Thursday, February 23, 2006

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THE SKIN YOU'RE IN

Erika_closeup

Erika_in_midnight_skin_1

Normally Erika Thereian is blonde and California tan, an avatar hybrid of Jenny McCarthy and Pamela Anderson, nothing less than the archetypal white girl of the world's dreams. Recently her friend Chip Midnight asked her to model his latest "skin"-- not an unusual request, since Midnight is a long-established master in the creation of customized avatar skins that Residents make, buy, and wear, when they're going for a look that Linden Lab's avatar adjustment sliders can't achieve. She'd wear Chip Midnight's latest skin around Second Life to build up word of mouth, and generate sales. "I often throw her my new stuff to take for a spin," Midnight explains to me. "She's very social, so she's a good way to get feedback." Viral marketing at its most immersive.

But when she wore one of Chip's recent skins, it also became, as Erika tells me, "[A]lmost a Black like Me thing."

Erika_transforming

This is because the design Chip Midnight asked her to wear is a staggeringly attractive, astoundingly photo-realistic, young African-American woman-- something of a Serena Williams, say, set to 3D.

Many gasped in admiration, when Erika appeared in public in her Midnight skin.  Some, however, did not.

"Well, I teleport into a region," she says, recounting a latter case.  "Where a couple people [are] standing around.

"One said, 'Look at the n***** b****.'" 

"Another said 'Great, they are gonna invade SL now.'"

I ask her if she filed an abuse report against them with Linden Lab, since racist speech is a patent violation of SL Community Standards.

She shrugs.  "Better things for Lindens to worry about."

Erika_transforming_ii

She spent three months in the skin of a black woman. Some of her friends shied away, she believes. Then there were the "guys that thought I was an easy lay, for lack of a better term. It scared me honestly, some of the assumptions made. Especially here where everything [in avatar appearance] is changeable with a click. I lost a couple of what I thought were good friends [who] stopped IMing and chatting. They were polite to a fault when I showed up, but [it] was weird. You know how you interact and something changes and no one tells you. Some were subtle, some weren't." She laughs without mirth, recalling how some friends would ask her questions such as, "'[L]ike, when you going back to being you?'"

As it happens, she's been through something like this phenomenon in her real life, where she is blonde, but racially, a large part Pottawatame Indian.

At school, she tells me, "They were always calling [American Indians] names and stereotyping.  I would say I was Indian, to [which] some would laugh and others would say, 'But you're not like "them"'. It's sad in this time and place so little has changed. I am sad to say I think we just cover it better [but it] hasn't went away. Look at New Orleans. And most recently that skater in the Olympics."

She's since told some of her black friends about her experience in Midnight's skin. "And they were not surprised at how I was treated, at all." As it happened, some of them are also Residents of Second Life, and play as white avatars. "Some [of them] because there were no good black skins available," she explains. "Others because they felt more accepted that way."

And though she didn't alert the Lindens to the racist speech directed at her, she had street justice schemes of her own cooked up-- she waited for the right moment to spring one on the guy who aimed the hated racial epithet at her.

Erika_in_midnight_skin_ii_1

"[I] got even," she tells me, laughing. "Listen. I waited 'til he was with a group of his buds. I went in and thanked him for the wonderful sex, and left."

"Thanked him as a black lady, you mean?"

"You betcha," says Erika, chuckling. "They were congratulating him. 'Til he denied it most vehemently. Which got them asking 'Why'? Showed him for the bigot he was."

Which was really the larger lesson she learned, in her three months within Midnight's skin. 

"Showed me who were good people and who were fakers," she says.  "That is a good thing to know."

"Being black as the litmus test for the virtuous?" I suggest.

"Yes," Erika Thereian answers, smiling.

Much thanks to Jessica Qin for tipping me on the story of Erika Therian and Chip Midnight's latest skin.  In a similar vein, read about Brace Coral's long search for a good African-American avatar skin, which she finally finds in the work of Starley Therian (via Zero Grace of Clickable Culture.) As for Chip Midnight, he's sold 10-12 of his African-American avatar skins, he reports. "I'd wanted to do that skin for a long time," Midnight IMs me, "since I've always thought dark-skinned girls have been short-changed... [Linden Lab's] default skin [is] set very dark, looks very Al Jolsen, and the skin-making community didn't have any really good ones out. Turns out it's far more difficult to do than a Caucasian skin. There's a lot more variation in tone across the body."

Originally published here.

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Comments

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lofthesedazimgonnacutuin2ltlpc Rust

wtg erika.. thats tellin those biggoted assholes, i love it and i love your dark skin, too

dga Kyomoon

I have been thinking about this for a while and Erika's experience has finally prompted me to make the suggestion. How about a day where everyone logs in as a person of some color other than white. How about more than once like the first Monday of every month or some such. How about an announcement by the Lindens of a concurrency of 20,000+ non-whites. I was going to suggest this during the Kwanzaa celebrations but didn't feel empowered enough. Now I do.

dga Kyomoon

How about Martin Luther King day, January 15th? Then every 15th of the month after that!

