INTRA-RACIAL BARRIERS IN THE AFRICAN-AMERICAN
The excitement generated by the hum of the modem booting up still gets me excited about linking to old friends and meeting new ones. Who will I be? What will I talk about? How do I feel today? Strictly fantasy? Role-playing, maybe or should I choose to be myself? How will it play out? I think about the many characters that I have assumed over the past five years while continuing to find an unsuspecting room to chat in. One click away and I can transform any insecurity or physical flaw into a positive trait. When you first experience this type of personal power, the energy to create and manipulate a personality or situation is immeasurable. Just as I enter a room, I instantly transform myself into Level, the brassy woman with a wit like no other. She is one of my alter egos, maybe the one that most resembles reality. She is never at a loss for words and knows exactly what she wants from a man and from people in general. She doesn't take any mess.
The surge of excitement leads to a host of question about the Internet. What factors lent to it's growing attraction? Is the ability to be, do or say whatever you want a contributing factor or the ability not to be held accountable for your actions? Is it a type of freedom or prison for a persona either physically or psychologically, or both?
My original attraction was the enormous amount of information the Net offered. Ninety-eight per cent of the people poled said information retrieval was the initial reason for Internet use (out side of work-related issues). Gathering information, finding lost friendships directions and maps and general common knowledge were main examples used. The same percentage agreed that chatting, interacting as a community, and conversing on one-to-one basis were also a contributing factor. (This percentage represented chatters of less than five years.) I was amazed by my first chatting session. The newness manifested itself into a shyness trait I previously did not posses.
My personal observations were the enormous about of information the Net offered. Ninety-eight per cent of the people poled said information retrieval was the initial reason for Internet use (outside of work-related issues). Gathering information, finding lost friendships directions and maps and general common knowledge were main examples used. The same percentage also agreed that chatting, interacting as a community, and conversing on one-to-one basis wasn't a contributing factor. (This percentage represented chatters of less than five years.) I was amazed by my first chatting session. The newness manifested itself into a shyness trait I previously didn't posses.
The computer has a holding power that is quickly becoming an addiction. Quite often we find ourselves waiting for the next E-mail, instant message, or download to take place. Sherry Turkle, author of Life on the Screen, made the analogy between computer usage and substance abuse, citing the common word 'user' as a contrived psychological state. From a personal perspective I would have to agree. Like most users, I wait until I reach a computer screen to complete a task that can be done without it. The people poled for this paper reflected the influx of computer usage it's dependency. A resounding 100% admitted to being chat addicted and 89%, both men and women, were constantly logged on 50-60 hours in a week. Only 23% were formally trained in computer language/usage. One chatter describes how many windows are open on a daily basis.
"I belong to several African-American
communities and I have at least eight windows open outside my
work screen. Two IRC programs, a Java script from a site, an e-share
from a chat site, three instant messenger serves and an E-mail
program" (SHORTDOGG, October 11, 1999).
Turkle does not totally agree with her analogy of addiction because it assumes an external factor. She believes the interaction with computers is more personal, between man and machine, but I disagree because computers are the external factors (30). There is an intangible level of interaction between two people on-line. Various responses were given regarding the question of truly connecting to someone through external forces and fellow chatter, *BOOGIE believes he has experienced a connection.
"There are times when you just
talk to someone about what is going on in your life and you
experience a connection that is magical, as if you are face to
face. It doesn't have to be centered around sex, as most people
think; it is shared by a thread of goodwill and hope that you two
understand and sympathize with each other" (*BOOGIE,
December 8, 1999).
*Boogie compared some of his Internet experiences to the old days of letter writing, and feels his communication with his friend has the deep emotional content one receives through letters.
Can electronic bytes, ultimately consisting of 0's and 1's be compared with letter writing? What about the impersonality of electronic writing; the way a person dot's his i's and crosses their t's and let's not forget the elusive hearts that substitute for o's? These telltale signs of what a person is about may be lost on electronic correspondence. Computers seem to have taken away the human factor in courtships and dating, but on IRC, one can download a series of 'pop-ups' (encoded language that produce a color picture) to put an emphasis on what you want to say. The encrypted messages range from a simple lol (laughing out loud) to declarations of love.
Other questions become more apparent as the rage of computers climb to feverish heights. Because the Internet is one of the fastest growing industries (e-commerce) there is a big concern about the growth of race communities on-line. One of the greatest concerns of the African-American community is the enhancement of Internet use by Blacks. The general agreement is that the African-American community is experiencing a 'digital divide'-the lag of computer use behind other racial groups. According to The Washington Post in May 1999, there was an estimate of 2.8 million Blacks on-line as opposed to 29.4 million Whites and three million Hispanics. Edmund Lee from the Village Voice contends that businessmen are acknowledging the need for information technology and the advantages of the Web for the African-American community. With distinct marketing strategies and capital, this push has led an increase of African-American Internet use to climb to a 42% rated in 1999 as opposed to 23% rate in 1993 (33). The increases are largely due to the highly-developed African-American Websites such as BlackVoices.com, BlackPlanet.com, #Blackeroctia, NetNoir.com and the newly revamped BET.com. All of these sites are highly visited and have chat rooms geared to enlighten the African-American abut 'reality and cyber-based community' issues such as legislation, community news, message boards, trips and incentives, and also chatrooms.
There is a surreal or 'virtual' universe that has been created for the user to manipulate and grapple with. The virtual world has manifested into communities all over the net where non-traditional groups are formed and congregate to discuss topics and issues that are mutually interesting.
The sites create an atmosphere of friendship and comradeship. It is a place where you can call home whenever you are there and be totally at ease with thousands of strangers. Groups are formed and gatherings are planned so that people can get together to meet face to face. You can establish exactly what you are looking for or you can be deceitful because of totally anonymity. *Badness describes his main attraction to African-American chat sites.
"After scanning the various
message boards of BlackVoices.com, I joined to find other African-Americans
with the same interest. Issues of community improvement, news and
parties was part of the allure. I also new that I could present
my positive aspects and become the ultimate male . . . tall, dark
and handsome, light-brown, hazel eyes, professional, well
educated and single" (*Badness, October 27, 1999).
*Badness later states joining this cyberspace community has been a wonderful experience, joining focus groups in is area and meeting friends who meet and travel often together. Many participants interviewed expressed a similar, pleasant chat experience. I have joined several communities who meet and have maintained several friendships from my on-line relations.
These fresh and exciting African-American
cyber societies are not excluded from the problems that can amass
from a new development. A huge response to dating on the Internet
has forced many issues to light in the African-American community.
Inequities faced in reality are prevalent on the net and social
interactions in the African-American community in cyberspace
marginally perpetuates the age-old intra-racial prejudice based
on skin pigment. (Intra-racial prejudice is the practice of
biases within a race). It is relevant to explain the history of
intra-racial ism and its impact on the African-American community.
In the New World, various shades of browns were created by the union of slaves and white slave owners through consensual sex and rape. The practices of interracial unions on plantations were often between the slaves that worked in the house (for convenience)and produced yet a lighter skinned generation. The union created a trickle down effect producing lighter and lighter shades of brown. Offspring of these unions were often used for house chores.
This set in motion an unspoken class system between the slaves; the house nigger versus the field nigger; light-skin versus dark-skin. Color separation paired with the type of duties the slaves had inflamed the barrier. The house slave obtained more privileges than the field slave simply because they were in the house. They ate leftover foods from the owners' dinner table and became more English literate because of need; it was essential to convey orders and the different dialects of African villages were considered savage and uncouth.
The various shades aided in the problem of classification both governmentally and internally. Defining this new shade of people was difficult for whites before slavery until the 'one-drop' rule went into effect (if you have one drop of African/slave blood you are African/slave). After slavery, the lighter shade of people wanted to continue to distinguish themselves from dark-skinned Negroes as they had been come accustomed to. Stemming from the attitudes perpetuated by slave owners, the slaves continued the racial separation. Some slaves, freed by their white parent, developed societies that supported their superior attitudes over the darker, enslaved captives. Light-skinned blacks considered themselves superior and seldom associated with 'savage' captives, free or not. There were separate schools and communities, churches, and social clubs even right after the abolishment of slavery. Intra-racial issues have a deep rooted history among other racial groups and also within the African continent, but our focus is on the New World maturations and it impacts on African-American.
Governmentally, the words mulatto, octoroon, and quadroon automatically denoted that you were not of full African decent. During the height of elitism, this was fine, but with the resurgence of black pride, confused partial blacks found it harder and harder to separate themselves. Black power encompassed all decedents of African heritage.
