Changing Constructions of Race in the Physical and Digital Worlds

Nakamura, Browner, and Everett all, explicitly or implicitly, acknowledge a hope that characterized the beginning of the digital age and compare it to the reality of what has taken shape throughout the past couple decades. As Stephanie Browner explicitly recognizes in her article “Digital Humanities and the Study of Race and Ethnicity” there was a “sense of possibility that attended the dawning of the digital age” but she continues, there is “work yet to be done” (209). For many, it seemed as though the beginning of the digital age would allow for a distinct separation of the digital from the physical world, its inequality, limits, hierarchies, structures, and constructions. But as the digital world developed in conjunction with the physical world a separation between the two did not occur, rather a complicated relationship emerged in which one borrowed from and was characterized by the other. This is especially true in relation to race in the digital and the physical world, how it is portrayed, constructed, and visualized.

Lisa Nakamura, in her book Digitizing Race and in her lecture, examined the representation of racial identity on the Internet and the construction of this visual, racial image. In her analysis, race becomes reconstructed through images but does not necessarily break down social constructions of race, which has led to a continuance of racism and stereotypes in the digital world. Browner works from a different angle by analyzing race in relation to literary scholarship, publishing, archiving and collections. In this form multiethnic literature has become more accessible and better archived. Furthermore, the digital world can be manipulated to better suit the forms and principles of multiethnic literature. But as Browner continues, there are still issues of accessibility and funding. Finally, Anna Everett in her article “The Revolution Will be Digitized: Reimaging Africanity in Cyberspace” examines the black community’s use of and contribution to the Internet. Showing that there were/are many blacks who contributed to the creation and development of the Internet, she also emphasized the lack of recognition of these individuals and groups.

Throughout each of these pieces the continued relationship between the physical and the digital world is emphasized. Rather than the digital splitting completely from the physical world, there is a definite carryover of concepts, constructions and systems of thought. These scholars all note that the racial constructions and representations of the physical world are brought into the digital realm. Nakamura spoke to this in her lecture when discussing online gaming in which the visual representations of race were targeted and the racial structures were reestablished, even at times more brutally. As much as the physical realm has influenced the Internet, the digital in many ways works to reveal the constructed nature of the social systems and hierarchies. Nakamura highlights the digital visual construction of race as based on stereotypes and a façade. In the digital realm, the visual images can be modified, chosen, created and thus constructed revealing and emphasizing a façade of authenticity on which racial constructions were/are based. However, as Browner and Everett are quick to point out, this ability to modify, choose, and create can also lead to innovation, redefining, reimagining in a manner that better suits the needs of the diverse population. It allows multiethnic groups to take control of the construction and conceptualization of race. As Browner states, “race works as an archive, as a category used to create meaning, even as the very notion of race as a meaningful category has been undermined. The result is a site that challenges our desire for an easy or invisible interface” (222). Thus, even though the Internet did not fulfill its original hope of equality and democracy and brought the “cultural baggage” (Everett 149) of the physical world into the digital world, it has allowed for an awareness of and change in the constructions that characterizes the physical and now the digital world. 

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4 Responses to Changing Constructions of Race in the Physical and Digital Worlds

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