Twilight Harmison

My sister and I are African American in real-life and in the game. Thank God we haven't encountered racist people in SL, but it wouldn't surprise me that people say things like that. I think it's great that Erika exposed him for the racist he is. I hope that someday ignorance will cease to exist. But for now, we need people who will speak up. It always makes me smile when I see people who aren't a minority speak up against racism, or people who speak up for a race that's not their own. We have found skins in SL that are amazing actually. Of course they're expensive but it was worth it, instead of trying to make one myself. I'm in love with Photoshop but I'm still working on SL themes with it.

Primitive Hax

It seems strange to assert anything about a person in "real life", based on their skin pigment or skull shape or basically any natural physical attribute I could list.

But to apply such beliefs in SL? Surely that just adds a whole new level of absurdity, like Erika said, "you can change your appearance at the click of a button."[sic]
What better reason to judge people solely on their words and actions?

Essentially I guess it boils down to lack of reason. Racists, simply by being so - demonstrate a shocking lack of intelligence; I guess I shouldn't be surprised that they see no logical fallacy in carrying their beliefs over into the metaverse.

On a more positive note, I find it kind of cute when people treat avatars as objective representations, when done in a benign way.
On the other hand, all of this just leads me to think that a pluralistic society is much further away than I ever dreamed.

shucks.

BlueCoyote Yifu

i encounter simular comments when i go abroad in Second Life, as i am a Furry. there are quite a few people who use that bias as a reason to be extremly disrespectfull. its a fact of life you will encounter such people. I have grown non-responcive to their faces, and reprot them to the Lindens when i have gathered the appropriate information.

:):)

i think that was very rude and rasist people need 2 get over thereselves

Eli Darkwatch

I've had similar experiences, as I frequently change my avi between white, black, and Asian. One of the most annoying things is to be logged in as black, go to a club where there are black men, and have them ignore me completely as they all hit on the one or two white female avi's there. And then there was the time I dressed my Asian avi in a hanbok, the very distinctive traditional Korean dress, and went to a Japanese cultural sim. No one would even speak to me. I know that this sort of intra-asian racism continues to exist in real life, but I didn't expect to find in in sl as well.

Rin Tae

Sadly, it is unlikely that we will avoid racists on SL ... there are people like this in RL and there are some in SL as well and while it is already a totally moronic way of thinking in RL, it is even more so in a virtual world where we can all choose how we look. I have been using a dark skin for some time and luckily only got compliments for my look ... however I rally can't understand how people can still get all worked up over a issue like the skin colour ... it is like those racists stopped evolving their minds sometime in the last century.

Steorling

The spelling of the tribe your interviewee claims to be affiliated with is Potawatomi. They hold lands in Michigan and Canada.
http://www.potawatomi.org/

Pottawatame is a town in Iowa that has nothing to do with the Great Lakes based Algonquin tribe.

Pottawatomie is a county and creek in Kansas made famous for a massacre committed there by some of John Brown's men.

Am I spelling troll for mentioning it...in a post about racism and stereotypes...and ignorance about other people...even those we claim to share blood with?

Perhaps I'm just not in the right frame of mind for this article...with its "that" skater tropes and street revenge in the form of "insulting" someone by suggesting he'd slept with a virtual black woman. Talk about fighting fire...with napalm. *shivers*

Pussycat Catnap

This ancient blog entry needs an update for 2011...

Because its all still so true, even the n-word stuff.

I made the 'ethnic switch' in 2010 - mostly because I couldn't -find- my tone before that.

When I did, is also when I lost about half my friends list, people stopped treating me as the 'friendly newb who just didn't know better yet' and starting criticizing my comments they didn't agree with, and well...

I went from getting easy wins on contests in clubs and frequent IM chatting up, to 'hello' in places followed by silence.

Sometimes I wonder if SL is populated by closet-KKKers... But a lot of these people are Europeans, who in RL will lord it over me how they're not as racist as Americans... then in SL, in their social space; flat out ignore the 'colored folks'. So-called racist Americans - those are the ones who were less quick to abandon me when I changed...

- Though quite a few of them did as well, and I did keep one Australian friend (then again Ozzies are "supposed to be" even more racist than Americans, and my Ozzie friend complimented the change).

Joey1058

I shouldn't be wowed by the fact that minds perceive only what they want to accept, even in ones and zeros. A few years back I used to ID as a furry myself on a simple forum site. I was surrounded by others that ID'd as furries themselves. The hitch? It was a group primarily made up of the scientific community, following a furry character webcomic, attempting to be scientifically correct. I happened to say something out of context, "scientifically", and was ostracized overnight.

During that same timeframe, I tried a furry avatar in SL. I did notice the distinct "us vs. them" after a couple of days. I did drop SL then, before I dropped the forum. But apparently the damage was done. I can no longer think of myself as a furry, or don a furry avatar without being self conscious as to how I'm perceived.

