Last week's post about apparent bias toward white avatars over darker ones attracted a lot of conversation, including this interesting point by reader JK Raven:
The major problem in the SL virtual reality isn't so much a preference for "Whiteness" but the fact that there are so few darker skin tones that look "realistic" or natural. They're usually flat in tone. That said, the avatar shapes also don't lend themselves to ethnicity either. They're designed to be thin, tall and mostly European in form. There are also very few hair creators that make ethnic hair very well. So, to get an amazing looking avi, many fall back on an average "white" European look. Why? Because it's the best way to guarantee a more aesthetically appealing look. If creators, designers and even LL's themselves would be more willing and able to produce more ethnic shapes, skins, hair....that didn't look so flat and lifeless, I am willing to bet there would be a market for it.
I hadn't quite thought of that before, but yes, the original default avatars of Second Life definitely had a Western/Euro-centric bias in terms of height and body/facial shape, in addition to the way skin tone is displayed. You can even see that in the current "starting" avatars (above), which all have a similar height and bodymass. The races tend to have some biologically insignificant but visually recognizable differences in terms of facial characteristics, which the SL avatar defaults don't capture very well.
None of this, of course, is to imply that Linden Lab is racist:
Unlike a game like Skyrim which trades in fantastic races, it's extremely sensitive territory to assign specific avatar settings based on race, and for that reason, maybe the company just decided to punt the problem over to the users, in hopes they figure out how to recreate racial difference on their own. At the same time, it's definitely a missed opportunity which under-serves non-white users. (And for a time, Brazilians and Japanese comprise SL's most active users.)