UPDATED! #BlackLivesMatter: Meditating on Race, Racism, and Social VR Platforms and Virtual Worlds

Image source: Black Lives Matter

The problem is that white people see racism as conscious hate, when racism is bigger than that. Racism is a complex system of social and political levers and pulleys set up generations ago to continue working on the behalf of whites at other people’s expense, whether whites know/like it or not. Racism is an insidious cultural disease. It is so insidious that it doesn’t care if you are a white person who likes black people; it’s still going to find a way to infect how you deal with people who don’t look like you.

Yes, racism looks like hate, but hate is just one manifestation. Privilege is another. Access is another. Ignorance is another. Apathy is another. And so on. So while I agree with people who say no one is born racist, it remains a powerful system that we’re immediately born into. It’s like being born into air: you take it in as soon as you breathe.

It’s not a cold that you can get over. There is no anti-racist certification class. It’s a set of socioeconomic traps and cultural values that are fired up every time we interact with the world. It is a thing you have to keep scooping out of the boat of your life to keep from drowning in it. I know it’s hard work, but it’s the price you pay for owning everything.

—Scott Woods, African-American poet and blogger (source)

I have been avoiding the news, because I was afraid it would depress me even more than I already am, but I had a severe case of insomnia last night, and I woke up at 2:00 a.m., unable to fall back asleep.

I blogged a few items that were on my to-do list, then I lay down on the sofa and opened up the Apple News app on my iPhone and read all the latest news, about the outpouring of anger and outrage in many cities across America, about injustice and police brutality. About a President who had peaceful protesters tear-gassed and shot at with rubber bullets, so that he could pose with a Bible as a prop, in front a church for a photo op. Rev. Michael Cohen reported in Maclean’s, Canada’s national newsmagazine:

If there is one thing we have discovered to our cost about Donald Trump it’s that he can always surprise us. Not with delight at his eloquence or empathy, or some desire for harmony and decorum, but in horror at some new presidential depth.

And as the sun set over the capital of the United States, the most powerful man in the world had the police fire rubber bullets at non-violent protestors so that he could walk from his news conference in the Rose Garden of the White House to St. John’s Episcopal Church. He stood in front of this historic church, renowned for its commitment to social justice, held a Bible and posed ostentatiously for the cameras.

Just yards away, young people who had been demonstrating against racist violence and the murder of George Floyd wept with tears produced by tear gas and by frustration. Yet Donald Trump, supremely indifferent and even mocking, held high a text that roars love, peace, and justice.

This was blasphemy. In the most authentic and repugnant sense, it was blasphemy.

Global News reported:

The president held up a Bible and posed for photos at the front entrance with Attorney General Bill Barr, Defence Secretary Mark Esper and other administration officials, all of them white.

He did not go inside the church, instead returning to the White House without further mention of Floyd or the protests.

“We have a great country,” Trump said as he posed for photos. “Greatest country in the world.”

Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde, who oversees the Episcopal Diocese of Washington that includes St. Johns [Episcopal Church], issued a statement that called the combination of Trump’s photo op and the actions of police “antithetical to the teachings of Jesus and everything that our church stands for.”

“I am outraged,” she said.

“The President did not pray when he came to St. Johns; nor did he acknowledge the agony and sacred worth of people of color in our nation who rightfully demand an end to 400 years of system[atic] racism and white supremacy in our country.”

“In no way do we support the President’s incendiary response to a wounded, grieving nation,” Budde added. Instead, she aligned herself and her diocese “with those seeking justice for the death of George Floyd.”

All this crisis and chaos makes me want to escape even further into the safe, comfortable confines of my social VR platforms like Sansar, and virtual worlds like Second Life. In Second Life, Sansar, and on so many other metaverse platforms, it is so easy to create an avatar that looks absolutely nothing like yourself. You can be anybody—even a Black/African-Canadian person. And, from time to time, I have been.

Yes, I full well realize that some people have a problem with me, a White person, creating a Black avatar, considering it offensive and calling it “racial appropriation”. Wagner James Au of the blog New World Notes addressed the topic in a 2017 blogpost. But I still wanted to explore what it meant, in some small way, to be perceived by other avatars as a Black woman or man, to walk a virtual mile in somebody else’s shoes, and view the virtual world through somebody else’s eyes. Many, if not most, of the avatars in Second Life do not correspond to real-life identities (a notion that probably would shock someone unfamiliar with SL culture). And in absolutely no way was it intended to be disrespectful.

