-middle classes, where leisure time and income come together in a fairly good ratio. The rest of us are either too enervated by the constant demands of noblesse oblige and tax avoidance, or too busy scrambling to pay the rent on time, to give much thought to play.
Sex play is central to Second Life, and it is influenced heavily by social class. Female homosexuality is huge in SL, and it is perhaps the ultimate in white upper-middle-class play in real life too. It's inside the elite universities that you see girls playing most enthusiastically with lesbianism. A few years later they're all married, but they'll talk the talk well enough during those four golden years. They worry much about their "gender identity", about feminism, "post-colonialism", and the oppression of "wimmin". And surely, it's only middle and upper-middle class girls who can afford to waste expensive educational opportunities on such impractical rot as "women's studies". The black and Asian girls are doing organic chemistry, because they actually need to learn something.
A kinder, gentler kind of racism
If you want to see racism clothed in progressive bourgeois condescension, look no farther than feminism, a daughter of elite universities. I can't recall the times I wanted to scream listening to my uni girlfriends lament the oppression of women in non-Christian countries, with a blind presumption that, through the wisdom and guidance of their more advanced sisters, these women would blossom into what they truly are at heart: middle-class Protestants.
Women in non-Christian countries were presumed unqualified to make an informed decision to celebrate the culture into which they were born, though it might value men and boys to an extraordinary degree. If you think a woman living in a highly paternalistic society is unqualified to judge her own situation and make a free choice to embrace it without your help and guidance, then you see her as less than human. And that, more than anything, is what racism is all about.
Feminism, with its attendant invitations to playing at lesbianism, is a constant feature of the real-life middle and upper middle classes and their liberal educations, and an equally constant feature of Second Life. So it's not surprising to encounter a sort of progressive, for-your-own-good racism in such a middle-class universe as SL. For example, no one has ever insulted me because of my appearance; but I have, on several occasions, experienced being "talked around" while in the company of women who don't know me. Often, these group chats will centre on clothes, jewellery, property, and novel ways of simulating la dolce vita in SL. Perhaps there's a tendency for educated women to think that a balck person might not appreciate or even understand their bourgeois preoccupations.
To the progressive suburbanite, black people are whites in training. One senses, while in a black skin among these people, their desire to see one reflecting their bourgeois values, and a sense of relief when one proves to be articulate and educated, revealing oneself to be high-toned. And I think this is what stops my bourgeois sisters from approaching me. They first want to see evidence of that reassuring whiteness deep within me before venturing a hello.
A belief that the best sort of blacks are in fact "white trainees" affects quite a few educated black suburban progressives too, as any fan of The Cosby Show and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air can attest. So it comes as no surprise that, among a population heavily skewed toward the liberally-educated middle classes, many of the real-life black people in SL are using white avatars, perhaps in hopes of pruning their passing skills. So far, I've met only one RL black person with a black avatar (and one other RL white person with a black avie like me).
My black/black friend tells me that she senses no real difficulty in getting acquainted with other residents, but does confess to being ignored if she merely stands about. My other, black/white, friend reports an experience similar to my own, having switched from a white avie to a black one and noticing immediately that she became invisible by comparison to her previous online incarnation.
Second Life is perhaps the whitest environmet I've ever experienced, and the most middle-class: I'm hard pressed to recall a single conversation with an undeucated resident. By and large, everyone is playing, and everyone has a fairly healthy bank account, as the basic costs of entry - even for a free account - are dictated by some rather pricey computing paraphernalia. Everyone is concerned with arts and science, and speaks with pride about information technology; everyone likes to learn; everyone believes in progress. It is, literally, an online white suburban paradise.
For me, the investigation goes on; I'll visit this topic again in a future column if my thinking should change. Meanwhile, I've decided to keep this avatar, rather than retire it following a period of experimentation. I think it's stunningly beautiful, and I don't mind at all if it puts some people off.
I doubt I would want to talk to them anyway. ®