Mauricio Masi

World White Web

  • Faculty Advisor

    Charles W. Mills

Published On

May 2014

Originally Published

NURJ 2013-14
Honors Thesis

Dfactory | Photo

There is no race. There are no genders. There is no age. There are no infirmities. There are only minds. Utopia? No. The Internet.
—MCI advertisement, “Anthem.” 1994.


To any progressive regular of various online fora,[1] the above epigraph sounds hopelessly out of touch with reality. Some might even be inclined to say that the opposite is the case: There is no place more racist, more sexist than the Internet.[2] Nowhere are we more trapped in our bodies than on the web.[3] The early promise of the Internet as a harbinger of democracy and equality was never realized, and instead, ‘cyberspace’ is riddled with all the same contradictions as ‘meatspace.’ In this essay I will analyze why this might be the case, focusing primarily on the question of racism. I will argue that MCI’s [JK1] [JK2] advertisement is actually closer to the truth than it may seem—not in the Utopian sense, but in the sense that race, gender, and other forms of difference are invisible on the Internet. Further, I will argue that it is precisely this invisibility which makes racism and sexism more apparent on the Internet than IRL (In Real Life).

In order to do this, I will conceptualize the Internet as a public sphere, drawing inspiration from the work of Jürgen Habermas. In particular, I will adopt a version of his early formulation in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere.[4] There, he defines the bourgeois public sphere [bürgerliche Öffentlichkeit], in brief, as “the sphere of private people come together as a public . . . [via the medium of] people’s public use of their reason.”[5] This characterization of the Internet as a public sphere is neither new nor controversial.[6]

However, for this argument to be feasible, I will need to narrow which portions of the Internet are subject to my analysis. For example, it is quite obvious that digital banking services do not fall under this definition. Thus I will focus primarily on what Howard Rheingold has termed a ‘virtual communities’: “social aggregations that emerge from the Net when enough people carry on . . . public discussions . . . with sufficient human feeling . . . to form webs of personal relationships in cyberspace.”[7] Paradigmatic examples include The WELL, MUDs, IRC, and reddit (define acronyms?).[8] Given my focus on the Internet as a public sphere, I will pay little attention to the ‘human feeling’ and ‘personal relationship’ aspects of the virtual community, devoting most of my thoughts to the aspect of public discussion. At the broadest level, I will be analyzing any online space in which social interaction takes place. When I use the words ‘Internet,’ ‘cyberspace,’ and other near-synonyms, it should be assumed that this is what I mean, unless I explicitly say otherwise.

Due to some shortcomings of Habermas’ version of the public sphere, I will also be making extensive use of Nancy Fraser’s feminist critiques of Habermas. In particular, I will be drawing from two of her essays: “What’s Critical About Critical Theory?”[9] and “Rethinking the Public Sphere.”[10] I will build on the argument that certain roles in society are ‘gendered,’ so that “the citizen role in male-dominated classical capitalism is a masculine role.”[11] I will add that the citizen role is also raced. Hence, I will argue that the role of the ‘Netizen’—the citizen of the virtual public sphere, when conceived as a totalizing unity—is a white role.

Throughout my paper, I will be working with a constructivist theory of race, as defined by Charles Mills as “a view of race as both real and unreal, not ‘realist’ but still objectivist.”[12] I will assume race to have “an objective ontological status . . . which arises out of intersubjectivity.”[13] I will use the materialist[14] version of constructivism, which views race and racism as grounded in differences in the material realities of people. Not their biological material realities, as in essentialist theories of race, but their historically placed socio-economic material realities.

Identity on the Net

Being black on reddit is like being a pet in a fucking zoo.

Like many in my generation, one of my first experiences with the social aspect

of the Internet was through RuneScape, a massive multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) in which users immerse themselves in a medieval European fantasy world typical of role-playing games. I was about 12 when I joined, and I recall spending quite a bit of time trying to get my avatar to look as similar to the real me as possible. There were only a few shades of skin color, none of which really fit me, so I settled for a tone quite a bit darker than my real skin. At the time I identified most strongly with the Arab side of my family, so I figured if I had lived a few centuries ago I would have looked a bit more Moorish.

I soon struck up a friendship with a girl about my age, let us call her Roxy, who said she was from the United Kingdom. Her avatar in the game was blonde, and her skin the lightest color allowed by the game’s minimal palette. This seemed to match what I would have expected from a British person. We kept conversing over several days through RuneScape’s private messaging system. This proved cumbersome after a while, so I offered to switch to a more standard instant messaging client, to which she happily agreed.

