Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Critical Response: "Race In/For Cyberspace: Identity Tourism and Racial Passing on the Internet"

It has often been the general ideology of Internet enthusiasts that the web provides a new world for its users in which they can shed their real life identities and enjoy the luxury of anonymity. The popular utopian belief that goes hand in hand with this is the assumption that the Internet as a platform for expression is inherently value-free. This means that it is thought of as a “level playing field” where certain prejudices and disadvantages no longer exist, and people can finally be free from them. In “Race In/For Cyberspace: Identity Tourism and Racial Passing on the Internet”, Lisa Nakamura sets out to reexamine this commonly held belief and expose the inner workings of identity (particularly race) on the Internet. Her article helped open my eyes to the fact that the Internet is not really value-free at all, but rather that it came into being with certain predispositions from its creators and early inhabitants embedded within it. I agree with this stance, but I also think Nakamura may just slightly overstate the intentions of white people to use racial difference for their gain, rather than as what they consider harmless entertainment.
It is widely known to those who study technology and culture that the two share a reciprocal relationship. This means that new technologies carry the values of the segment of society that produced them, as well as those who use them. In turn, these technologies also affect the culture that they are a part of. Sometimes they reinforce existing conditions, and sometimes they change them. In the case of race on the Internet, it seems that issues are, in large part, perpetuated by the way race is represented in multi-user domains. Technologies created within a particular power structure emerge bearing characteristics that replicate that structure, and in the case of the Internet, this structure has white men at the top. It is also a familiar truth that all new technologies bring with them dazzling rhetoric of change once and for all, relegating those technologies that they replace into the “dark ages” of the past. So, even though the Internet was created in the image of the white man, and remains largely that way, it is somehow simultaneously (and arguably naively) thought of as a free and equal territory for people of all races. And it is possible that some (or even many) of users who make up these sites may genuinely feel this way. But ignoring the issue of race on the net just stifles any possible progress that could come about as the result of discourse on the subject. By discouraging minorities from engaging in such discourse, the dominant Internet demographic (intentionally or not, and I would argue the latter) allows itself to remain dominant.
            As an Asian-American herself, Nakamura is prone to particular sensitivity on this topic; even more so because she chooses to centre her attention on the portrayal of Asians on the Internet. I think that identity tourism, while perhaps sometimes implicitly reinforcing status quos, might be more innocuous than Nakamura believes. For example, I fail to see how the user name “Michelle_Chang” contains a harmful Asian stereotype, yet she says that it does. On the other hand though, I think it is important to hear the perspective of a minority because the Internet is not something that I personally ever considered to have a racial bias. I, probably like most white people, have always thought of the Internet as a raceless oasis of acceptance, where race no longer needed to be a contentious topic. But clearly that assumption was wrong. Being a member of the “dominant” race, it is very easy to inadvertently consider this a “default identity”, with anything but considered little more than an amusing and exotic difference, a stereotype, or something to be utilized by the white subject.
It would be nice to ignore race altogether on the Internet, as many users have expressed their desire to, deeming the inclusion of racial information “unnecessary”. But the trouble with that is that the kind of neutrality that they are hoping for simply does not exist. If race is not mentioned, then the “default” identity of whiteness is assumed, which obviously privileges that race over all others. Anything that explicitly (or implicitly I suppose) deviates from that norm is seen as causing unnecessary conflict. But I, along with Nakamura, think that racial discourse is extremely necessary, and ignoring the hard facts of real-world racism on the Internet doesn’t solve the problem, it merely sweeps it under the rug. 

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