As the world developed, intra-racial color issues were redefined and developed into separatist social clubs with unspoken and spoken guidelines. This class was marked as black elitist. The black elitists were usually professional men and women, regularly the doctors and lawyers in the community. They supported their women's and men's clubs that practiced separatism. Initially these clubs were formed to separate the class of people. Elitist continued to believe, as the white man had instilled in them, the notion that color made them superior. There were several tests that were provided, which mirror the inequities that are now based solely on skin color and highly illegal. For example, as stated in, The Color Complex, there was the 'brown-paper bag' test; where the applicant would stick their hand inside a paper bag to see if the skin was darker than the bag, and the comb test where an applicant would pass a fine tooth comb through their hair and if it got tangled applications would be denied (27). Silly tests like these and others were still effective in the 60's and 70's as *Christine experienced her own hell trying to get into Jack and Jill.
"In 1965 I applied to the prestigious Jack and Jill. On the door to the club entrance hung the comb that terrified most young black girls. My hair swelled and reverted back after the humidity climbed that afternoon. Needless to say I failed the small-tooth-comb-test. It still plagues me to this day that elitist based my eligibility on a bad hair day" (*Christine, December 1, 1999).
Experiences like this coupled with attitudes continue in the 90's and have shaped African-American views. Blacks have traditionally denied intra-racial barriers for fear of exposing a senseless bias to the world. the belief of 'airing one's dirty laundry' seems counteractive when compared to the racial prejudices African-Americans face from White America. When asked, the people poled ere generally shocked that intra-racial barriers exist in cyberspace. After an explanation and some shared stories, fellow chatters began to see a pattern to the discrimination they experienced. They now had a formal definition. Even marginally, intra-racial barriers are prevalent in cyberspace communities.
One of the first stories encountered was from *MaIa, a bi-racial, 32 year old woman. She proudly announces her nationality as African-American identifying more with her mother's heritage. *MaIa has been on-line for about five months. Noticing the topic on one of the message boards, she quickly identified the pigeon-hole she was put in while checking her E-mail.
"After a certain amount of
trepidation, I downloaded my picture to one of the African-American
websites. Three days later I was excited by the mail I received.
The first three E-mails were from a man and two women accusing me
of 'passing' or stealing the black men from a black chat. One
letter went as far as to call me a white female dog (explicative).
Needless to say, I was stunned and until now didn't know there
was a definition for this type of response" (*MaIa, December
*MaIa also explains that she has faced similar situations in the workforce simply because her skin was light. She has been demoted, passed over for advancement, and shunned from office interaction. In The Color Complex, there were several cases similar to MaIa's that were brought against charges, but weren't proven. It is easier to substantiate a claim of bias when the colors are black and white, but when the hues are just shy of each other, it becomes difficult to classify.
*Xia, an active Internet chatter, believes that personal preferences are practiced more than intra-racial barriers. "Reality has dictated what is attractive, and the stereotypes attribute to cyberspace thinking. Many of my online 'girlfriends' especially look for the tall, dark and handsome type; The Taye Diggs, the Malik Yobas, and the Tyson Beckfords of cyberspace." She also explains she has been turned off from some of her cyber dates. " It is sometimes refreshing that words can stimulate your mind, but after a face-to-face encounter, you realized all of the conversations you have had does not equate to personal taste and mine is geared toward tall, very dark skinned."
