Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Commentary: Judging on Apperances

By Bixyl Shuftan

In real-life, Monday was Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a US holiday named after the noted civil-rights activist famous for his "I have a dream" speech in which he hoped for a day in which all people could ban together regardless of the color of their skin. This is also the week Barack Husein Obama, America's first President from a racial minority, leaves the White House. When he was elected a little over eight years ago, it was seen by many that the United States was entering a "Post-Racial Age." Unfortunately, the highly partisan atmosphere of the country led many to wonder if his most vocal opponents, or supporters, were motivated mainly by ethnic bias, if not outright racism. Ironically, the final days of the United States first black President, some feel black-white relations are at the lowest since the Civil Rights reforms of the 60s, if not even lower.

In Second Life, as it's residents can take on any appearance they want, one would think what they look like wouldn't matter wherever they went. That's not exactly the case. Various historical and sci-fi/Fantasy roleplay areas, such as "The Berlin 1920s Project," have stated unless you look like what someone in the time and place did/does, you can expect to be thrown out (after being given a warning). While this often means nonhuman avatars, human avatars wearing the wrong clothes will get thrown out as well. So the complaints about the RP sims have been minimal.

But what really irritates residents who prefer nonhuman avatars are the stories, if not personal experiences, about the handful of clubs and residential areas, meant not for roleplay but to just relax in, that have policies requiring visitors to be of human appearance only. Anyone who isn't gets thrown out. Grease Coakes would write about his experience with it at a club. I myself would write about the issue as well in 2009 and 2014. In my ten years I've only been asked to leave a place three times because of my appearance and two of them were probably the same location, the second time after someone invited me over to a venue suggesting it might be a great place to do a club review and afterwards never went there again. There were a few times someone handed me a notecard of the sim's dress code and once when a bot whispered to me that nonhuman avatars weren't welcome, but no further action was taken.

I've heard fans of furred avatars use the term "racism" to describe these experiences. I'm not so sure about that as we're not talking about human avatars of a different race, but a kind of appearance that in real life can only be compared to a circus "werewolf man," or the most extreme forms of body modification. Despite that such incidents seem to be rare, the result has been some residents being reluctant to go out into the wider grid, tending to stick around in places where there are other avatars like them, sometimes venturing out only after invited to by friends or if the location advertises itself as "furry friendly" or a similar term. On the other hand, there's no shortage of furs who don't particularly care if a few people have a problem with their appearance, and freely go about on the Grid. So you can pretty much find anthro avatars all over Second Life.

By all means the problem isn't just one way. I've heard of a few instances of furred avatars harassing human ones because of their appearance. The one of which I heard the most details was of a human DJ at a furry club getting insulted by one of the vulpines, calling her a "hairless ape." But the furred staff would have none of it. The offender was thrown out and banned for several weeks. Aside from a few nude beaches and a couple RP areas several years ago, humans are not going to have a problem going about sims that cater to furs. And as many furs prize individuality, I've seen contests at furry clubs in which the winner is the lone human who entered. Plus I've seen mixed couples on the dance floor, as well as an occasional mixed partnership between a human and fur (for some reason though, I've seldom seen human males in these pairings).

As for the issue of avatars and race, it was touched upon early in Second Life's history by Hamet Au when he was in the employ of Linden Lab, him describing an experiment by one normally blonde and fair-skinned lady when she went about in a black skin. The result was a few instances of racial slurs, and a few friends not contacting her for a while. So a few years ago, I decided to do an experiment of my own as part of a Relay for Life avatar challenge by going about as a black human for a while. The results were quite different from described by the girl in Hamlet's article. Only two people made an issue about it, and one was a real life coworker who follows the newsletter. In fact, there were a few people (all human) who asked me if I was going to keep it as my main appearance.

Over time, these articles have gotten a number of responses, some describing their own or a friend's ill treatment. One remarked it was his experience any avatar that stuck out from the rest of those in a sim, whether it was human, furry, or otherwise, was sooner or later going to run into trouble, often because of the fear of griefers.

It's been a while since I've heard details about someone getting thrown out of a place because of his or her avatar's appearance. Though as the retirement of America's first black President in real life has brought up questions about how widespread ethnic bias is, among both his opponents and supporters, it did make me think about the issue in Second Life again. How widespread the problem is, in both real life and Second Life, it seems to be a matter of opinion.

Bixyl Shuftan

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