A Review of Cybertypes: Race, Ethnicity, and Identity on the InternetLisa Nakamura
London: Routledge, 2002
ISBN: 0415938376 $18.95 pp. 192
Review by Samantha Blackmon
Lisa Nakamura's Cybertypes: Race, Ethnicity, and Identity on the Internet aims to interrogate how the Internet shapes and reshapes our perceptions of race, ethnicity, and identity. She names the images of racial identity online that shape these perceptions cybertypes. These cybertypes are often determined and defined by the racial and ethnic stereotypes that are already at work and at play in the "real world."
Cybertypes is divided into five main chapters that examine cybertypes in a number of "different rhetorical spaces of and around the Internet" (xiv). Chapter one, "Cybertyping and the Work of Race in the Age of Digital Reproduction," looks at how race gets coded for different kinds of work in the IT industry. Nakamura makes the argument that while foreign minorities, such as Asians, get glorified as "model minorities," domestic minorities, like African Americans, are troped as digital outsiders. In this chapter Nakamura breaks down the idea and history of stereotypes in order to define the power and politics that drive cybertypes rhetorically online and in the offline spaces that surround technology. She calls upon critical race theorists such as bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Kali Tal, and Vijay Prashad to interrogate questions of race in advertising, staffing in the IT industry, and the myth of access. This chapter pulls from a variety of different theories and calls us to pay attention to aspects of technology that we have thus far ignored. The newness of the ideas in this chapter in many ways makes it the best chapter in the book.
Chapter two, "Head-Hunting on the Internet," focuses on interactions in online social roleplaying spaces. Nakamura uses this chapter to investigate how "real world" stereotypes are used in the creation of raced and gendered characters online. She argues that this attempt to "pass," or engage in "identity tourism" online only serves to perpetuate stereotypes and build new cybertypes.
The next chapter, "Race in the Construct and the Construction of Race," builds upon the previous one by looking to cyberspace narratives, such as Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash and William Gibson's Neuromancer, as the source of cybertypes. Nakamura engages in close readings of these novels
as well as Ridley Scott's 1982 film Blade Runner and the Wachowski brothers' 1999 mega hit film The Matrix in order to determine how these master narratives supply us with the racial templates that we use for online interaction. She argues that both cyberspace and race are consensual hallucinations and uses the work of Anthony Appiah to draw connections between science's role in defining race, the ideological uses of categories such as race, and our notions of race in cyberpunk narratives and cyberspace (67).
Table Of Contents
- Cybertyping and The Work of Race in the Age of Digital Reproduction
- Head Hunting on the Internet: Identity Tourism, Avatars, and Racial Passing in Textual and Graphical Chatspaces
- Race in the Construct and the Construction of Race: The 'Consensual Hallucination' of Multiculturalism in the Fictions of Cyberspace
- "Where Do You Want to Go Today?": Cybernetic Tourism, the Internet, and Transnationality
- Menu-Driven Identities: Making Race Happen Online
Chapter four, "Where Do You Want to Go Today?" extends the argument of the preceding two chapters even further to go beyond issues of race and ethnicity online and in literature and film to include television and print advertisements for computer technologies. Nakamura uses 1997 advertisements for Compaq, IBM, and Origin products to discuss the depiction of racial difference as stereotyped visual markers. She looks at how these markers are used in computer advertisements to position the viewer/consumer as a tourist and are subsequently used, via their online absence, to erase race online to such an extent that all people are seen as being stripped down to "just minds" separate from the obviously raced bodies present in the advertisements.
The chapter, "Menu-Driven Identities," that follows moves "into the machine" and examines the relationship between users and Internet interfaces. Nakamura looks at the limitations of sites that require people to racially identify in order to become members of that online community and argues that it denies users the possibility of a mestiza consciousness that incorporates more than one racial identity (113). She also looks at how race is constructed in lists of stereotypes that detail "You might be (fill in ethnicity here) if […]" that circulate online via email as jokes. She offers an interesting discussion of how these types of communiqués and corporately constructed race specific web portals (and their limited definitions of race) do more to influence minorities' perception of race online than more mainstream venues because they are the things that minorities access most frequently in an attempt to build online community. Nakamura argues that cyberspace, like race, is a construct that can only be changed if and when we free our minds of racism.
In the concluding section, "Keeping It (Virtually) Real," Nakamura doesn't so much conclude as she details a limited history of cyberculture theory and the Internet. In this final section Nakamura draws connections between the Internet and the subversive potential of hip-hop music and addresses the digital divide and the lack of academics of color that contribute to cyberculture theory. Like so much of the book, the conclusion references past cybertheory research and offers new perspectives on it and calls for further research into race, ethnicity, and identity creation on the Internet. All in all, Cybertypes is a good start at scrutinizing cyberculture theory under the lens of critical race theory, but much of the time it fails to show the deep and abiding connections between race online and more traditional critical race theory and falls back on the traditional method of literary analysis. However, Nakamura's book is definitely a step in the right direction and it is well worth the read. For a review of a related text, see Race in Cyberspace.