The difference between *MaIa's and *Xia's experience is the maliciousness of intent and blatancy. *MaIa's experience leans toward intra-racial prejudice and Xia's is personal preference. Because Xia's example is more commonly recognized, opposing intra-racial viewpoints support the refusal to acknowledge racial barriers in cyberspace. In my study, 78% did not fully understand the definition of intra-racial barriers and often denied it. I believe it can be compared to reality-based African-American communities and their lack of acknowledging embarrassing barriers that are continually perpetuated. They believe intra-racial barriers are often misunderstood for personal preferences and that anonymity contributes to dissipate intra-racial issues on-line. Role-playing (creating and maintaining a separate identity) in cyberspace is another example used to dispel the intra-racial barriers. Turkle's observation of role-playing showed a psychological aspect of personal preference. The ability to role-play creates illusions that chatters can participate in. Turkle's book reflected unique couplings shared mostly in Caucasian MUD's or Multi-User Domains. In MUDs, people experienced all different type of role playing. From Dungeons and Dragons to virtual rape. A lot of users even simulated marriages and sexual fantasies on-line. Some MUDs were structural and only allowed players to follow the rules. (11-22, 180-216)
Although her evidence didn't specifically contribute to the African-American view, I was fortunate to find one couple who regularly participated in role-playing. *Jock and *Cassey chose alternate identities to dispel the illusion of intra-racial barriers online. Cassey admits intra-racial issues in reality based African-American communities. She describes the "real" *Cassey as a very chocolate-skinned woman with very Afrocentric features. Both were very interested in finding a certain mate and vehemently denied intra-racial prejudices as a factor. They explain the development of their cyberspace love affair and how they have maintained it for 5 months. *
"*Jock and I both came into
this relationship with reality-based ideologies. I know that I
have tried to hide them and just have fun exploring the many
situations we get into. We cycle various rooms to refine our
characters and only let the rules dictate us" (*Cassey,
December 7, 1999).
Both *Cassey and *Jock admitted to the freedom of being able to shed light and not participate in prjudices. They recognized a greater need to seek out another person solely based on what turns the character on. *Jock acknowledged his tendency to date lighter skinned women in the past and *Cassey happens to be total opposite of what he is use to. But this opens up psychological ramifications based on Net interactions. Though this role playing maybe considered mentally counterproductive, Turkle supports mind games like these .
Although these attitudes were shared by both sexes, the 90's have been much nicer to men. Most men interviewed said they also experienced a certain type of inequity in cyberspace. It wasn't produced in a hateful or malicious way, but it was tied directly to society's view of current attractions.. Ten per cent of the men interviewed were fair and expressed women's desires leaned toward a darker man like Michael Jordan. Some of these men formed a cyber club which had scheduled meetings online that expressed their hopefulness that light-skinned brothers were on the rise again. To be in this club, you had to submit a picture to the President and answer some light-hearted general questions about how women have turn you down when they realized that their chat partner was very light-skinned. *The-One, President of LBCB (Light Brothers Coming Back), explained that he started this club after he was turned down six times after he asked fellow chatters to dance at a chat function.
"There was an off-line
function at a famous DC nightclub with about 50-60 participants.
This was one of my first online parties and I was excited about
meeting *Shasta, a chat buddy that I talk to everyday. This was
before I had my picture online, but we had exchanged descriptions.
She shied away from me all night. All night I got the cold
shoulder. Later I learned the female chatters thought I was
handsome but too light skinned for her to date" (*The-One,
October 1, 1999)
*The-One is part of the small percentage of people that contended that they have experienced discrimination on the net. Forty-four per cent of the people poled agreed that certain chat rooms had known discriminatory tendencies. African-American Greek fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha, Inc. and sister sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha are infamous for typecasting and intra-racial participation. Historically known for fair-skinned participants, these Greeks still perpetuate the barriers African-Americans face even on line. When visiting certain chat rooms designed for like-minded people, 25 people were asked to describe themselves and more than 50% answered that they were fair to light-skinned. This doesn't specifically answer the question about intra-racial barriers still being mitigated online, but when coupled with similar samples of other chat rooms on various African-American sites the results were depictive.
It is necessary to reiterate the importance why light skinned people held these barriers for so long. The main reason was to continue to separate and create a community that was self sufficient and differentiate themselves from darker skinned Negroes whom they ultimately believed were inferior. Even though elitism still exist, Black Power started a rediscovery of history roots and enabled a group of undefined people to acknowledge their heritage.
As paint brushes and dance movements are considered an extension of our body and mind, so are computers. It's growth continually expands with new developments. The ontogeny of computers also released problems that reality-based communities haven't rectified. There is racism, stalking, sexual crimes, e-commerce fraud, deceitfulness and also prejudices.
It is hard to pinpoint what is addictive and deceptive about the Internet and computer usage. I know that my cyber friends enjoy the freedom of speech, the liberal space to voice concerns and opinions, the camaraderie, and also the commonality of interests, but there is also the seedier side of cyberspace. I poled 100 African-American people for this research paper; 56% women. All professional people that I chat with on a weekly basis. The consensus about computer usage was the same-we all admitted to being addictive and we are not going to stop anytime soon, partially because computers are our life.
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