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Digital Representations of Race and Gender

Asian Americans often face prejudices and stereotypes in their everyday life. White Americans perceive them as a minority that has to adjust to the dominant white culture. However, in the context of the Internet the balance may be changed. The Internet is not a white phenomenon anymore as Asian Americans use it more than any other ethnic group in the United States. Belonging to the digital majority, they have a chance to rearticulate their race identity through “new” media. For that, Lisa Nakamura introduces the idea of the Asian American “poweruser.” Powerusers challenge the representation of Asians as unsophisticated, uneducated, and stuck in a pretechnological past (Nakamura, “Alllooksame?” 264). Instead, they prove themselves to be active users and creators of the modern technologies.

Additionally, digital media and Internet culture offers Asian Americans an opportunity to rearticulate their race. Especially, the website alllooksame.com shows how race is “detached from biological bodies and reassigned to the realm of the cultural, political and geographical” (Nakamura, “Alllooksame?” 267). New websites challenge the old worldview as it resists the former racial categories. While people tend to think that the truth about race is found in the systematic study of the face, they have to admit that one creates a race by individual acts of viewing. These tendencies give new prospects to Asian Americans for it leads to the notion that race is irrelevant for multicultural America.

Asian Americans choose different ways to deal with the stereotypes. One of the examples is Mary Digby, who is half-Irish and half-Japanese. The girl is now a popular American singer, musician and actress. She first became known to the public in 2007 when she made a video cover for Rihanna’s song “Umbrella.” Mary Digby contributes to the participatory culture because she creates her own videos and shares them with the viewers for free. She both resists “old media” stereotypes and reproduces them. According to one of the stereotypes actively promoted by media, Japanese women are weak and submissive. From one point of view, Mary Digby fits this image as her voice is quiet and sounds weak. From the other point of view, weak and submissive women do not usually play the guitar. They would rather listen to what other people tell them to do and never pursue a life of their own. At the same time, Digby’s appearance might have been also contributed to her success as “there is little in her physical appearance that definitely marks her national identity” (Mannur 82).

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Another example is Ray William Johnson, the American video blogger. He became famous for creating video show called Equals Three. The point of this blog is to comment the most viewed videos of the Internet in a funny manner. By creating it, Johnson has contributed to the participatory culture, as well. Ray William Johnson is Indian by the ethnic origin but he hides it. He does not want to advertise it due to the negative stereotypes of Indians on the media which include working at 7-Eleven, character of Apu from The Simpsons and offensive names referring to people of South Asian descent. Furthermore, Johnson mocks Indian videos, especially those made in Bollywood. In this way, he tries to be “hyperassimilated, attractive and yuppified Asian American who seemingly integrates into American cultural life” (Mannur 78). At the same time, Ray William Johnson avoids reproducing any of the “old media” stereotypes about Indians.

Asian American identify with gaming strongly for several reasons. First, their game characters or Avatars allow them to deracialize the body. In real life they can be treated with hostility and prejudice based on their race. Meanwhile, nobody can judge them for their race in the game. Massively multiplayer online games (MMOs) are so attractive to Asian Americans because they can be anyone they want and people will accept them. The second reason why Asian Americans strongly identify with gaming is because it gives them what they cannot achieve in real life. Massively multiplayer online games provide Asian Americans with the possibility of accumulating “avatarial capital.” While people accumulate cultural capital in reality, players can accumulate skills that enhance earning power in virtual reality. Castronova manages to provide one with the insight of how accumulation of avatarial capital occurs and how it rewards the players. According to Castronova, avatarial capital consists in “experience points and skills and attributes that allow people to make investments, investments whose returns are in the form of increases in their ability to do and see things in the world” (Castronova 110). Therefore, the players receive the opportunity to gain some power and become someone important even if it is not for real.

On the other hand, accumulating avatarial capital is about “emotional investment” in avatars (Nakamura, “Don’t Hate the Player” 141). When the player spends much time, energy and even money on the game character, he or she becomes attached to him. Players start identifying with their characters strongly. When their character wins, they feel it is their personal victory, and when their character loses, they consider it to be their fault. To add even more, this attachment develops unnoticeably. Castronova fairly observes that “coming to own the avatar, psychologically, is so natural among those who spend time in synthetic worlds that it is barely noticed” (Castronova 45). Thus, new opportunity for self-representation, the possibility to accumulate certain kind of capital and emotional attachment to the character are the main reasons why Asian Americans identify with gaming strongly.

Unfortunately, Asians cannot avoid racial prejudice and even hatred in the digital reality because of the reputation of cheaters. It has originated from the famous game World of Warcraft (WoW) when it appeared that there are many people in China who play the game for money. American players called them Chinese gold farmers. Americans constantly try to detect Chinese gold farmers by looking at the language of players and checking those who constantly harvest the game’s prizes. When the player is assumed to be a Chinese gold farmer, other players target him for harassment and sometimes virtual death.

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Despite new opportunities for self-representation, Asian Americans have been digitally discriminated against using massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs). In particular, WoW fans reveal racial discrimination in their digital writing, gaming blogs and cinema. Principally, they create a lot of anti-farmer machinima. One of the most famous machinima is the so-called “Ni Hao.” It promotes the idea that Asians do not count as other players or as “people.” They all look the same and so they are all the same. It shows that Asian laborers are “interchangeable and replaceable” (Nakamura, “Don’t Hate the Player” 138).

“Ni Hao” is one of countless examples of machinima that demonstrate that Chinese have a sense of inferiority because of this. After all, not all people who play for money are Asians. As Nakamura claims, “Though not all farmers, or for-profit workers, are Asian by any means, the image of the farmer has come to include race as part of the package” (Nakamura, “Don’t Hate the Player” 132). The consequences of this racialization made the image of Asian farmers unwanted, illegal and anti-social. Therefore, as long as Asian “farmers” are viewed as undesirable workers in the virtual space, Asian Americans will suffer from network racism.