So what do you think? You can see what A looked like,
and you can see what B looked like. Surprised?
Here is my analysis of the encounter...
In line 1, A asks a direct question about B's 'racial'
self-identification, making relevant 'race talk', but carefully aligning her/himself
innocuously - "just curious" - to the social import of the question. Given that
they - or their avatars - are visible to each other in 3-D virtual space, the question may
look puzzling at first. B's immediate response is to type "hah", a common
laughter token, yet clearly a trouble source for A, who initiates repair with a next-turn
repair initiator in line 4. Almost in overlap, B makes a suggestion as to what may have
generated the curiosity, what motivates the question beyond the "just curious";
namely, a prior noticing that she/he is virtually embodied as the Dredd avatar, a
system-provided avatar and name suggestive of dreadlocked, dark-skinned features (as well
as the comics character Judge Dredd).
Following a brief sequential asynchrony, A displays agreement with B's
account in line 7. Thus, the participants have oriented to the inferences one can make
about the cultural identities of others from their embodiments. In line 8, A asks the
question again, thus treating the prior talk as an insertion sequence, and pursuing a
relevant answer. In lines 9 and 10, both participants orient almost simultaneously to the
force of that reassertion: that it may be taken as not innocent, eg. racially motivated.
They resolve that giving an answer to this 'yes/no' question will not provide grounds for
substantive action by A. B answers no, then B asks the same question of A, to which A
answers no. At this point, it becomes evident that neither A nor B are choosing avatars
that reflect their offline ethnic identities. This is not uncommon since, as Nakamura
(1995) points out, we see the rise of identity tourism online: a dream of crossing over
racial boundaries temporarily and recreationally with no risks associated with being a
racial minority in real life.
Next in the conversation, A declares in line 16 that "I am 100%
Irish", an elaboration of her/his answer that positively ascribes to her/himself a
pure ethnic identity category that is hearable as comparable to, yet distinct from,
"black" as part of the membership collection 'race' . Thus, we can reason that
to be 100% Irish is not to be black, racially untainted by a drop of black blood . A and B
negotiate their situated perspective on 'race' while doing alignment, but they do so at
this moment by drawing upon a hierarchy of realities: one's ontological status is grounded
in identifications in the offline physical world. A's question "are you black?"
is understood as "are you really black in the offline world?" Later, B's
response in line 17 asks for clarification of A's alignment to her/his own prior
statement. B reformulates A's prior turn by probing, possibly recontextualising it as a
boast, to which A responds with ambivalence.
Nakamura (1995) observes that "some forms of racial passing are
condoned and practised since they do not threaten the integrity of a national sense of
self which is defined as white." The chat dialogue above is indicative of the
presumptive accountability of participants to their choice of embodiment when they have
'chosen' a non-dominant form or feature that becomes 'noticeable'. In fact, it is through
these noticings and categorisation practices that parties attempt to (re)construct the
relations between the centre and the margins while embodied in the virtual domain. White
is still invisible, non-white is accountable . In addition, one can be accountable to the
authenticity of taking on that embodiment in relation to one's 'real life'
identifications. It is clear from this example that ethnographic and ethnomethodological
attention to the practices of the everyday, of ethnification, and of boundary maintenance,
is needed to avoid the reification of wishful features of virtual communities over actual