According to a study by Jong-Eun Roselyn Lee at Ohio State University, Discovery Magazine reports, a lack of avatar racial diversity in an MMO impels black users to create white avatars. Lee's study was conducted in Second Life, but seems generally applicable to MMOs in general where it's possible for usres to designate their race:
Lee gathered 56 study participants — half identifying as white and half identifying as black. She then had them read a fabricated magazine story titled “Meet the Coolest ‘Second Life’ Residents.” The eight “Second Life” avatars profiled in the story were either all white, in the low-diversity scenario, or an equal mix of white, black, Hispanic and Asian, in the high-diversity scenario. She then had them perform two tasks: Create and customize their own virtual avatars, and rate their willingness to reveal their real racial identity through the appearance of their virtual avatar. She found that black participants reported less willingness in the low-diversity scenario, and that they also created whiter avatars, as judged by objective raters. By comparison, white study participants were largely unaffected by either the high-diversity or low-diversity scenarios. [Emph. mine]
In other words, when the "cool avatars" are presented to be all white, black users tend to choose white avatars for themselves, while keeping quiet about their real race. This academic study matches the anecdotal reports we've been writing about on this blog, beginning in 2006 with "The Skin You're In", in which a white user experienced prejudice after she started using a black avatar. (An experiment another white user tried last year.) African-American users like Eboni Khan have told me about this phenomenon from their own perspective too:
You don’t find many African-American people being dark online. Which is funny, because there are plenty of dark black people in real life. I came from [another online world], and I was one of the few chocolate avies. Most were caramel. They blamed it on clothes being designed more for caramel [skinned avatars]. But that's a cop-out. I think it speaks to larger issues with race and skin tone. But you can't preach to people online who only want to get virtual ass. So I keep my observations to myself.
Consequently, it's difficult to find dark-skinned avatar skins in Second Life, and a virtual fashion show of black avatars can easily provoke controversy.
This is one of the many reasons I reject any kind of thoughtless utopianism about Second Life and virtual worlds in general. Enthusiasts like to imagine the metaverse makes it possible to leave our old prejudices behind. Time and time again, however, we see that's often not the case.
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