Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Reading Race Online: Discovering racial identity in Usenet discussions (article summary)

The author, Bryon Burkhalter, first tries to establish a working definition of race. It is described as “a biological phenomenon in which societies invest social meaning.” Determining racial identity of others usually relies primarily on physical characteristics of other individual such as skin color and vocal patterns. He states that knowing someones race is useful because “it provides for stereotypical understandings based on a racially immutable body” and that “it's a reliable social resource.” Burkhalter maintains that online racial identification is not lacking even with the removal of physical cues and that “racial identity is a feature of many online interactions.”

For his research, Burhalter primarily focused on several Usenet groups that were centered around racial culture. Users in these groups often self-identify through several different means including stating their racial “category”, by using vernacular expressions, as well as mentioning their parents, heritage, hometown etc. Burhalter has determined that users of these forums identify themselves in an organized way through their ongoing discussions. Rather than online users being unsure of each others races while in communication online, he believes that users are certain of each others racial identities and that in general do not indicate they are unsure or distrustful of each other. Cues to racial identification are carried along with the users stated “perspectives on racial issues.” One outcome of this physical disconnect is that if another user makes a statement which another views as a discrepancy, the reader can adjust their view of the identity of the other user to fit their perspective.

The author then gives a short description of what Usenet newsgroups are. He states that Usenet resembles a “large cocktail party.” Here is a link to a FAQ on Usenet:

Some users take the physically anonymous online opportunity to claim a racial identity other than their own. It seems in most cases however that participants are more concerned with being known and in how they are received than in deceiving others. Specific cultural, racial, or ethic terms are sometimes used in subject lines when bringing up a specific topic for discussion to assist in framing the conversation towards a specific audience although this does not assure that race will be relevant though the course of the discussion comments.

Sometimes asserting a specific identity can be disputed and anonymous messages can “undercut the credibility of an author's identity and argument”. In some cases rather than attacking a user's argument, their “claimed social position” is attacked which deflects from the actual discussion of their view. Stereotyping online can work in an almost reverse way from “standard” stereotyping. Rather than determining someones beliefs by their race, one might use someones beliefs to help determine a persons race in an online interaction. Race is still relevant online and stereotypes flourish in Usenet environments.


  1. The harsh reaction of one writer in particular caught my attention. In response to a message posted by an anonymous author, a user wrote "Anyone that's too cowardly to post under a name has no input anywhere except down in the slime with the rest of their ilk"(67). Yikes! Here, an anonymous voice is assumed to be a cowardly voice, and the author and their words are dismissed (at least by one reader). While the response is mean in tone, I think this reaction makes a lot of sense. The comment is posted to a group "dedicated to the discussion of racial and cultural issues," so maybe an identity-dodger really doesn't belong(61). While thinking about problems with identity and anonymity in online groups, I also wonder how the evolution of social networking sites has affected newsgroups. Have discussions relocated to places where identity can be more readily confirmed and trusted? If so, is this good?

  2. Lori,

    I've seen anonymous comments on lots of blogs/forums get attacked simply for being anonymous. Especially in communities where there's a standard group of contributors and there is a lively discussion happening. I think anything controversial is taken less seriously when there's no face behind it. In many cases it also means that the anonymous commenter can't be notified when someone tries to reply or engage them for further discussion, so it is seen as cowardly because it is impossible to create an ongoing dialogue with that person.

  3. The article stated that individuals most likely will express themselves through text and will not be able to show physical characteristics that point directly to race. While this may have been true in 1999 (10 years ago), I think that technology has dramatically changed, making this statement no longer valid. The Usenet may have been a good example of discussion boards used in the late 90s, but I think I speak for most people when I say that mediums, such as YouTube, are popular forms of communication. Is there a contrast between the methods of expression on discussion boards and through video networks such as YouTube?

  4. One thing I thought was interesting in the contrast between this article and the other article about RPGs was something else that I have also noticed in my experiences online: when people are talking about race, it's pretty easy to identify the races of the participants involved. When people aren't directly talking about race, it's practically impossible to tell (so everyone comes off as white). It makes race seem like a weirdly optional thing online, which can be really destructive when all the sudden race enters into a discussion it's never been a part of before...

