Thursday, April 23, 1998


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.

Erika Muhammad illustrated one potential relationship between African Americans and new media technologies through an examination of new media artist Reggie Woolery's work entitled KEEP YOUR HANDSA OFF THE PARK! A Role-playing Game in Real and Virtual Worlds.

Woolery merged his interest in access, urban renewal policy and digital media spaces to create this Board Game/WebSite/CD-Rom. The game was designed to encourage creative citizen participation on the Web, and help players to also realize that their activism in cyberspace could translate into activism for cultural and political change within their real world communities.

The game also was designed to function as a forum for understanding and rendering visible how institutional structures both privilege and exclude particular readings, voices, aesthetics and forms of authority. Woolery specifically used the social history of Manhattan's Thompkins Square Park to weave a parallel narrative of identity and lack of mobility in the inner city. Wollery's game was particularly focused on how recent gentrification resulted in contradictions and conflicts surrounding the park relative to different constituencies of the neighborhood.

Muhammad concluded her presentation by proposing that if the issues of race trickle into cyberspace, then people of color must assume the roles as activists -- just as they do in our real space. She reiterated using Woolery's words, "we need to take cyberspace out of the box and put it back into our streets."

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.

Compiled by Mary Hopper

race in cyberspace    abstract    speakers