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Sunday, April 18, 2004  

Internet: Writer limns race in cyberspace

Though writing about what participation in the Internet means is developing, it is still in its childhood. About ten years after non-academic, non-journalist Americans discovered the World Wide Web, perhaps 25 books that are worthy of being considered serious scholarship about life on the Net exist. To a list that includes classics such as Silicon Snake Oil, I am adding Race in Cyberspace. The book is the first to attempt to delineate how race, and sometimes gender, is rendered and received in virtuosity. It is a collection of essays about different aspects of race and the Web gathered from academics. The glue that holds the anthology together is that each paper was required to meet the one requirement of discussing race and life on the Net in some way. Because of the broad range of topics discussed, individual contributors deserve attention.

Among them is Tara McPherson, an Assistant Professor of Critical Studies in the Film School at the University of Southern California. McPherson wrote one of the most striking essays in the book, "I'll Take My Stand in Dixie-Net: White Guys, the South, and Cyberspace." As some of you know, I've long been a monitor of white supremacist hate groups, including the neo-Confederate movement. McPherson's is one of the first academic papers to delve into the Internet world of the virtually reconstructed Old South. The neo-Confederate movement, though grounded in wish fulfillment, plays an important role in American politics, especially in the South. There its members have caused the defeat of governors and is currently preventing the National Park Service from adding sites that served the freed slaves to its itinerary. McPherson does not explore the connection between neo-Confederate activity on and off line in her short article. However, she does bring the movement into the spotlight, and, provides some useful observations about it and the treatment of race on the Internet.

Early theorists of the Internet posited that being online allows people to remove themselves from 'place' in a geographic sense, and, allows them to develop broader personas or even multiple personalities. Neo-Confederates online do quite the opposite. McPherson realizes that neorebels online are engaged in constructing a very specific place, a South where white men of their type reign, much as the pre-Bellum Southern aristocracy did. Nor are they interested in multiplicity of identity. Instead, they seek to structure a very narrow identity that embraces a phantasmagoric perspective of history. That identity is pretty exclusively white and male. Cybertheory has also focused on being online as play. That viewpoint grew out of the use of the Net by gamers. It is said that the 'playfulness' has carried over into other online communities. McPherson notes, accurately, that there is nothing playful about the neorebel sites. The advocates for overturning Reconstruction behave as if their lives, or at least their idealized sense of self, is at stake.

I believe McPherson overstates the covertness of racism in cyber Dixie. Perhaps the rhetoric has become less subtle as the real life neo-Confederate movement has split into at least two factions, which was happening as Race in Cyberspace went to press in 2000. Though they attempt to be crafty, the secessionists at the League of the South and the Council of the Conservative Citizens no longer make much effort to disguise their white supremacist beliefs. And, tellingly, mutual membership among those two organizations and the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which tries to market itself as more moderate, has increased. The leaders of the SCV are also the leaders of the LOL and CCC. Meanwhile, 'heritage' advocates who prefer to stick to decorating Confederate graves or who, mistakenly, try to paint the Confederacy as multiracial, are heard from less and less.

McPherson has observed "the faith in colorlessness is one of the great racist conspiracies of the late twentieth century, and a vision of a raceless future is a racist future." I believe that insight applies particularly well to the part of the Internet we call the blogosphere.

Race is largely a subject not to be discussed in the blogosphere unless two requirements are met.

It must be in terms with which Right Wing commentators are comfortable. An example would be Dean Esmay's White Citizens Council -like pronouncements about racial issues. For example, he claimed that segregationist politician Strom Thurmond's treatment of his biracial daughter, Essie Mae Washington was "good." Thurmond disowned his daughter for decades, but sent her small amounts of hush money. Only someone to whom horrid treatment of African-Americans is just fine would Thurmond's treatment of Washington be good.

It must be in terms that allow white 'liberals,' to cast themselves as the persons most capable of understanding race. Unfortunately, many of those same 'liberals' are a stone's throw from being overt racists themselves.

You will notice that no 'space' is left here for bloggers of color to do much expressing of thoughts about race themselves. That is intentional. As McPherson observes, not allowing discussion of race is in itself a form of racism. Since racism has played such an important role in the development of American society, it is the default setting. When voices that would interrogate racist assumptions are silenced, those assumptions carry the day.

Race in Cyberspace appeared before weblogs had any appreciable presence. But, I believe the cybertheories discussed by its authors are relevant to the blogosphere. Future writing about race in cyberspace will be enriched when the insights of bloggers unafraid to discuss issues of race are added to the mixture.

7:26 PM