Imagine my surprise when I was greeted by a Black girl, who turned out to be a recent West African immigrant to London trying to make some friends on the Internet. At the time I was quite confused—I simply could not understand why anyone would want an avatar that looked so different from their real self. Now that I have seen all the hate and harassment directed toward Blacks and women on the Internet, perhaps what would really surprise me is that she was brave enough to even choose a female avatar.

What I have just described was my first experience with what I would much later learn is known as ‘racial passing.’ Far from this being an isolated incident, only possible in communities where users depict themselves graphically through an avatar, I will argue that semi-conscious passing as white is in fact the default for most minorities in online communities.[15] I will then analyze what this means for racial identity on the Net, and greater implications for virtual public spheres.

There is a famous adage that perfectly captures the kind of pseudonymity users of virtual communities typically enjoy: “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” It is not too common for users to be completely anonymous.[16] They instead create their own identities through their self-descriptions and write themselves into being, to paraphrase danah boyd.[17] This is sometimes done by means of a conscious self-presentation in an official ‘profile page,’ a portion of the website designed specifically for users to share information about themselves with their fellow users. But even when this feature is lacking, users still write themselves into being through what they say of themselves in their conversations with other users. For example, if a user comments: “My wife goes running to Navy Pier every morning,” his audience will conclude that they are married, most likely male, at least in their late twenties, and that they live in Chicago. This is not necessarily correct, but it is enough for users to get a picture of whom they are interacting with. On reddit, one is able to go through a user’s old comments in their user page, so an interested person may piece together quite a bit of information about another user.

In our real lives, we can and do infer much from a person’s visible identity. In Alcoff’s words, “it is an indisputable fact about the social reality of mainstream North America that racial consciousness works through learned practices and habits of visual discrimination and visible marks on the body.”{C}[18]{C} In the Internet, or at least its text-based spheres, all visual cues are erased, and what we have left is only the person’s textual identity.

Users have good reasons to hide their race and their gender on the Net in order to protect themselves against harassment. In “A Rape in Cyberspace,” now a classic of the history of virtual communities, Julian Dibbell tells the story of a mass ‘rape’ in the virtual world of LambdaMOO. A user forced the avatars of other members of the community to perform sexual acts without their consent through an exploitation[19] of the community’s code. This violation made at least one other user upset enough to cry—“a real-life fact that should suffice to prove that the words’ emotional content was no mere playacting,” in the author’s words.[20] As we should expect, attacks of this nature tend to target subordinate groups more often than dominant groups. For example, a recent study showed that silent IRC users with ‘female’ names received 163.0 malicious private messages per day, often of a sexual nature, compared to only 27.5 for users with ‘male’ names and 65.0 for users with ambiguous names.[21] It is fairly common for women to choose gender-neutral or even male names, and it is rare for people to bring up their race at all, unless it is relevant to the discussion. A Korean-American woman told Lisa Nakamura in an interview that she “never outright . . . said [she] was Asian, because [she] felt that IRL . . . people already have stereotypes and felt that it would be at least as bad there [in her virtual community], and [she] wanted to have a character that was free from that.”[22]

Absent any signal that the user one interacts with belongs to any racial or gender group, it seems that the reasonable choice would be to withhold judgment regarding these matters. I would submit, however, that the habit of visual discrimination is so ingrained in the consciousness of members of our society, in their ‘common sense,’ that this does not mean that people who refuse to identify with their race are somehow ‘raceless’ while they are online. Instead, users are assigned a race by default, depending on their virtual sphere.

Nakamura’s interviewee continued: “It bugs me that people just assume you’re white if you don’t say otherwise.”[23] This is what Nakamura calls ‘default whiteness,’ a term I will adopt and generalize. I argue that the default race will be whichever one is hegemonic in any given sphere, and in particular, that in spheres that are not catering specifically to a subordinate group or to the culture of subordinate groups,[24] the default race will always be the dominant race. To continue with this distinction, following Fraser, let us call alternative publics formed by subordinated social groups subaltern counterpublics.[25] From here on, when I use the term ‘public sphere’ without qualification, it should be understood in the traditional Habermasian sense, as a space in which issues debated are of “common concern” as defined by the participants, i.e. excluding the particular concerns of minorities.[26]

