It all started, as things often do, with J. Lo.
I'd known this resident from the very start of career as an embedded journalist. Since she's a veteran from the very early Beta days, I'd come to think of her as an elder citizen of Second Life, always able to offer detailed histories of the in-world community, and give sharp insights on the way it was now. She usually wore her avatar as a tan blonde with light eyes, which I assumed to be a stylized version of her online self. (As it usually is, among many residents.) But I'd wondered why her figure was a lot more, well, curvaceous then one would expect. Because while her avatar had a face like Jennifer Jason Leigh, she was a lot more like Jennifer Lopez, from the waist on down. And so I wanted to know how that happened.
She said a resident friend had designed it for her, based on the description she gave him, of her real appearance. "I suck at avatar construction," she tells me. "The only one I ever made myself I used the random button to make the features. But I typically find something about the avatars made for me have some truth about my [real] personality."
"And so the butt and the tan are the essential features?"
"It's not a tan," she says. "One of your articles mentioned my 'tanned avatar'...and we giggled over that. 'Cause it was my friend's interpretation of my African-American-ness, so to speak."
She puts on a very early model of her avatar out of her inventory, and describes it as the closest form to her real world self; and it is, indeed, African-American, perhaps with a touch of Latina or American Indian. Some time after creating that, she kept with the avatar I've described as a blonde, "tan surf chick"-- which is how I'd always known her.
And that's how I found out, months later, that she's actually a black woman who's been playing Second Life while looking like a white girl.
I never would have guessed it, I say rather lamely.
"Of course," she says, "how could you know? It was just a giggle to those who knew. Anyway, it tells you [why] I bless J. Lo for popularizing the can."
I ask her if she ever tried making her standard avatar's facial features look more African-American. The customization tools certainly allow for that-there's even an appropriate hair texture in the database.
"Nope," she says, "never thought of it. Cause that's what people see first in the real world. And I spend a lot of time after that convincing them I'm different [from] whatever pre-conceived notions they may have. So here, people get to know me... and then I sometimes let them know about other aspects of my identity."
She hasn't up to now had much desire to make her real life race a public issue. "The only time I was tempted to declare my race," she says, "was during the Jessie Wall crisis, when the Confederate Flag was up. And everyone was bending over backwards to assure them they were not offended by the flag."
"And you were offended, I assume."
"Yeah, but I supported their right to display it. That along with an antebellum mansion and pickaninnies in a cotton field if they wanted."
I ask her if she really believes that most people automatically have preconceptions of her based on her race.
"C'mon, dude, of course they do." Even when they don't intend to. "Doesn't mean they can't let go of them. But yeah, when I walk through a door there's a set of notions that they may keep or discard depending on the first thing that comes out of my mouth... I'm not saying I got a problem with mainstream folks," she insists, chuckling, "My boyfriend is white." Then again, she adds, "[I]t took him a year to tell his mom I was black."
I tell her this reminds me of the lesbian who says she stays in the closet in Second Life, just to avoid the pre-judgments she's afraid some will put on her, if she did.
"Well in some ways, yeah, I guess." On the other hand, she says, "I also like the secret glimpse into the mysterious world of the white man!"
I asked what she's learned, by putting on a white person's avatar.
"It's a white man's world, my friend...that it is," she laughs. "I was thinking about that 'Saturday Night Live' skit with Eddie Murphy." In the classic sketch, a wiseacre take on Black Like Me, Eddie gets his skin cosmetically lightened and puts on a blonde wig, and thus convincingly honkied up, is able to infiltrate the secret land of white privilege, where there's a round-the-clock party, when all the black folks have their backs turned.
"That's hilarious," she says, "but always [there's] that secret little niggling bit of doubt for some African Americans… like maybe there really is this magical world.
"So whenever you talk about your avatar being your true race... I think of that skit."