race and cyberspace

Thursday, April 23, 1998

4:00 - 6:00 p.m.

Bartos Theater
MIT Media Lab

20 Ames Street


The goal of this event is to foreground the various ways that digital media are shaping our conceptions of and experience of race in America. The program is designed to be far-reaching, touching on such topics as:

  • the digital representation of racial difference
  • the role of the internet and the web in building and maintaining
  • minority communities
  • the challenge of providing greater access to digital media for
  • disadvantaged groups
  • the role of hate groups and community activism online

An underlying assumption of this event is that issues of race need to be understood within a multi-racial and multi-cultural context. The event is intended to raise awareness in the MIT community about the relevance of race to our understanding of all of the issues posed by digital media.


Brenda L. Cotto-Escalera is a Puertorriquena theatre artist who has worked extensively as director, writer, dramaturg, and sometimes performer. Her work focuses on the development of new performance through collective creation and actor-centered research and improvisation. She also works with Popular Theater techniques in a variety of grass-roots community organizations. Her latest works include Motherlands (the exploration of a young Latina's coming of age while reconciling with her culture, her family, and her lesbian idenity), produced by Boston's Theater Offensive, and Pajareo Boricua (an allegory of Puerto Rican society done with bird puppets). Brenda is currently teaching at MIt, where she has developed courses on Contemporary Latin American Theater, Theater and Cultural Diversity in the U.S.A., and Gender Performance. She also teaches introductory courses on theater arts and studio courses on collective creation and actor-created theater.

Glenn Kaino served as the board president of the Los Angeles Center for Photographic Studies, where he developed a program to teach inner city children media literacy and the effective use of the internet. This program has now spun off into its own non-profit called On The Line, and is in the process of launching its pilot project, Waking Hours.

Tara McPherson is an Assistant Professor of Critical Studies in the Film School at the University of Southern California. She is the co-editor of Hop on Pop: The Politics and Pleasures of Popular Culture (forthcoming, Duke University) and is currently revising Reconstructing Dixie: Race, Place and Femininity in the Deep South, also for publication by Duke University Press.

Erika Muhammad is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Cinema Studies at NYU, an instructor in the Graduate Communications Department at the New School for Social Research, and is a member of the Curatorial Department at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Muhammad writes for numerous publications including The Independent, Afterimage, and Ms. Magazine. Her work on new media by artists of color will be published in the forthcoming volume Strategies of Representation: African American Documentary Film and Video, edited by Janet Cutler and Phyllis Klotman.


Brenda Cotto-Escalera
opened by explaining "we are here to explore the various ways that digital media are shaping our conceptions and experience of race in America." The forum was also expected to delineate some parameters for the conversation to take place at a conference on race and cyberspace in the next academic year.

Cotto-Escalera pointed out that there have been disturbing disparities in usage of the Internet by people of different races, as clearly outlined in the recent article, Bridging the Digital Divide: The Impact of Race on Computer Access and Internet Use, by Thomas P. Novak and Donna L. Hoffman (excerpted from the 4/17/98 issue of Science).

Each of the speakers contributed a unique perspective on addressing these issues that challenged popular views of cyberspace.

Glenn Kaino highlighted the inaccuracy of popular discourse which has proclaimed the erasure of race in cyberspace, pointing out that knowledge about ethnicity on the Internet leads most user's to perceive a default race and gender of white male, regardless of their own identity. Users of different racial and ethnic backgrounds face the unacceptable dilemma of either overtly establishing their race, ethnicity and gender or accepting an inaccurate default identity of a "6 foot tall white male." Kaino then demonstrated Favela-- an Internet site named after Brazilian shanty towns created by poor communities for survival -- which attempted to shift the balance of perceived identities on theInternet by infusing the predominantly white male popular culture with the art of women and people of color.