For this I will adopt Louis Althusser’s argument that “ideology interpolates individuals into subjects.”[27] This means that one becomes a particular kind of subject only through ideology– that there is no essential being that makes us a subject outside of our (ideologically mediated) social context. For example, imagine I am walking down the street and see a man drop his wallet. I will call him, “Excuse me, sir!” Thus, I refer to this specific person only through the mediation of ideology, an ideology that asks me to address males older than myself as ‘sir,’ and he recognizes that I am addressing him also through the mediation of this shared ideology. Althusser uses the example of religious ideology to show that ideology interpolates subjects already with various roles, tasks, social positions assigned. The ‘voice’ of religion speaks to an individual called Pierre, and tells him: “Here is who you are . . . ! Here is your origin . . . ! Here is your place in the world! Here is what you should do!”[28]

In a society where ideology is raced and gendered, the subjects interpolated by ideology are also raced and gendered, and subjects must necessarily be assigned the roles and positions given to raced and gendered beings. Note that this is a much thicker notion of interpellation than simply addressing someone as ‘sir.’ It is more akin to the religious interpellation, in that a significant part of one’s social identity is already contained in the call of ideology—already mixed with stereotypes and norms that determine how one must act and interact with others.[29] So even when we lack the visible cues to assign an individual with the ‘correct’ race and gender, we still do it out of unconscious reflex, although we often err.

Some might say they are truly color-blind, and that they can escape ideology, perhaps through some combination of education and training. And it may be true for some people.

However, there are also some who claim to be color-blind, and yet act in racist ways in certain occasions. Several studies have shown the discrepancy between the actions and words of people when it comes to race, especially when they believe they are in a private setting, or when they believe they can get away with it by using euphemisms.[30] Gramsci can help us understand this discrepancy between actions and professed beliefs with his discussion of common sense. He believes it is not enough to explain it away as ‘self-deception,’ except in individual cases. Instead he claims:

In these cases the contrast between thought and action cannot but be the expression of profounder contrasts of a social historical order. It signifies that the social group in question may indeed have its own conception of the world, even if only embryonic; a conception which manifests itself in action, but occasionally and in flashes—when, that is, the group is acting as an organic totality.[31]

Gramsci is speaking of a case in which the unconscious collective action—class struggle— represents the ‘good sense,’ the embryo of a more elevated perspective, and consciousness is the old, traditional common sense which people only adopt “for reasons of submission and intellectual subordination.”[32] In the case of proclaimed color-blindness and discriminatory actions we have a case of the opposite, in which the good sense is the conscious and the common sense is the unconscious. But I believe his analysis still holds, and the discrepancy still represents a contrast of “social historical order.”

This contrast is the role that various groups played in the building of American racial hegemony. This hegemony was neither built by crude ideological manipulation from the (white) ruling class, nor by pure force of the state, but by “the combination of force and consent, which balance each other reciprocally, without force predominating excessively over consent.”[33] At times this meant giving special privileges to whites and suppressing Blacks, while at others it meant making room for Black civil rights within the established order.[34] This system still persists today in the form of discrimination in the labor market and the criminal justice system, the difference in wealth between Black and white families, and continued segregation in schools and neighborhoods. Thus whites are stuck in a position in which the social historical order still affords them relative privileges when compared to Blacks (although no longer formally), and yet they are expected to treat Blacks as equals in public, as hegemony in its current incarnation demands. And yet this order of subordination of Blacks must still be rationalized ideologically, if only in private or by euphemisms. Thus Blacks are seen as being lazy, as having criminal tendencies, as being unable to maintain a traditional bourgeois family, or as being intellectually lesser. At the same time, this implies that whites are the opposite. I must insist: this does not mean every white person believes this, or even that any one person believes this all the time, but merely that when acting as a collective they have a tendency to express these common sense attitudes.

It is for these reasons that common sense asks that we assign a race to individuals we interact with in the virtual public sphere. Race still carries a lot of meaning for our social relations within this hegemonic system of Black subordination.

Which race we assign to others by default will be determined by the ideology that permeates the space in which we encounter them. For example, the dominant race is hegemonic in the public sphere. It then follows that in an encounter with a Netizen of the virtual public sphere, I will assume by default that this person is white. Going back to our Althusserian vocabulary, we can say that public spheres interpolate their Netizens as white (and, I would add, also male, heterosexual, cisgendered, etc.). The conclusion from this is that, unless they openly tout their race to the public, minorities will be passing as white by default in white-dominated publics.

