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Chris F Race and Gender Switch Project

Page history last edited by Joe Essid 9 years, 5 months ago


 Race and gender play a very influential role in the way individuals interact with one another. These superficial features represent the initial means by which we are viewed. They play a large role in our first impressions, and ultimately lead us to judge the person. While judging someone comes across as shallow, it represents an inevitable aspect of society that allows individuals to distinguish themselves from others. Since we know very little about one’s character and internal personality upon meeting them, we look to their external features to make an evaluation. Certain appearances carry stereotypes which allow us to associate an individual with others who look like them. Stereotypes can be either positive or negative depending on the characteristic, and people are treated differently based on those stereotypes. While this is certainly the case in the real world, Wagner James Au argues that residents make similar associations about other avatars in Second Life. After changing the race of my avatar, I found that other avatars treated him very similarly to the way he was treated as a Caucasian.  

   In his article titled The Skin You’re In, Au discusses the experiences of resident Erika Thereian in Second Life after altering her avatar’s appearance. Au describes the way Thereian’s avatar was treated by both close friends and complete strangers after she changed her avatar from an attractive Caucasian female to an attractive African-American female. Her recounted experiences are quite startling. After changing the avatar’s appearance, she immediately teleported to a popular public location and was instantly verbally harassed by residents. These residents made it clear that avatars of her race were not welcome in Second Life by making comments such as “’Look at the n***** b****’” (Au) and “’Great, they are gonna invade SL now’” (Au). These avatars had no idea who they were talking to. They made their remarks based on the external appearance of an individual’s virtual character. Even Thereian’s Second Life friends treated her differently after she changed the color of her skin. They no longer would IM/chat with her and seldom wanted to spend time with their now African American ‘friend.’ These negative interactions based on altering of Thereian’s avatar’s skin led Au to believe that racism, discrimination, and prejudice occur in virtual worlds just as they occur in reality.

            My avatar, Deklin Windlow, began his adventures in Second Life with a very ordinary appearance. Upon learning how to change his appearance, I gave Deklin very pale, ghost-white wolf skin and a set of clothes. Needless to say, Deklin looked very strange in his wolf skin. Even with this outrageou

s façade, Deklin seemed to have little difficulty interacting with other avatars in world. People were very helpful and polite when he asked them questions and conversed with them. I didn’t notice any obvious differences in the way others interacted with Deklin based on his ghost-like appearance. About a week ago I took off Deklin’s wolf skin and made him African American. Deklin now had dark brown skin, a large black afro, and wore a hip t-shirt, as depicted in the snapshot below.

Deklin in his new skin and clothes


Through my experiences in Second Life these past few weeks, Deklin has not been treated differently based on the color of his skin. His interactions have been quite positive, and he even met someone who appeared very excited to see an African American avatar in Second Life.

            Although the majority of Deklin’s dealings with other avatars in his African American skin were quite positive, he encountered a few situations where avatars ignored him. Upon entering different areas of Second Life, I would approach a group of avatars and begin conversing with them. For the most part, these avatars were very corporative. They didn’t hesitate to include me in their conversation and were very friendly in our interactions. Here are some snapshots of Deklin interacting with others at Orientation Island, a German Beach Resort, and a Winter Wonderland Ice Rink.

Deklin interacting with a new avatar at Orientation Island


Deklin talking with other avatars at the a German Beach Resort


Deklin having a conversation with the owner of a Public Ice Rink


On some occasions, the other avatars completely ignored Deklin when he tried to interact with them. I would try to enter the conversation, and the other avatars turned their backs to Deklin and continued talking amongst themselves. This snapshot shows Deklin attempting to enter a conversation at Help Island.

Deklin being ignored as he tries to enter a conversation


This action made me feel very uncomfortable and out of place in the virtual world, almost as though I was unwelcome in this quasi utopia. Although they excluded me from their conversation, I could not determine if the action was based on my race or for other reasons. The group of avatars could have been engaged in a personal conversation in which they didn’t want to include me. I would hope that the latter was the case, but the situation made me wonder nonetheless if I was being discriminated against based on the color of my avatar’s skin.

            I had changed Deklin’s appearance before I began my interview with avatar Whirly Fizzle with the hope that this interview would give me an idea as to how a complete stranger in Second Life would act around a minority. Here is a snapshot of me talking with Whirly Fizzle.


Deklin interviewing Whirly Fizzle at her house in Second Life


Deklin Interviewing Whirly Fizzle


I asked her a few questions regarding her views of race and discrimination in virtual worlds at the end of the interview. She seemed upset that there were so few colored avatars in Second Life, as indicated when she said “I think it’s really weird…why aren’t there any!?” (Whirly Fizzle). I took this as an opportunity to tell Whirly about my ‘experiment.’ She immediately became very interested in my project and began questioning me about both the project’s nature and my findings thus far. After alerting her to the fact that I changed my avatar’s race just minutes before our interview, Whirly asked “You notice any difference in the way you got treated?...Actually, when I first saw you I thought…thank God…someone has a black AV!!!” (Whirly Fizzle). This comment indicated to me that Whirly looks past an individual or their avatar’s obvious attributes and judges them based on their personality. My conversation with her could not have been more successful and it gave me great insight into how Second Life users feel about minorities in virtual worlds. While Whirly represents only one example, this interview made me realize that Au’s argument may not be accurate.

When Deklin Windlow changed his appearance from a Caucasian male to an African American male, his interactions with others were impacted very little, if at all. Wagner James Au argues that racism and discrimination based on one’s gender and skin color are just as prevalent in virtual worlds as they are in reality. Through my experiences and interactions as an avatar of a minority, I have come to realize that Au’s claim is not entirely true. While stereotypes are present in Second Life, I do not believe that it is to the same extent as in the real world.  My conversation with Whirly made me realize that Second Life has the potential to be far different from reality. People in virtual worlds can look past the obvious and recognize what is actually important in an individual, their character.


 Au, Wagner J. "The Skin You're In." Weblog post. New World Notes. 23 Feb. 2006. 27 Oct. 20008 <http://nwn.blogs.com/nwn/2006/02/the_skin_youre_.html>.


Fizzle, Whirly. "Interview With Avatar Whirly Fizzle." Online interview. 22 Oct. 2008.


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Comments (2)

Andrew Conley said

at 4:34 pm on Oct 30, 2008

I came to the same conclusions about how race/gender affect social interactions. It's hard to write about how people weren't discriminating, but perhaps you could include some more examples. Why weren't they discriminating? Were they doing something else that you didn't know of or speaking a different language?

Amanda said

at 5:54 pm on Nov 4, 2008

Claim: “Stereotypes can be either positive or negative depending on the characteristic, and people are treated differently based on their stereotypes.”
1) When you say “based on their stereotypes” I feel as if “appearances” would be better instead of “stereotypes” since a stereotype is derived from one’s appearance.
2) I feel as if you’re saying that all people that have the same characteristic have the same stereotype, but I don’t believe this is true since stereotypes are personal and based on the society and culture one lives in.
3) Therefore, do people in Second Life all have similar cultures and societies that they have this discrimination against people of color, based on what Au said.
4) People learn to judge others based on experience, and by what one hears when growing up.
5) People also are able to think for themselves and make their own decisions on how to treat people.
6) Stereotypes can be both positive and negative, depending on who is viewing the person.
7) Context is essential for judging a person and developing an opinion of them based on his or her appearance.
8) Appearance depends on context or location, because dress is culture based.
9) 2 people can look at the same person at the same time and come up with two different opinions and stereotypes on him or her, because each person has a different view on people who look like that.
10) Stereotypes are dynamic.

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