The idea of playing at life comes to us from the middle and upper-middle classes, where leisure time and income come together in a fairly good ratio. The rest of us are either too enervated by the constant demands of noblesse oblige and tax avoidance, or too busy scrambling to pay the rent on time, to give much thought to play.
Sex play is central to Second Life, and it is influenced heavily by social class. Female homosexuality is huge in SL, and it is perhaps the ultimate in white upper-middle-class play in real life too. It's inside the elite universities that you see girls playing most enthusiastically with lesbianism. A few years later they're all married, but they'll talk the talk well enough during those four golden years. They worry much about their "gender identity", about feminism, "post-colonialism", and the oppression of "wimmin". And surely, it's only middle and upper-middle class girls who can afford to waste expensive educational opportunities on such impractical rot as "women's studies". The black and Asian girls are doing organic chemistry, because they actually need to learn something.
A kinder, gentler kind of racism
If you want to see racism clothed in progressive bourgeois condescension, look no farther than feminism, a daughter of elite universities. I can't recall the times I wanted to scream listening to my uni girlfriends lament the oppression of women in non-Christian countries, with a blind presumption that, through the wisdom and guidance of their more advanced sisters, these women would blossom into what they truly are at heart: middle-class Protestants.
Women in non-Christian countries were presumed unqualified to make an informed decision to celebrate the culture into which they were born, though it might value men and boys to an extraordinary degree. If you think a woman living in a highly paternalistic society is unqualified to judge her own situation and make a free choice to embrace it without your help and guidance, then you see her as less than human. And that, more than anything, is what racism is all about.
Feminism, with its attendant invitations to playing at lesbianism, is a constant feature of the real-life middle and upper middle classes and their liberal educations, and an equally constant feature of Second Life. So it's not surprising to encounter a sort of progressive, for-your-own-good racism in such a middle-class universe as SL. For example, no one has ever insulted me because of my appearance; but I have, on several occasions, experienced being "talked around" while in the company of women who don't know me. Often, these group chats will centre on clothes, jewellery, property, and novel ways of simulating la dolce vita in SL. Perhaps there's a tendency for educated women to think that a balck person might not appreciate or even understand their bourgeois preoccupations.
To the progressive suburbanite, black people are whites in training. One senses, while in a black skin among these people, their desire to see one reflecting their bourgeois values, and a sense of relief when one proves to be articulate and educated, revealing oneself to be high-toned. And I think this is what stops my bourgeois sisters from approaching me. They first want to see evidence of that reassuring whiteness deep within me before venturing a hello.
A belief that the best sort of blacks are in fact "white trainees" affects quite a few educated black suburban progressives too, as any fan of The Cosby Show and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air can attest. So it comes as no surprise that, among a population heavily skewed toward the liberally-educated middle classes, many of the real-life black people in SL are using white avatars, perhaps in hopes of pruning their passing skills. So far, I've met only one RL black person with a black avatar (and one other RL white person with a black avie like me).
My black/black friend tells me that she senses no real difficulty in getting acquainted with other residents, but does confess to being ignored if she merely stands about. My other, black/white, friend reports an experience similar to my own, having switched from a white avie to a black one and noticing immediately that she became invisible by comparison to her previous online incarnation.
Second Life is perhaps the whitest environmet I've ever experienced, and the most middle-class: I'm hard pressed to recall a single conversation with an undeucated resident. By and large, everyone is playing, and everyone has a fairly healthy bank account, as the basic costs of entry - even for a free account - are dictated by some rather pricey computing paraphernalia. Everyone is concerned with arts and science, and speaks with pride about information technology; everyone likes to learn; everyone believes in progress. It is, literally, an online white suburban paradise.
For me, the investigation goes on; I'll visit this topic again in a future column if my thinking should change. Meanwhile, I've decided to keep this avatar, rather than retire it following a period of experimentation. I think it's stunningly beautiful, and I don't mind at all if it puts some people off.
I doubt I would want to talk to them anyway. ®