Somebody might object that when we do this we are merely making reasonable guesses by applying statistical inference, and that all this talk about ideology and interpellation is pure mystification. But there are many other aspects of a person’s identity that we never bother to take guesses at, at least not on a regular basis. Think for example of marital status, a significant enough form of identity to appear on most identification cards. It is fairly rare, in my experience, for users to simply assume someone’s marital or relationship status, though it is quite common for them to ask. However, for most virtual communities it is fairly safe to assume that most users are unmarried, given that the majority tend to be in their twenties. Our objector might say that the difference is that marital status is not necessary to visualize our interlocutors, so we do not need to assume anything about it. However, think of other aspects of a person’s looks which people also tend to make few assumptions about, such as hair or eye color. It seems like a fair assumption that most people have black hair, and yet you will probably never find users forced to correct others on their right hair or eye color, nor will you find users surprised that others’ hair color is different from what they expected.

This objection obscures the very problem I am trying to thematize with the discussion of ideology and interpellation. Why do we make inferences about race and gender, and not other aspects of a person’s identity? Whether the inference is statistical or not, we only need to make it in the first place because race and gender are thought to be significant to an individual’s identity as a subject. This is not natural, it is not just a “reasonable guess,” but the product of ideology, which subjectifies individuals already as raced and gendered. This is what it means for individuals to be “always already subjects.”[35] Individuals are always already subjectified by ideology in a particular way, which is dependent on social and historical context.

On the other hand, ideology is itself constituted by its subjects.[36] An ideology which interpellates individuals as whites is then constituted by whiteness, i.e. the ideology itself is also white. Then public spheres in which white ideology is hegemonic ought to be considered white in themselves, and not merely white-dominated. To illustrate this, consider a reverse example. Danah Boyd interviewed teenagers across the country on their reasons to switch from MySpace to Facebook. One particular respondent said: “It’s not really racist, but I guess you could say that. I’m not really into racism, but I think that MySpace now is more like ghetto or whatever.”[37] Through her obviously racialized use of the word ghetto to refer to MySpace, Boyd’s interviewee shows how spaces themselves can be raced. This usage is fairly common in speech, though often through euphemisms such as ‘ghetto,’ ‘urban,’ or ‘inner city.’ We say that universities are white, neighborhoods are ghetto (as an adjective), schools are inner city. This mode of expression is not merely accidental, but shows that race is in some sense constitutive of these spaces–it is part of their character. We associate all kinds of secondary characteristics to places according to their racial character, the same way we do with people. An inner city neighborhood conjures up images of urban blight, violence, crime, and poverty, which flow out of their racial characterization.

Thus a white public poses an ontological barrier to the integration of minorities. Blacks wishing to participate in a white public are faced with a double strain: they are interpellated as white, so that they are forced into default passing; and they are entering a white space, so they do not belong in the ontological sense of not being the kind of person for whom the space exists.

Blacks may still participate in a white public, but only with considerable strain on their identity. This is what reddit user homeboy5925 was expressing in the epigraph of this section: Being Black on reddit is like being a pet in a zoo in that one feels constantly out of place, like a penguin in San Francisco, so to speak. Earlier in the comment, he also said “Reddit: a place where you literally cannot be a minority and exist without having the fact that you’re a minority shoved in your face/made fun of.”{C}[38]{C} A Black person in a white public is forced into the contradictory state of being invisible and yet all too conspicuous, to pass as white on the Net while simultaneously being hyperaware of the Blackness of their material body. It is because of this, then, that it sometimes appears that the Internet is more racist than IRL, and that Blacks are more trapped in their bodies than before they log on. IRL, Blacks are interpellated as Black, and the common sense racism of whites is more hidden. In spaces in the virtual world in which whiteness is hegemonic, which is to say most spaces, they have access to an aspect of the racial order which is typically only visible in the intimate spheres of whites, i.e. in white spaces in which individuals are interpellated as white. They have access to the white side of the hegemonic order.

This is the kind of barrier to entry that cannot be removed by simply tweaking a rule or two, the kind of barrier that no merely formal change can break. These barriers involve deep-seated beliefs and feelings as well as structural forms of domination that permeate the social order. To challenge these barriers to white domination in the virtual public sphere will require a long struggle against white hegemony, both on the Internet and outside of it.

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Mauricio Masi