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."
When I first met Bel Muse, I knew her avatar as a pigtailed blonde with green eyes. And that's how I thought of her, in my mind's eye, when I wrote down her insights on the "Heathers" incident, or on the war over Jessie. And that's probably how most veteran residents also got to know Bel. Her building talents and witty repartee have helped make her one of the most popular citizens in Second Life.
"This is like if Julia Roberts suddenly pulled off her mask," I tell Bel, "and we find out she looks like Whoopi Goldberg underneath."
Bel laughs. "And we all love Whoopi," I emphasize, "But it will definitely throw people for a loop."
"Yeah," says Bel. "The thing is, if people ask me straight out, I always tell the truth. But most people never ask. A few have asked, generally based on remarks I make. Like using the word 'sistah' instead of 'sister.'" Someone criticized her for this once, saying, "'It's funny how middle class white kids like to sound like hood rats'." Thing is, "I was not a middle class white kid."
I ask her if anyone seemed to change their opinion of her or treat her differently, once they found out she's black.
There's a long silence before her reply comes back.
"I'd say no, but with one advisement. 'Cause I think when my friends do know...they become a little more sensitive, aware that I might view some things differently.
"There's a phase that goes around Second Life: 'no ghetto scripts'-- tacky, poorly-made scripts... But I'd guess (and this is all I can do) is that they would decline to use that phrase around me."
Then again, she adds, "it's a hard call" to tell whether that's done out of sensitivity to race, or simply because the phrase never came up. In any case, she says, laughing, "I'm not calling the NAACP 'cause someone claims to have no ghetto scripts." I suggest the headline that would follow: "Kweisi Mfume Speaks Out Against Ghetto Scripts!", and we laugh at the thought.
"I have a lot of difficulty discussing race because it's really on to very subtle issues," Bel says, "in both Second Life and in real life. Everyone can understand the problem with colored-only bathrooms, or WWII interment camps, but now… I have to prove myself. I have to make a good impression right away-- I have to come off nice and articulate, right away. In Second Life, I didn't have to. Because for once," she says, smiling, "I can pass. I can't pass in real life."
She compares her experiences to speaking with someone on the phone, then meeting them in person. Because in speech, she "sounds white", "I know they form assumptions about me [on the phone] because when they see me in person, I can see the moment of re-adjustment... And it's not that they are disappointed, it's just like an 'Oh… I thought someone named Monica Hamill would be blonde.'" ('Monica Hamill' isn't Bel's real name, but the pseudonym is similar to it.)
"See, here's the anxiety: there's two schools of thought in Second Life. One is, leave all problems of real life outside; this is a game. The other is, let's look at the interesting way real life issues play out in a virtual environment.
"So it's really an interesting question, and I don't know even after discussing it with you, where I stand on this... I mean, it's like being something you can hide, and never having to admit to. But it's still there for you -- so now I know how it feels to be something you can hide, but still having the compulsion or desire to be open about it.
"The folks that want to leave real life issues out, may feel that simply by disclosing my race, I've brought the ugly issue of race in Second Life. And what I can't answer for sure, one way or other, is if they are correct. Is race here, if no one admits to any race? Do I create race issues by claiming race?"
"Well," I say, "there's a school of thought that cultural stuff, certainly high tech culture, is already assumed to be a 'white' thing."
"I'd say that's true," Bel answers. "You're white until proven guilty."
"The kids called me an Oreo when I was a kid," says Bel Muse, "so the issue of being somehow phony, or trying to be something you're not, is always a sore point with me."
"Do you mean other black kids would accuse you of acting white at school?" I ask her.
"Yeah, I had to run home from school more than once cause of the way I talked. Fun!"
And she has a theory to explain where this opposition to "acting white" originated. "If you think about it," says Bel, "anyone who stood out on a plantation was probably bad news for the others; the best thing was to blend in, and not get any extra attention. It just feels like [not standing out is] the way to survive… not what's holding you back. That's where the institutional quality has an effect generations later."
Her mother's side of the family is from South Central, Los Angeles. "I'm the first person in my immediate family to graduate from four year college-- in History, from UCLA. I still see all kinds of weird behavior in my family, which I realize now would make perfect sense on a plantation. And is just bizarre in the world we live in. But if they don't leave the ghetto, how will they learn it can be different?"
What she says has a thrill of the taboo about it, the flavor of things that are rarely said between races, in person, but are easier to convey, when it's two avatars who do the communicating.
"America is still racist," says Bel, "but I think racism is a very subtle thing; not just being 'unfair', or thinking things before you meet a person." Despite that, she doesn't pull her punches on the country's segregationist past: "We institutionalized [racism] in a way only the Nazis came as close to… there are STILL places in Florida where you can see signs for whites-only drinking fountains."
I suggest that this also demonstrates how far we've come as a country, in such a short time.
"I don't discount that at all," says Bel. "I'm very blessed, and think this is a marvelous country-- the best one, as far as I'm concerned. But the slave system was really quite vile." And we talk about the Civil War and its legacy, with a frankness that usually isn't possible, when the conversation is driven by the paranoid fear of causing offense.
"It's very interesting," I finally say. "I'm not white, either, my dad's Chinese, and my grandpa came here from Shanghai, so I have a somewhat different perspective on racism."
"Oops, my bad," says Bel. "[I assumed] that you were white...that's my faux pas. See? Racism in reverse!"
I laugh. "Did you think 'Au' was French? My avatar has slant eyes and everything."
Speaking of racial confusion, she says her blonde-haired, green-eyed avatar was created by a Second Life friend, partly inspired by an avatar she first used for a notorious (and very Mature-rated) project known as The Pleasure Cove. She pulls the willowy brunette out of her inventory, to demonstrate.
"This is how she looked-- for some reason I always think of her as being [an] English dominatrix." This avatar is even more white than her tan surf chick. So I ask, "What's it feel like to wear a white woman's skin, as it were?"
"It felt like when I read a book and the heroine is white," Bel answers. "[I]t's like white is just default, [but] I can transparently apply it to me in my imagination. I loved Star Wars, fave movie of all time, [but] I don't think it's a story about white people… I think it's just a story."
"But that was a sexy white woman," I point out, "and you must have gotten a lot of sexual reactions from folks."
"Yeah. That was the face and figure of Pleasure Cove," says Bel, smiling. "But did I feel any forbidden pleasure by being the white she-devil? I think it was like playing with Barbies-- I didn't think I was 'white' 'cause I played with white dolls. I just told stories about them."
Talk of this reminds me of the famous study by psychologist Kenneth Clark in the 50's, who demonstrated how young black girls had come to prefer white dolls, over black dolls. It was instrumental in convincing the Supreme Court that segregated schooling had helped poison their self-esteem, and had to end.
Bel Muse, who grew up in the 70's, looks at her own experience somewhat differently.
"I only became conscious of race with dolls when I had a black doll among other white dolls," she says. "Then she was the different one. When my mom gave me a black Barbie and I had a bunch of white Barbies, then there was race. Which is kinda like what we are talking about now: there's no race until someone labels the race.
"Like I said, I'm really not able to come to any conclusion on this. I can flip it this way and the other." But considering Clark's study with the dolls, "that's why it's better to discuss race openly in Second Life. So it doesn't unconsciously foster an environment of racial homogeneity [since an] environment where everything was homogenous was not healthy." Because in here, unlike anywhere else, the choice isn't really black or white, at all. The choice is to be who we are, or who we want others to see us as-or, for a need, to be who we are, when others can't see us.