Flesh Identity: Race on the Net

In New York City, Suzan Lori-Parks is bouncing back from the beatdown she took for writing Spike Lee's Girl 6 with a new play called Venus. Venus is about Saartje Baartman, the Khoisan woman Europeans called the Hottentot Venus.Baartman was taken from what became South Africa and toured around Europe in the 19th century so spectators could marvel at her buttocks. Her preserved genitals are still in the possession of a Paris museum.In South Africa, where I'm sitting right now, they raised racial hairsplitting to a science that won't soon be matched -- or forgotten. Assessment boards once decided cases where it wasn't quite clear if a person was black, coloured, Indian or white. Now the whole country, even the fragile prophet Nelson Mandela, has fallen into apartheid's language of division. Where "coloureds" and blacks once fought the system side by side, they now fight each other in the press.Language and history keep the arguments going, but they always start at the skin. Now as ever, race depends on the body.South Africa might be the extreme example, but the persistence of racial discourse as a physical discourse extends everywhere including the Net. Cyberspace promises the fantasy of disembodied, race-free communication, but it remains firmly connected to bodies. The act of imagination to project into cyberspace necessitates a conceptual version of one's own body. And as soon as we think about our bodies, we're back to racial discourse.Flesh identityGive any adult a pack of coloured Laurentians and ask them to draw themselves. See who picks up "flesh tone" and who burnt umber.What cyberspace actually offers is reembodied communication. How should I choose to reembody myself amidst the Net's possibilities for self-presentation? Where should I look for my digitalia? Should I announce myself racially and give myself a secure racial identity, or leave it an open question?As an experiment, I conducted a poll in CompuServe's African-American forum asking how participants situated themselves online. CompuServe is in many ways the online version of the Republican party, which may have skewed the results."More often than not I do not identify myself when I interact with people, except in forums such as this one," one woman said. "Why should I? I have had more negative experiences with people being overtly racist in cyberspace than I have in F2F (face to face) life. I find it intriguing to experience what people will tell me when they think I am white."Then a man chipped in. "In the other CompuServe forums and Usenet newsgroups that I frequent, I encounter a lot more racist (and sexist, and homophobic, and anti-Semitic and otherwise bigoted) messages than in 'real life.'"And then, "Do you think bigoted people are attracted to cyberspace, or are 'normal' people encouraged to show their hidden bigoted sides?"And, "I have heard people making derogatory comments about Mexican Americans, Asians, gays, lesbians and bisexuals, etc.... and although I am not a member of those groups, I feel it is essential that I confront intolerance, period."Two things happened. First, this particular group of African Americans came out in favor of not coming out online. More significant was how quickly the thread moved away from the question of how one identifies oneself to a more manageable debate about racism.From what I've been able to glean in this and other online conversations, many black people aren't willing to probe too deeply into what part racial identity plays in their conception of themselves, or what part of them stays black when they present no "evidence" of blackness. Race is either taken for granted or deliberately left unspoken.This comment from one online conference on wiring black communities is classic."One nice thing about online communication is that everyone is equal -- no one knows how old a participant is, or what color, or what gender or what religion, which frees our minds a bit to listen to more diverse opinions."Given that cyberspace is a racialized domain, this sort of virtual transvestism is by no means neutral. In another era it used to be called passing.There is another option. Taking a cue from the adolescent white boys who determined so much of cyberculture, I could play. I could try to extend my engagement with cyberspace to include signifying, subversion and spirituality that lie outside western rationalism. That way, subjectivity need not be a fixed racial assertion nor a calculated transvestism. It could be more fluid, more strategic.Compare the secure pride of Georgia Tech's mammoth Universal Black Pages site or even the ANC's with the afro-pomo styling of Cafe Los Negroes. It's the difference between an oracle and a trickster.

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