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."
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."
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.
"[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.