But my admittedly very infrequent experiences as a Black avatar in Second Life, or elsewhere in the metaverse (e.g. Sansar), DO NOT FOR ONE MOMENT equate with the reality of the pervasive racism that so many Black people face in America and, yes, in Canada too. We are not immune from racism here in Canada, as much as we like to think we Canadians are more liberal, open-minded, and welcoming than our American cousins. (In particular, our country’s predominantly White settler culture still has to come to terms with its truly shameful, centuries-long history of racism against its Indigenous population. But that is the subject for another blogpost.)

Second Life and Sansar and many other metaverse platforms are often overwhelmingly White/Caucasian, markedly more so than real life. Stop for a minute and ask yourself why that would be. Is it because real-life Black people pick a White avatar just to see what it was like to be a different race, as I did?

Or is it because they wanted to avoid standing out, in much the same way as many people who identify as female in real life choose a male avatar to avoid being hit on and treated as sexual objects by sexist, misogynistic, Neanderthal men? (My main Second Life avatar happens to be female. My years of personal experiences as Vanity Fair at Frank’s Jazz Club and various other popular music spots in Second Life have provided me with a highly insightful perspective on the kind of badgering which some women have to put up with, in a way that would have been impossible in real life as a man!)

Back in 2014, Wagner James Au reported on a study done at Ohio State University, where the lack of avatar racial diversity in Second Life impelled Black users to create White avatars:

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.”

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.”

Here’s a link to the bibliographic details and an abstract of Lee’s paper from ResearchGate, if you’re interested and want to go read it for yourself: Does virtual diversity matter?: Effects of avatar-based diversity representation on willingness to express offline racial identity and avatar customization. (You’ll have to get the journal article via your local academic or public library, though. It’s not freely available.)

Race and racism is a very touchy subject, both in real life and virtual life. And I am being extra careful here, mindful of my White perspective, not to cause offense (but if I have done so anyway, I apologize). And I do not, by any stretch of the imagination, consider myself an expert on the topic.

But I do think that on the various metaverse platforms on the ever-evolving marketplace (which I do consider myself somewhat of an expert on), people have an unparalleled opportunity to interact with each other, and communicate with each other, without any bias as to your race (unless the person you are talking to chooses to self-disclose their identity as a person of colour).

I have had wonderful, wide-ranging conversations with people—and made many online friends—without any idea of what that person looks like. So I would think that social VR platforms and virtual worlds could have a potentially useful application in combatting racism in all the forms outlined in Scott Woods’ quote up top: not only overt hate against Black people, but also White privilege, access, ignorance, and apathy.

But equity, diversity, and inclusion in virtual worlds is not guaranteed; people (and their avatar representations) have to work, and they have to work hard, at creating the more just world they want to see, both in real life and in virtual life. Current news events are a stark reminder that we cannot just declare ourselves non-racist; we have to be actively anti-racist. And we need to bring that mindset into the virtual worlds we inhabit, as well.

You can start by educating yourself on the issues, as I intend to do. Journalist Katie Couric has compiled a detailed list of anti-racism resources to help you get started.

An image from this week’s global protests (source)

UPDATE June 11th, 2020: Linden Lab (the creators of Second Life) has issued a statement in support of Black Lives Matter, Social Injustice Has No Place in the Physical or Virtual World, that reads in part:

Like many of you, we are feeling a combination of horror and outrage over the history of racism against Black lives. What we continue to witness is deeply disturbing and demanding of immediate social change.

The killing of George Floyd seen on video around the world is only one in a long and unacceptable series of violent and racist attacks and discriminatory behavior directed against people of color. 

We stand in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, all victims of systemic oppression and violence, and with Black communities across the U.S., the globe, and the virtual world in condemning racism and any and all actions that promote division.

Our mission at Second Life has always been to help build a better world, and in support of Black Lives Matter, we will be donating $10,000 each to three charities that are active in helping to fight oppression and injustice including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC).

The company followed up with a second blog post, Exploring Black Lives Matter in Second Life, providing links to in-world locations such as the Walls of Freedom memorial (which I wrote about here), the Stand for Justice event, The Black Excellence Project, and the Virtual Black History Museum. The post includes the following 4-minute video: