Monday, January 21, 2013

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Experiment in Avatar Race Provokes Prejudice, Acceptance

Black & White avatar experiment in SL

Years ago I wrote about a woman who learned many things when she changed her Second Life avatar's race, and recently, a reader shared his own experiments with racial prejudice and acceptance, when he went in-world as an avatar who was black and then Asian, and found out how things changed, when others saw him that way. And since this is Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, I wanted to share the experiences of Quark Static and his alt Zandor Wizardly, as recounted by their owner:

"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...

Black and White avatar experiment in SL

"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 who 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 seemingly 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?

“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.

"There was a next part to my social experiment, I made an avatar with a Korean skin and a Chinese name. I had to file some abuse reports the first day he was created. 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 black and white avatars again firmed up my idea that I had chosen my friends well. My good friends treated the new guy no differently, without me 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.

"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, but to chat like that would be racist 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."

Partially edited for length and clarity. Read the full comment by Garry here. (Avatar images courtesy him.)


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Nathan Adored

You should try going about as a kid-av, too. There are some really negative reactions to them as well.

Amanda Dallin

Not wanting to chat with a stranger could have nothing to do with the avatar's apparent race. Not everyone is chatty with strangers.

Adeon Writer

I just stick with raceless avatars. Problem solved!


There's a lot of racism in SL, just like in the real world. It's very sad. It's 2013 and still, this stuff happens.

Orca Flotta

Adeon writered:
I just stick with raceless avatars. Problem solved!

Hah! As if it was that easy. My avie can't be raceless since she's a racer. That kinda would neglect the purpose.


I find the entire Fur subculture puzzling, IRL and in SL.

But as one of my students found out in 2009, if you wear a Fur avatar in SL, expect to be picked on or excluded in ways we'd never condone in the US today IRL for a racial or ethnic group.

Adeon Writer

I have both a male fox furry and a white male human account. I have never been treated differently between the two except by other furry avatars that often have some kind of phobia of the human account. ;) Blame it on mostly surrounding myself with people who really don't care what avatar you're wearing at the given minute.

Personally, I find it very hard to determine avatar race due to the "Ambiguously Brown" trope of character design. There's a few skin creators that will make actual races, but most skin creators just offer various skin tones of an ambiguously raced human.

Pussycat Catnap

This is pretty much similar to my own experience.

I do have multiple accounts. And not all of the humans have always been African (they are now, even though RL me is a native american / asian mix: I real life I get treated as if I were an "illegal alien" anytime I get too far from coastal cities...).

It doesn't surprise me that Asians get even worse treatment. If you try out MMOs, you won't have to stay more than an hour before the global chat channels are filled with anti-Chinese slurs...

I don't see that here, but we SLers are about the same age as the average MMO player: late 20s to mid 40s.

I don't see it here maybe just because we don't have a global chat channel and I've never tried to make an Asian avatar.

BUT I have noticed Asians keep their distance a lot, and this might be a defensive reaction.

I'm sure the above will tick off somebody or three...

BUT that's how it is. There is a lot of racism in and around SL, a reflection of reality.

Despite how easy and often people can be something completely different from what they are in RL, those RL biases keep on coming through.

Oh and yeah... about two thirds of the non African males that address me in SL, have to open with something XXX related to N-words... that kind of phrasing. Women get that from men here as a sort of "par for the course"... but I'm referring to it having a certain racial angle of "wanting to do a black chick" rather than -just- the XXX.

My furry avatars have only gotten that maybe twice... human alts who started making comments about their fascination for bestiality and wondering if I had a four-legged version... =O.O=
- Mostly they never get hit on.

Pussycat Catnap

Oh, and note how the person said for the most part they were not treated differently.
- Once you engage people, yeah. Most of them are not bad.

But it doesn't take many to seriously spoil an experience.

The poster has an option I do not. He is not a minority in RL, he can escape this stuff (if he lived in Asia, he would get to see the world the way I do - whites are treated like a minority in Asia. I used to laugh when living there and my white friends would rant about how racist the locals were. I would just say I hadn't noticed anything different from being at home...).

- That will color his ability to really "test" this because he isn't carrying years of baggage with him.

