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Callaloo 25.2 (2002) 675-679
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Race in Cyberspace
Race in Cyberspace. Ed. Beth E. Kolko, Lisa Nakamura, and Gilbert B. Rodman. New York: Routledge, 2000.
This collection is the first scholarly attempt to examine issues of race in "cyberspace". A discussion of this subject in any medium has been pressing for more than a decade. Despite the exponential growth of the computer industry and network communications during the last twenty years, considerations of the role of "race" in the production and popular uses of the technology have been repressed. For breaking the silence, this book will remain an important contribution.
Most of the authors in this anthology regard "cyberspace" as a construction contingent on the ideas, institutions, and habits that structure our experience of the fleshed world. The word "cyberspace" also refers to a wide variety of discursive, performative and imaging practices that have contributed to shape digital culture. The book includes analysis of advertisements for digital technology companies and Internet Service Providers (ISPs), discussions of films about "cyberspace," video games, net art, web sites, virtual environments such as MUDS (Multiple User Domains) and MOOS (MUD, Object- Oriented), as well as studies on language, identity and the history of computer distribution.
In the editor's words, "race matters in cyberspace precisely because all of us who spend time online are already shaped by the ways in which race matters offline, and we can't help but bring our own knowledge, experiences, and values with us when we log on" (5). This position opposes the assertions, ingrained in cyberculture, that "cyberspace" is an ethereal, disembodied realm where geography, nationality, ethnicity and race are inoperative. One of the articles, which helps to dispel this view, is Jonathan Sterne's "The Computer Race goes to Class: How Computers in Schools Helped Shape the Racial Topology of the Internet". Sterne argues that in the United States, the history of access to computers in schools has impacted on the demographics of computer use. In the 1980s, the distribution of computers, fiber optic cable and telephone connections in classrooms corresponded to district wealth. Thus, computer users were predominantly white. In Sterne's opinion this demographic may explain why whiteness became a "default-setting' for online culture". More importantly, he suggests that "the topology of cyberspace mimics the racial and economic topology of housing and schooling" (193).
Tara McPherson's investigation of neo-Confederate websites and MarkWarschauer's study of language- revitalization efforts in Hawaii also stress the interconnections of "cyberspace" and place and demonstrate that digital spaces can be used to articulate ideas of heritage and identity. 1
McPherson employs the word "neo-Confederate" to refer primarily to white male southerners who identify themselves as "Southern nationalists" or as "Southrons" (121).These men utilize a wide and varied number of websites both to preserve (white) Southern heritage and advance images of an "independent", reconstructed South.The websites evade direct references to race as they are carefully designed to disassociate the authors from racist causes (120). Hawaiian language educators employ various types of electronic communication systems and software to connect students of Hawaiian language with each other and with the broader community as an attempt to preserve native culture and values (160, 155). [End Page 675]
Both neo-Confederates and Hawaiian language speakers perceive themselves as members of a threatened minority. Due to colonization by the United States, by 1970, Native Hawaiians numbered 2% of the population of Hawaii and the Hawaiian language was close to extinction (159). McPherson explains that many white Southerners perceive themselves as "marginalized because of their southerness and they actively construct spaces in which this origin can be discussed, celebrated and protected from attacks real or imagined" (126).
Sociologist Sherry Turkle popularized the view that electronic communication stimulates the playful exploration of multiple identities. This is demonstrated in Warschauer's study, as Hawaiian language educators encourage their predominantly multicultural, multiracial students to engage with their "Hawaiian selves" without abandoning other aspects of identity. The Neo-confederates, by contrast, utilize cyberspace to construct a white, "fairly unified cybersubject" (129). One thing is clear: neither project of identity...