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Color me stupid but I thought I was getting the hang of this parenting thing.

I have managaed, despite a notorious reputation of killing all living things (a cactus died on my watch), to raise my daughter and my niece, ages 8 and 9.  They are not only potty trained – see I told you Mom – but also independent, use their manners, do well in school and are just magic on a stick.  I don’t want you to have the impression that I have it all figured out or that there have not been some really crappy days (and weeks) that I think I should have stuck with a dog.  I know that soon the girls will be in tween territory and then into the abyss that is adolescence.  As a mixed race woman who identifies herself as African American and a womanist, I am aware the girls need to be prepared to deal with the confusing and painful intersections of race, gender, class among other things.  The Steve Harvey’s, T.D. Jakes, Sotashi Kanazawa’s and thier ilk who want to constrict, control and/or coerce the girls to accept an image that is not of their choosing will be coming on strong.  I have at my disposal Audre Lorde, bell hooks, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Alice Walker, Toni Cade Bambara, Paule Marshall, Delores Williams and Jacquelyn Grant.  I have mams, mamis, muthas, aunties, nanas, grandmas, mothers of the church to pray them up, plead the blood, light incense, to dance and shout, and to shield them from my own temper if the need should arise.  I am also blessed to have awesome men folk on my team starting with my husband who mended the eldest’s heart when she came home crying one day and ran into his arms telling him, between snot and tears, that someone had called her ugly.  The girls have their Uncle Moses, a deeply spiritual, openly gay man, who always has a joke and a tickle for them.  Bringing up the rear is my brother James, Pa, Pop Pop, Poppy and a host of men at the church.  So what, dear reader, has me lying awake at night, brow furrowed, and contemplating drinking in the daytime?

An avatar.

Like many parents, we monitor the quality and quantity of media the girls consume.  After trial and error, we found a few sites that were appropriate.  One came out a favorite between the girls.  Fantage is a website that allows children to make thier own avatars, play games for coins that they can use to buy houses, pets and other accessories.  They are also able to safely chat with other players.  The girls are always showing me some new pet or outfit they just bought.  Despite all the (safe) fun the girls were having, something kept bugging me and I couldn’t for the life of me figure it out.  Then it hit me:  Both of their avatars featured white girls with bright blue eyes and various neon hair colors.

I knew I had to handle this carefully. I did not want the girls to feel like they did something wrong or that I was angry with them.  However I was curious to find out why they chose to represent themselves in this fashion.

“You know, I love the pink hair and I think it would look great with your skin tone.  Do you want to see what it would look like?”

“We tried that already.  We didn’t like it.”

I asked them to explain to me what they meant.  With a sigh, they opened up the page with the hair, eye and skin color choices.  There were about 6 skin tones to choose from with 2 being darker than a biscuit.  While there were many eye expressions and hair colors to choose from, only a few of the hair choices reflected styles that many African American girls would identify with.

“See Titi, my skin doesn’t look like that.  I’m darker.”

“Yeah Mama.  I’m not that dark.  I wanted it to look like me.”

They said it so matter of fact I was speechless.  On the one hand it made me feel good they had themselves in mind when they were trying to be creative.  I could not help also feeling angry and sad they felt the choices available did not reflect them.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love that any and everyone can be a pink, pixie dust covered flying dragon that shoots rainbows out their butts if they so choose.  For children, it is a way for them to try out different personas.  They can whimsical, cool, powerful, fierce or anything else they might want.  For children of color, it just seems they can not be those things with themselves as the template.  What does it say to children of color when they can not be complex, nuanced creative beings?  When you can be anything within a white body but with a black body, not so much?

I was pondering the limits of ingenuity for black bodies (especially female) when a few weeks later news broke that the author of the popular blog A Gay Girl in Damascus who described herself as half Syrian and half American was actually a 40 year old white man living in Georgia.  By way of “apology”, Tom MacMaster explained “while the narrative voice may have been fictional, the facts on this blog are true and not misleading as to the situation on the ground.  I do not believe I have harmed anyone – I feel I have created an important voice for issues I feel strongly about.”

So let me get this ish straight.  A white dude living in the South can drape on the oppression of a marginalized body for years like it’s a brand new coat because he wants to create a “voice” and my kids can’t be themselves online?

This is not the first or the last time white bodies have inhabited the “other” in order to prove a larger point.  This is just another stop on a long trip.  With social media becoming with each passing day a critical tool for social justice, how will the internet and the bodies who utilize it be constricted/restricted and freed by it?  With white bodies being able at any point in time able to be the voice of the marginalized and have an audience, it creates a dead zone for those who living those realities.  How will our own children be able to carve out spaces as artists, writers, dancers, teachers, intellectuals and the like when the path is so narrow even in a space as infinite as the internet?

3 thoughts on “Avatar

  1. This is FASCINATING! The implications of the intersection between race, gender, ethnicity, class, etc. and alternate realities online are just as complicated–maybe even more complicated–than they are in real life. And helping our children navigate these realities is still a very difficult job. You hit on 2 issues in your post: (1) the limitations placed on children of color online, and (2) the co-opting of alternate cultural identities–especially of minority identity–by whites online. Though the former concerns me, it’s a concern that we share in almost all other aspects of our lives. The latter, however, is new trouble, especially in the context of commerce or business. Companies are increasingly using avatars to attract consumers online; imagine a company using “black” avatars because they want to attract a particular demographic, or insisting that employees’ avatars look more “white” or be male, in order to present a particular company image. Imagine, even, a black employee, who uses a white avatar, because that helps with online sales. In some ways, this is the same old story, but the internet is re-writing those stories in very new ways. All of it engaging, all of it potentially disturbing…

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  2. This is fascinating. We have a Wii, which allows you to create Miis. Miis are mini versions of yourself, just like avatars, I suppose. When we first started, my kids were a bit confused, like, “I can make it look however I want?” And their first instinct was not exactly as I hoped. There were some pink skins and small noses and lips the first time because the other options just looked, well, strange. We’ve finally worked it out, actually having to tell my little one, “That girl doesn’t look like you, let’s make her look like this,” and actually making it for her (cause she’s only three.)

    But the other issue of cultural co-option is so troublesome in the internet age. We don’t know WHO is lurking behind these screen names – in reality I haven’t met, in real life, half of the people who write for this blog. I try to get an intuitive sense of authenticity, but we can all be tricked. We expect people to be who they say they are, at the most foundational level, but this whole internet thing is really built off of trust.

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  3. Our kids need to be cued to these issues and encouraged to seek ways to design and implement their own gaming systems. Too often we’ve fit (or not) into the mold. Let’s encourage our children to desire to design the mold.

    Not all of them can. However, the bright, beautiful, girls you described in your article are more than able to reach for, and accomplish their dreams.

    Have them assist you as you research this issue. Search out schools that teach what they need to learn. Keep this issue everpresent in their minds, so that as they grow older they will develop a strong social consciousness and a desire to do something about what they know.

    And be blessed as you raise these princesses!

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