White people can go for years without being labeled by race, without having 'race' an issue for them, without things being defined on race terms. In the USA, non-whites have almost every experience shaped first by a racial dynamic. We are defined first by the group we belong to, and only secondly as individuals.

But a final note:

"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, but to chat like that would be racist on my part, and fake, and I would expect it to skew the results."

- It is also very easy in SL to go to places where everyone is acting some racial stereotype. Like a horrid updated version of blackface. Everyone is a 'gangsta thug ni***r' or a 'b***h ho' or something... extremely offensive. I may not be African myself in RL, but I have Africans in my family, in my culture, in my roots growing up in Oakland, and in my religion. And when I see that, I know those people are a step away from cheering some Indian Mascot on a football team; 'redfacing' me...

Its good this person did not go that route. Because he was looking for an honest look. Many do. He should consider visiting such a place in SL just to see how bad things can get.

Pussycat Catnap

One more comment, about 'why now with this article':

"People of Color" have been saying this for years. But the three articles Hamlet has posted on it are all "white people who tried color for a bit".

- Kind of like how nothing is ever discovered or charted until a white man comes along and plants a flag?

All one has to do to learn about this topic is google variations of 'gamers of color', 'minority gamers' and even reading in 'women gamers' articles.

It bears some thinking into why is it not worth noting until a white goes to 'test this out and report back to civilization'...

I know Hamlet is trying to be genuine and open up this topic. But do consider that. There's a reason many Native American people hate anthropologists / archeologists, and a part of that is this: the "only someone else is qualified to speak for them" notion.

Shockwave Yareach

And did your friends KNOW you were the one driving the black avatar? Or did they simply get confronted with someone they didn't know trying to talk them up like they were long lost friends and got turned off by a stranger being chummy? And where is your control where you did the exact same thing with another White avatar to see if they behaved differently when confronted with a chummy stranger of the same color?

It's quite possible in your rush to judgement, you've thrown away some perfectly good friends...

Shockwave Yareach

@Iggy - Furry isn't hard to understand.

1) in a world where you can be anything and do anything, why stick with the same species you are stuck with in real life?

2) as furries have every color of fur/skin/scales imaginable, what color one is doesn't matter a bit. And most furs pay only lip service to species preferences, usually limited to "dogs rule and cats drool" kind of jokes that none take seriously.

If you don't want to portray a nonHuman species, that's fine and dandy. But we are only having fun, and have more of a variety of shapes, sizes and colors available to us.

elizabeth (16)

if I had been the friend of this guy. then I would not be now. I would have defriended him myself

is deceitful. white guy feeling sorry for the black peoples. and run round pretend to be a black guy. safe in the knowledge that he is not actual a black person

and then rub in his deceit shtick by saying: oh and bc I am not a racist i do the good thing by defriend all them who ignore the black guy

is handwringing white guilt passive-aggressive syndrome. it don't do black people or white people any good at all when play these kinds of games

if people you know say or act in racist ways then call them on it direct and upfront. make them own themselves. not sneak round in the dark playing gotchas like is some kinda mind game

elizabeth (16)

and then to perpetuate that where all the white women at is gagging it for a bit of the black

if i could swear right now. i would


JJ "It's very sad. It's 2013 and still, this stuff happens."

Actually it's fairly natural and expected (that stuff [anything] still happens). Doesn't always make it good but there often are reasons for it happening but I won't go into all the reasons because that requires a deep contextual understanding that I don't have on specific situations. What I will point out is that the old saying of "history repeats itself" and all the variations weren't just made up as a mindless quote.

Humanity having generations must relearn anything and every with every birth. There is no universal understanding that is persistent. Every generation is hard work and deals with the world as they see it.

Same thing goes for a lot of old sayings, quotes and even the so dreaded (by some) stereotypes depending on the case. One person’s minority is another person’s majority. Often there is friction around the borders of the subjects.

ZZ Bottom

IS not the color of the skin but the size of their penis that matters to me!


@Shockwave, I admit to having run about in an SL gorilla suit. But I never felt like a gorilla, just a guy in a suit.

Shockwave Yareach

Well, I've run around in biker outfits and skins before -- I didn't feel like a biker though, just a guy wearing grungy clothes.


I once went around dressed as a banana. I'd have to say, on the whole, most people found me appealing.

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