Race, Gender, and Online Spaces

Posted: October 3, 2010 in Uncategorized
Tags: , ,

Today we’ll be looking at Andre Brock’s article “‘Who do you think you are?’: Race, Representation, and Cultural Rhetorics in Online Spaces” and “Rethinking Cyberfeminism(s): Race, Gender, and Embodiment” by Jessie Daniels. Two weeks from tomorrow, my exams begin, so you could say this is the home stretch. But that’s not important right now. What matters is Brock’s article.

I need to start by making it clear that while my interest is in gender identity online, Brock is writing about racial identity. Many of the principles transfer, but he’s talking about being black, rather than being male, female, or something else. So he says that “the Internet adds an interactive, discursive dimesion of exterior renditions of Black identity and thus enabling interior perspectives on Black identity to become part of the conversation” (16), which we can see would also apply to discussions of gender. Online, identity is not pre-established, so interior perspectives ca be examined without actually being a member of that grup. Brock tells us that the Internet has a structure that is not limited by space or time, allowing different methods of identity representation (16).

This online establishment of identity puts things into interesting perspectives.  Brock tells us that “The paradox of constructing an embodied identity in a virtual space helps to open up an ontological consideration of racial identity – that it is a socially constructed artifact with more to do with social and cultural resources than with skin color” (32). Race becomes a matter of social standing rather than of physicality, an idea that can be easily ported to the idea of gender. Brock tells us that “The removal of physical signifiers of race from credible online articulations of racial identity highlights that race has always been more about the relation of the sign (locating the differences in others) to the signifier (rationales for maintaining social structures) than it is to any particular physiognomic aspect” (32). This suggests that the differences in others is what establishes credibility in identity creation. So part of being black is necessarily NOT being white. Part of being male would be NOT being female. While this is important, it seems to support the binary, which may not be the best thing.

Luckily, we have Daniels to talk to us about cyberfeminism. She tells us that “the lived experience and actual Internet practices of girls and self-identified women reveals ways that they use the Internet to transform their material, corporeal lives in a number of complex ways that both resist and reinforce hierarchies of gender and race” (101). The online space, then, allows people to transform normal ideas of race and of gender, which allows not only a better understanding, but also provides a space for resistance against the stereotypes.

This is possible because, as Daniels says, “the Internet is a technlogy that facilitates gender and racial equality” (104). That is, it allows people to leave their identity markers behind, and forces everyone to treat everyone else equally, because there are no obvious signs of identity that will allow people to make that kind of faulty snap judgment. This is a very freeing feeling, as Daniels tells us when she says that “Many individual women outside any formal political organizations experience the Internet as a ‘safe space’ for resisting the gender oppression they encounter in their day-to-day lives offline” (108). Since no one can tell what gender (or race, religion, etc) someone is online, it can be used as a way to escape the constraints those factors sometime are subject to in the ‘real’ world.

However, as Daniels tells us, “changing identities online may not be as subversive an experience as Turkle and others suggest” (110); people don’t often maintain changed identities, often because of the difficulty of doing so (because of the legitimization problem). Also, it seems that people are more likely to seek out online spaces that solidify identities rather than those that allow them to challenge or ‘switch’ them (110).

The switching of genders, the exploration of identities, isn’t used for subversion, Daniels tells us. Instead, “the notion of ‘identity tourism,’ in which people switch gender and racial identities, functions as a heuristic device for thinking about gender and race rather than this activity being a commonplace online practice” (111). People engage in identity tourism in order to consider different identities, rather than just ‘because they can.’ Although, often times the people who do this are actively trying to permanently transform their bodies offline (115), such as in the cases of the transgendered experiencing a place where they can inhabit the identity they have felt was theirs, even though their biology disagreed.

So identity is still important, and still seems to be an important part of the larger project I am examining, but Daniels suggests that maybe the Internet isn’t quite as disembodied as we’d like to believe (116).

  1. michelle wardlow says:

    I like how the identity issue is wrapped up in saussurian ideas and tied in to the internet and how those barriers get broken when signs and signifiers are not readily available. I’m going to look for that article now to get a better understanding of Saussure! Thank you!

  2. cogitas says:

    You can never read too much Saussure (that’s probably not true), but Brock might be able to help you understand him a bit.

    Nice catch on the reference to Saussure, btw. Also, you might find help understanding his whole project in Derrida’s “Differance” and “Given Time”; not direct explanations, but good ways to help understand.

    Let me know how it goes!

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