Kickin' Up a Fuss

Pattern number within this pattern set: 
Kali Tal
University of Arizona

How do we provide social opportunities and technological tools that allow all people the choice of representing their raced and gendered bodies in the disembodied or virtually-bodied realm(s) of cyberspace in satisfying, safe, and effective ways?


A few cyberculture critics have written about the illusion of the "level playing field" in cyberspace (Tal, McGee, Nakamura, Nelson), and the burden that cybercommunication places upon those who possess bodies marked as "nonwhite," queer, or female in the physical world. This pattern urges cyberculture critics to move beyond analysis and to begin to discuss practical solutions for minority identity-representation in cyberspace.


In the virtual world, the normative participant is still white, heterosexual, male, and English speaking. But unlike face-to-face interaction, cybercommunication creates a "white, male curtain" of presumption that nonwhite, queer, and female persons must deliberately throw open to reveal their "nonstandard" identities. Such revelations are often viewed by white, straight, or male cybernauts as "eruptions of funk," with a jarring and often unpleasant effect in white-, het-, or male-dominated net environments, particularly since in text-only environments (chat rooms, MOOs, irc) race and gender have to be mentioned repeatedly in order to continuously manifested. This presumption of normative identity is sometimes convenient for nonwhite, queer, or female netizens, and is akin to the phenomenon of face-to-face "passing" (blacks light enough to "pass" for whites, women who look "masculine" enough to pass for male, gays who "look straight"), except that in face-to-face interaction passing is possible only for a very small percentage of nonwhites or women (queers are an exception -- only a small percentage can not "pass"), while in cyberspace everyone "passes" unless they elect to manifest nonwhiteness, femaleness or queerness. Initially regarded as liberatory, the presumption of white maleness has grown burdensome to many nonwhites, queers and women since the mere mention of their "otherness" often evokes hostile reactions in net environments. In addition, in normative cyberspace, there is a likelihood that there are more identity tourists representing, for example, Asian women, than there are actual body-identified Asian women in the group. This means that the "real" Asian women are constantly in competition with the masqueraders in the struggle to represent themselves and their interests. The exhausting and sometimes futile effort of continuous representation against the norm and against the stereotypes employed by identity tourists has made separate spheres attractive, and resulted in the creation of cyberspaces in which different norms are presumed (black discussion groups, queer communities, women's listservs, etc.). However, lack of physical validation of identity leads to "infiltrators" and identity tourists who self-represent as members of nonwhite, queer or female groups, often disrupting conversation with inappropriate or simply confusing behavior.

Are there strategies that we can employ to reduce the amount of "identity tourism" (Nakamura), and increase the amount of serious reflection and consideration of the importance of race and gender in the lives of those who inhabit "marked bodies" in the "real world"? How do we move from fungible simulacrae to virtual bodies marked by experience and identity?


These phenomena are far too new for us to expect to understand them fully. This pattern is designed to suggesting new directions for research, rather than to provide definitive answers. Diversity training is now commonplace in educational institutions and in the workplace. Is there a version of diversity training suitable for cyberspace(s)? Is it possible to build virtual environments that truly work against normative presumptions of race or gender? How do we successfully engage in consciousness raising about race and gender issues in an environment in which we are virtually disembodied? I hope that we can open an exploratory discussion.

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