My real life identity and ethnicity bleeds into my Second Life; I am a Hispanic/Black male and would like to have my avatar resemble my ethnicity and race. Within Second Life I’ve found that this can be a hard, tiring and frustrating process. The reasons are not technical in nature, it has nothing to do with my inability to wear skins or a graphics card failure; it has everything to do with inaccurate and insufficient content. While there’s an abundance of “dark” or “tan” skins, they do not have the features of the ethnicities and races they represent; clothing, hair, and accessories suffer from a lack of accuracy, identity and quality. This has caused me a great deal of frustration.
I grow more frustrated by the current ethnic content; while many exist, it does not seem correct and lacks details I’m used to in real life. I have yet to find a designer who is completely exempt from my ire. Some designers do better than others but they seem far and few in between. My current avatar has flaws I would like to see fixed by other designers in the very near future. In some sense I feel as if I’m settling for an appearance that does not fit my identity.
Before continuing, I want to be clear about my frustration; it is the inability to represent myself as an Hispanic/Black/Ethnic avatar due to the poor quality and/or limited options available within Second Life. I’m not claiming racism (that I’m denied access due to the color of my skin), if anything I’m saying there’s ignorance (possibly bordering on negligence, although too harsh of a word) among content creators as it pertains to ethnic avatars.
I’m shocked by the amount of effort it takes finding a skin with features, details, traits that are common in real life. While there are many “tan” and “dark” skins, many (if not all) are darker representations of their lighter counterparts. They lack certain characteristics to accurately represent ethnic people. An example is scalp hair, which is drawn on the scalp of the skin as a way to represent short hair. In real life, many Hispanics and Blacks have very short hair, but in Second Life, not all ethnic skins have this option. The few that do, the hair tends to be brown and not the more common black. There’s also a lack of hair style, low shaved heads are usually clean cut, some include a ‘widows peak’, others are faded, or military cut (cut low showing the scalp). This example may seem like a very issue, however this is one of the most important aspects that should be available for those wanting an ethnic avatar. I purposely avoid skins that lack this trait regardless of their quality.
Hair style may not seem important, but it is a major representation of ethnic identity. Dreadlocks aren’t grown just because they are cute, there’s a reason, a commitment and a story behind them. There are some very well done and authentic dreadlocks in Second Life, however it’s one of only three black hairstyles that seems to exist; afro’s and cornrows are the other two. While these hairstyles are the most distinctive they are not the only ethnic hair styles. Creators may want to take a look at other styles including the flat-tops, buns, and fro-hawks to add more diversity to their hair designs.
The choice of avatar clothing further exasperates this issue. “Urban” clothing doesn’t seem to represent urban clothing at all, most of these items are city clothing (jeans, faded t-shirts, etc). “Ethnic” clothing tends to be stereotypical Hip-Hop/gangsta’ replicas of actual clothing that are poorly designed. A middle-ground does not exist and the true style of urban clothing is void in Second Life. Clothing and accessory designers have created style-like virtual replicas of boots, loafers, and shoes; yet I cannot find a good Timberland boot style. Design styles of popular urban clothing, such as Fubu, and Ecko, aren’t seen often enough (if at all) in Second Life.
The really frustrating (and borderline offensive) aspect of this topic is nothing has changed for some time. I’ve waited close to a year to write this post because I felt I was over reacting. After talking with others about my frustrations, not only did I learn others felt the same way, but they felt just as frustrated regardless of their ethnicity. In circles it has become a bit of a joke and an unspoken issue. It feels like designers are pigeonholing what ethnic avatars should look like, even though it may not be intentional. The references used to create darker skins, clothing, and hair styles seem to be incorrect, misguided and at times afterthoughts. What exists is a small thin slice of a small representation of people. This slice that we got in Second Life misses the wide ethnic cultures including the Caribbean and West Indian style. Designers and content creators need to do a better job in their research.
Excuses and Resolutions
I am further appalled by the explanation for this problem and that so many people (including myself) have been quiet for so long. The only reasonable excuse I come across is that the resources and time designers have are limited and they are stretched very thin. I will agree there is a lot of hard works and effort in designing items in Second Life, but this excuse flies in the face of logic. Many already have “dark” and “tan” skins, t-shirts, and jeans that need require tweaking to their existing product. This excuse ignores the fact that designers are always creating something new! Why not include this as a part of your next release? Another excuse is a very ignorant and stupid one, that is these sorts of items “won’t sell.” The real question is have designers tried? What indicators do they have that these items will not sell? I’m sure, if one shoe designer created a Timberland style of boots, it would sell quite well. In actuality designers are handicapping themselves! I purposely do not buy certain skins, clothing and items because they do not fit my style. If certain items do not exist on the market, why would I purchase them?
I want to be clear as to what I’m recommending. I’m not asking for a slew of poor or high quality, ghetto-fabulous, stereotypical items geared for ethnic avatars. I’m not asking for a “Black” Mall, a “Black” shopping area, or a “Black” fair; these solutions could be construed as offensive, exclusionary, and perform the opposite effect of what I’m hinting at. I’m suggesting that the idea of a “Black Mall” is not even unavailable in Second Life due to the lack of proper content. In a world where creativity and diversity is highly touted, it seems to be lacking on certain fundamental levels. Ethnic avatars are not the only ones suffering from this; I’ve heard for years that the are very little selection in Asian and Middle Eastern styles (I can only speak for myself which is Hispanic/Black.) There’s plenty of ethnic people and clothing references that designers can choose to make their brands more diverse. If designers need a list of people to watch for ideas here is my beginner list: Kayne West, Chris Brown, Samuel L. Jackson, Lawrence Fishburne, Beyonce, Will Smith, Cuba Gooding Jr., Jada Pickett, Tyra Banks, Carlos Mencia, Andy Garcia, Emilio Estefan, Jennifer Lopez, Marc Anthony, and even Ricky Martin.
I am not singling out any one designer, brand or segment, everyone is just as liable. I have many close friends who are designers who personally hear my frustration. I believe designers need to re-evaluate what they have and work on creating more items and content that is more diverse and of equal quality or don’t do it at all (which for many of you is not an option). If there’s anytime to begin this process, now would be a great time with Martin Luther King Day, Obama’s Inauguration (US), and February (African-American History Month in the states) quickly approaching.
Note on the use of the word “Ethnic”: I am really uncomfortable with the term “Ethnic” to describe Black/African-American or Hispanic/Latino people. However I feel in this case, it best represents the topic at hand. When I use this term I am referring to Black and Hispanic-Caribbean.
Comment Note: I purposely left names of designers, clothing, and skin that I feel does a better job than others. The intention of this post is not to highlight or dismiss certain designers for what they are or not doing right. It’s an attempt to shine the light on a much larger issue at hand. Comments are welcomed and encouraged, however I will be moderating them heavily as to prevent finger pointing, advertising, and needless flaming.