Kaino then cautioned that such activities would not be enough to help people of different races and cultures to find spaces and voices on the Internet. He predicted that the overall situation would only change if people of different races, ethnic backgrounds and genders moved beyond issues of access and representation towards actively engaging in creation and expression about personally meaningful topics. This was the goal of the WWW site "Waking Hours," which was the pilot project of the non-profit organization On The Line. He demonstrated how the site was designed to engage children in on-line critical discussions about class, race, ethnicity and gender through creative juxtaposition.

Tara McPherson began by declaring that "white is not just the default race of the Internet, it is actively constructed!" Furthermore, the way that whiteness is constructed can be understood by examining major neo-confederate websites (e.g. DixieNet, The Confederate Network, The Heritage Preservation Association and The Dixieland Ring).

These sites portray white men's attempts to make self in the world and articulate a particular presence. They do this by finding new ways of securing and privileging the meaning of whiteness without engaging in overtly racist discourse or using images of blackness to delineate the contours of whiteness. Instead, they use techniques such as referring nostalgically to southern manners, which historically functioned to help one to know ones place, especially ones racial place. They also appropriate nationalists and civil rights struggles as an attempt to give whiteness both a voice and a content.

"Virtual Dixie" is a technologically mediated public sphere fashioned by white men to sustain their desire for origin and homeplace. Their emphasis is on unity rather than multiplicity, and the sites represent a serious battle over place, race and identify rather than play. Given this, it might be important to wonder what might be gained from shifting theories of cyberspace away from the currently fashionable tropes of play, multiplicity and theater towards explorations of citizenship, politics, justice and democracy.

McPherson also added a cautionary comment about lending too much credence to utopian rhetoric about the potential of the Internet for questions of access and education. She pointed out that the rhetoric about the introduction of cable was similar, but did result in the widely democratic space that was expected.

Question and Answer

Mary Hopper asked Muhammad to compare her experiences as an African American female to those of Kaino, a forth generation Japanese American male. Muhammad began by saying that she felt Kaino's experiences reflected much of her own as well. However, she expressed concern over the particular problem of sustaining authentic representation of black women in sufficient numbers to make an impact in the face of inappropriate commodification and co-opting of black culture on the Internet.

Morissa Scottrecommended to the audience that they visit the website for the Million Women March. She then described a radio station in Long Beach, CA that used the slogan "Erase Color Lines." She felt that celebrating the abandonment of racial and ethnic identity was offensive, and wanted to know the panels thoughts about the role of the media in erasing rather than celebrating differences?

McPherson responded "the faith in colorlessness is one of the great racist conspiracies of the late twentieth century, and a vision of a raceless future is a racist future."

Kaino also responded by further contributing to Scott's point with his own personal knowledge about the particular radio station's employment policies. The station had a primarily African American audience, but only two DJs of color, and didn't admit it. Kaino said that he didn't feel comfortable with their practices, despite the fact that the station did make positive contributions to communities of color in the L.A. area.David Thorburn pointed out that the discussion dramafied that the ease with which the media permit disguise and counterfeit is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, as Sherry Turkle has pointed out, its a very exciting and creative avenue where participants can shed aspects of identity. But, on the other hand, it can permit very disturbing practices.

Thorburn went on to suggest that it was essential to consider what skills were absolutely critical for taking control of the new technologies. "The Internet is still a textual medium, and so reading skill is a primary barrier to access. You have to be a good reader, you have to be confident verbally, and you can't be intimidated by a page of type. We mislead ourselves if we talk about the need for access, instead of the skills that we know are a function of economic and racial inequality. It is important to not think of the problems of the Internet as new or special just because it is a new technology, rather than considering them as a function of deterioration of schools, indifference to education and other things that were problems before there was an Internet."

Muhammad responded to Thorburn's comment by sharing that she considered it critical to get people equipped to speak to the people in their communities -- both locally and globally. She agreed that access to technology might not be as critical, relative to preparing users to be able to determine what to say, how to say it, and how to get it to particular audiences effectively. She concluded her response by agreeing that discourse often started out on the wrong foot in many respects.

Kaino concluded with the final note that these issues were the reason why it would be critical to teach young people to control the media. He also added that the biggest way to empower people would be by teaching them how to teach themselves.