  5. From my experience in an MMORPG (a rather low-key one more akin to Bejeweled than WoW, so more accessible to most), there are still so few people of color -- or people choosing to identify themselves as such -- that it's kind of a non-issue in some environments, like Jen said. Still, I was pleased to see several people whom I knew to be Caucasian IRL to choose all manner of colors in their online characters.

    Anonymity is a pretty big issue for me as a budding journalist/media relations professional. I'd love to be anonymous sometimes and have more spirited discussions, but it's still a balance between the desire to be taken seriously and the risk of connecting my opinions (ohhhh noooooes) to my actual person.

    For a local example of this, just head on over to the (Isthmus) Daily Page forums. This is a fairly well-managed community with a lot of regular "characters" with clear personalities. Some post under something close to their real names, some pseudonymous folks are known offline and/or have a clear point of view that's easy to follow/predict, and others are your basic anonymous trolls (regular or sporadic).

    Recently, writer Bill Lueders called out an anonymous commenter (see the bottom of this article) on "flaming."

    Discussion (fallout, perhaps?) can be found here and here. Language slightly NSFW.

  6. Hi,

    I just wanted to share a couple of links to what seem like examples of similar discussions, still going on within the past year or so:

  7. The issue of anonymity in a racialized context is really one at the forefront of a massive debate I've been watching unfold of late. It is centered in the online sci-fi fandom community, but someone made this post eloquently addressing many of the issues at play in the debate. One of the major takeaways, however, is the notion that speaking openly is a privilege.

    "Speaking openly/non-anonymously as a privilege" is a really important key point here. To make the blanket assumption that all people can/must/should participate in a debate by stating all credentials, names, stats, racial/ethnic/cultural affiliations, etc. presumes _so_ much. Why is that the only way to have a valid voice?

  8. Sarah,

    I'm 100% with you.

    Several communities I follow flirt with the idea of a "safe space" where (to drastically oversimplify, because I don't have the language) people can speak in a more protected manner that offends as few people as possible -- which, in most of these cases, is a good thing, given that many people involved have been harassed, assaulted physically or sexually, you name it.

    But what about a safer space where people can do the opposite: try to speak more openly, knowing that they might offend, but trying to merely get what they're thinking out into the public sphere to attempt to discuss it rationally. Is that even possible? Is it possible to make a text-only statement without contextualizing or attempting to reinterpret it?

  9. Susannah,
    I saw a couple of spaces like that happen as a result of the RaceFail discussion that Sarah referred to; nothing permanent, but there was a specific space opened to discussion for people to ask, Okay, as a white dude, what do you want me to do about this? I think it's a valuable thing to have, but at the same time I can understand why people find offensive the assumption that it's the responsibility of people of color to educate white folks on how to talk about race.

  10. Yeah, definitely. Like just about any other situation, I think it'll have the most impact when one's own peers (in whatever group) are the first to say, "Look, could you not do that, please?"

  11. Anonymous12:26 PM

    In response to the RaceFail discussion and other discussions that I've had over the years, I'm interested to hear what people think about the role of "allies" in addressing the -isms.

    I've found that people who identify as allies to various marginalized groups forget that they still need to actively critique their privilege (whether that's race, socioeconomic class, sexual orientation, ableism, gender identity, etc.) It's too easy to fall into the train of thought that it's other people who are upholding systems of oppression, but the reality is that it's all of us.

    I've experienced on multiple occasions people who self-identify as allies who feel that they "own" the identity that they're allied with just as much as the people who actually have that identity. Being invested in a cause doesn't mean that entitles someone to speak with authority about the ways in which institutionalized systems of oppression (e.g. racism, sexism, etc.) affects marginalized groups of people. I guess what I'm trying to say is that there's a fine line between being progressive and allied with a cause and stepping over the line and claiming to fully understand an identity that's different from your own.