Human nature is still ruled by cultural biases, and always will be, I'm afraid.

Garry

I have been in SL for over four years now. My original avatar looks like a long-haired blonde biker, kind of an idealized version of a biker fantasy I had when younger. I noticed there were few black avatars on SL, and I had noticed some being treated badly. So as a social experiment, I created an alternate avatar that was black, with a different name.

I sent him to the same place my white avatar lived and interacted with a lot of the same people. In some ways it was very revealing about some of the people I knew. Some of the friends of my white avatar flat out ignored me, not answering back when I chatted with them. I am happy to say that this was the exception to the rule, as most of my white avatar's friends talked to the new black guy (nobody knew my dual identity) and were friendly and natural. Some of my close SL friends resided in other countries, like England, Germany, Spain and Brazil, so this might have been a factor, but not a main one.

The friends that wouldn't talk to my black avatar are no longer my friends, as I do not like or tolerate racist behavior of any kind. To those who treated my alt badly, I revealed who I was and then stopped talking to them, ignoring their chats. As my social experiment progressed I found some surprising things. A lot of white female avatars were seeming attracted to me. It made me wonder... was it my personality coming through, since I made no effort to act or talk differently to anyone, being my normal nice, polite self, respectful to all, not "hitting" on women. Or was it perhaps that some women found it safe to "experiment" with talking to and dancing with a black man in a virtual environment?

By the way, all of my avatars are still, and will always be, SL virgins. I don't understand the attraction for "pixel sex" and all the associated trappings of sex in a game-like environment.

After being anonymous for months, I revealed my dual identity to most of my friends, both ways. Some friends had only known one or the other, but most had met both. I told friends of the white avatar that I was also the black one, and friends of the black avatar that I was also the white one. I felt that I had chosen good friends as nobody seemed to be upset about the situation. I was surprised that some of the female friends of the black avatar seemed a little disappointed that I was really white. Some had made comments that seemed kind of racist when they said that most black men they met on SL treated them badly and now they find out that the one they met who didn't wasn't actually black.

There was a next part to my social experiment, I made an avatar with a Korean skin and a Chinese name. I did have to file some abuse reports the first day he was created, and on Welcome Island, where all new avatars begin. Some people were extremely racist and rude to him. I got far more negative reactions than with the black avatar to my surprise. Sending him around to the friends of both my other avatars again firmed up my idea that I had chosen my friends well, at least the group that remained after weeding out the ones that treated the black avatar badly. My good friends treated the new guy no differently, without my revealing my real identity.

I think this made me feel better about the world, in my experience of being accepted for how I acted and spoke, not what my appearance was. I was trying to look very different in both cases, with the black avatar having long dreads, and the Korean avatar having short, black spiky hair and round glasses, much different than the long blonde-haired biker guy. When I finally revealed my identity to the friends of the new guy who also knew my other avatars nobody reacted strangely or badly. A few people even told me that they thought I was someone they knew, but just couldn't figure out who.

The next part of my experiment revealed more about human nature. My next alt was female. I was instantly amazed at how many men not just flirted, but were overtly sexual in their comments and actions. Apparently my non-interest in sex in SL makes me a minority among men, as my female avatar was "hit on" all the time. A female friend of mine was a member of a group called "No I won't have sex with you", which I joined, and that cut down, but didn't stop the number of runs at me. Most of avatars create things, write scripts and design clothes, so my female avatar was used for representing a line of female clothes. However, I soon tired of all the BS she had to put up with and she went into retirement and hasn't been out and about in years now. It really gave me an idea of how tough it must be for women on the internet, not just SL, as I have heard that in many forums.

In real life I get along with everyone, making friends everywhere I go, among people of all backgrounds, cultures, races, social status. Every day that I am out of the house I talk to people I have never met before and make new friends. So I have to wonder, how much of my normal personality comes through in SL in the various bodies of my avatars, and how much that affects the experiences I had that seem to contrast with the negative experiences of the writer of the above article, and some of the people that posted responses. Even though I expected to be treated differently, for the major part I wasn't. Would my experiences be different if I didn't act the same as my normal self, and maybe chatted in some overblown stereotypical slang? In my opinion, it probably would have, but to me that would be racism on my part, and fake, and I would expect it to skew the results. I will continue to use different avatars and send them to different places and meet new people, but I don't expect to see them treated badly like I did in the beginning. Was this a valid experiment that gained results about the people in SL, or was it flawed because I am not the normal person in the real world either? I'm not sure, and don't know how I could really determine that. Perhaps comments from reader of this post might help.
Thanks for reading this. :-)

Andrie

Racism still exist in this world. As an african american female in RL I have encountered racism within SL as well too. I am glad that someone wrote an article exposing this.Most of the racism comes from the community hub with a bunch of biggots thinking their better over an avatar. There's a lot of nasty folk on SL, which is one of the reasons why griefers are attracted to it. A shame social injustice is done to minorities but the minute a LGBT all is well. As long as their not dark-skinned that is.

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