Color Outside the Lines: Digital Identities

Hello! Welcome to Color Outside the Lines, a discussion space for people of color. Posted the first 3 Wednesdays of the month.

Thread Rules

  1. We ask that only those who identify as people of color participate in this discussion. White Avocados, while valued members of this community, should remain in ‘lurk’ mode.
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  4. Nobody on this thread is more or less a person of color than anyone else. (We will not set clearly delineated boundaries on who qualifies as a ‘person of color.’ As a starting point, this thread uses the definition of ‘non-European heritage of sufficient prominence to affect one’s navigation of a society built on white normativity.’ However, we recognize that there are identities which skirt either side of the divide. If people feel that they meaningfully experience the identity of being a person of color, then they are welcome to participate.)

Hello PoC, and lurking community members! HP here, guesting for today’s Color Inside the Lines. My question for discussion this week: How do you present yourself online, and how do you negotiate your identity in your online interactions with others?

In order to think about this question, I started with the idea of racial identity on a basic, general level. It is both is externally imposed (how to do others perceive me?), and internally constructed (how do I identify myself?). So creating your identity is, as we know, a fluid, nonlinear process. Our personal experieces, our families, communities, workplaces, socio-political events, etc, help us understand our racial identity. And it’s important! Because I’m Black, I mostly have read about conceptions of online identity in terms of Black people, but I think these conversations are relevant to all of us from marginalized backgrounds. I had a look, for example, at a recent poll from Pew Research that showed that significant majorities of Black Americans say being Black is extremely or very important to how they think about themselves, with about three-quarters of the respondants (76%) overall saying so.  The write up of the research also notes: “A significant share of Black Americans also say that when something happens to Black people in their local communities, across the nation or around the globe, it affects what happens in their own lives, highlighting a sense of connectedness. Black Americans say this even as they have diverse experiences and come from an array of backgrounds.” Personally, I’ve found conversations in the PT and other spaces that are predominantly white to be difficult in this specific way, that there is a way in which the discourse can feel harmful or difficult to process, and I am left to try to articulate that to people who aren’t aware of this, or who are indifferent. This is why I’ll often tag other Black people I know here at the Avocado when discussing certain things- because I know that we’re very likely to be starting from a similar place.

Another bit of research I looked at was an academic paper on meaning and identity in ‘Cyberspace’. It points out that an idealized conception of identity in virtual spaces aspires to disrupt existing hierarchies based on aspects of identity like gender. In other words, participating in online social interactions makes aspects of identity that are the basis for harmful hierarchies and discrimination less important. “This highlights the potential ability to portray different a different self online, fostering the view of the self as multiple, emphasizing gender/race as a construct, etc. It can also offer a glimpse of how others might live. There is an assumption, whether for good or ill, that these differences change people’s understanding of their identity both online and offline.” Of course, the challenge is that people use assumptions about identity (including race, gender, age, etc) to organize their social world and inform their interactions, and people may not join online experiences (or become members of a community) expecting or wanting their understanding of identity to change. The paper claims that although we can adapt our self-presentation to accommodate various social situations, we resist seeing ourselves as a performed character. We often tell stories about ourselves that try to mask the separation between the ‘I’ telling a story and the ‘me’ that is the subject of the story. Even though we have the potential for deception, fluidity, multiplicity, etc in our online identity, studies have shown that “people persist in forming/seeking essentialized grounding for the self that they encounter.”

On the margins of this conversation, I was also thinking about how identities, and specifically Black identities, get co-opted and distorted online. Digital Blackface is a phenomenon that has been examined and discussed often online, but I was particularly drawn to Jason Parham’s (who is a wonderful writer!) story on Digital Blackface for WIRED. I’ll leave off here with a wonderful quote from his article, which is about TIK TOK, Blackness, and Black content creators: “For some, being Black in the public square has meant inhabiting a deformed identity, of having your Blackness misshapen. Call it the slow gentrification of Black humanity. Call it underhanded cultural theft. Call it the shameless leveraging of anti-Blackness. The incidents are infinite and varied. It happens in small exhales. It happens in echoing thunderclaps.”

Can’t wait to hear your thoughts about digital identity!