What A Brown Hand Says About Ethnic Representations Online

Designers draw icons, vector art, make stock photography almost without any real thought to the fact that there is a brown world out there.
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In his piece, “Just A Brown Hand” on Medium, Diogenes Brito talks the beautiful storm that has erupted around his choice as a designer to represent Slack’s “Add to Slack” with a brown hand.

Why was the choice an important one, and why did it matter to the people of color who saw it? The simple answer is that they rarely see something like that. These people saw the image and immediately noticed how unusual it was. They were appreciative of being represented in a world where American media has the bad habit of portraying white people as the default, and everyone else as deviations from the norm.

The article in its entirety was an insightful piece of writing about what it is like to be a designer who is also black, brown, deep natural tan, red or any kind of yellow. To be an artist is to draw your world, and to be an artist in a corporation, or within the first world corporate complex, is to design a white world that only exists in the minds of a few folks, but is visually affirmed from babyhood to the grave.

This isn’t necessarily so in the Caribbean. Our marketing, advertising and commercial design is geared towards our multi-ethnic background and that’s it. The racism though is seen in the way goods and services are presented to us online. And while the greater bulk of the corporate Caribbean is yet to figure out how to tap into the internet in a truly meaningful way, Caribbean consumers are spending a chunk of their money online.

This isn’t twenty years ago I’m talking about, I’m talking about our currently ubiquitous online world in which we surf, sign up for, shop at and buy goods and services via mechanisms that are almost without fail represented to us with so-called white models.

Designers draw icons, vector art, make stock photography almost without any real thought to the fact that there is a brown world out there. Until a few years ago it was rare to find multi-ethnic stock photographs. There were some, but not many. It’s increased a little, but in comparison to what’s available to the designer not thinking about anything but representations of his or her white world, it hasn’t increased nearly enough. Not nearly enough.

Try putting together a brochure, a booklet, or any other kind of print medium on a budget using stock photography sources for a Caribbean audience. You will see for yourself how hard it is to find stock images of so-called black people that doesn’t look like what every other agency in the Caribbean is producing without a dedicated photography team.

Go on, I’ll wait. Good luck O Search Operator Superstar!

This disparity in ethnic representation in the massive online business world, is not just in my imagination. Let me seriously segue for a moment. Take a little jaunt with me.

In 2006, at the urging of Taran Rampersad, I registered for Second Life. Inside two weeks, the idea of this idealized world I could shape and build, walk through, meet and interact with people in a visual way and speak with them via voice, became an enormously heady experience. For almost three years, I was a regular avatar. Sort of.

Within three months of getting comfortable in SL, and still actively publishing The Sunhead Project, and hosting Tribe Life, I created and operated a Sunhead Mind Cafe. It was a cafe type bookstore you could come and click links to important books by Black authors and purchase them in real life. For Second Life this is unheard of. Forget that it was a black bookstore. Although there was a whole sim devoted to books, Book Island–where Sunhead Mind Cafe had a presence for two solid years–and where authors and book publishers congregated, nowhere on that sim was an actual ‘book store’.

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I never made a single sale, but I met a whole lotta people from all over this globe of ours. I also partied a lot, getting up early in the morning with my baby (the flesh and blood son that I grew and came out of my body. I need specificity since this is SL we’re talking about) and dancing together in our room, while my avatar danced away in orchestrated and programmed animated abandon at whatever fete I happened to be at. In those days it was either Irie Vibes, a sim owned at the time by the infamous Irie Tsure, or at the Soul Lounge on DejaVu Isles, owned by Chan DejaVu.

In those earliest of my SL years, I defined my own experience in Second Life, because I wanted to be where the black people were, and I also wanted to experience as much as I could, and I did (with the exception of the sex scene in Second Life, I did a whole heap of stuff). Not just within the black community, but with furries, vampires, robots, aliens, fairies, werewolves and cats. I’m not prejudiced in the least way. I love everybody.

If you’re a thinking black person like myself, it doesn’t take you long to realise that while there is a thriving, vibrant black community and culture in Second Life, that SL is for the most part a 3d animated virtual white world.

In those days, I indulged a real love of shoes by buying a lot of 3d shoes, and I searched for the perfect skin that represented me, N’Delamiko Lord, as a 3d avatar named Osuntomi Melendez. I didn’t find any. I’m not lying, ask anyone around in those days, there were very few skins for people of color and what was available was largely a white designer’s idea of what black skin looks like, and what we got was ashy, dusty, orange, shit looking, bad art period.

This was only partially because of Kodak phenomenon. I am speaking of the way our technology for visual representations has been designed for white skin and treated black skin as part of the almost invisible background. The same is true for the rendering engines of most games and virtual environments, not just Second Life. Warcraft and most of these MMPORGs have the same flaw.

The largest cause of a lack of good skin for people of skin colour anywhere in the metaverse is definitely because at that time there were very few actual black people in real life opting to make black skin for these environments. When I say a few, I mean there were less than five. This is only shocking if you didn’t know that there were possibly more than a thousand white skin designers in SL in those days and I’m likely to be underestimating that figure.

If you were/are not a part of the thriving community of black people in SL, you wouldn’t believe they existed. Certainly, neither Linden Labs or the ubiquitous SL fashion industry really believes there are black people in SL. I was told once by a black intellectual who had been invited to a diversity meeting at Linden Labs, that one of the Lindens asserted that there were NO Black people in SL at a time when there were so many of us. They were shocked to learn how big the community was estimated at, and shocked to learn it was a whole subculture in Second Life.

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This was in 2007-2008!

Around December of 2009, I decided I had had enough–I have thousands of skins in my Second Life inventory from during this period to prove it–and I became a designer of ‘ethnic skin’ in Second Life.

I started Kiko Life in 2009 because in the metaverse people of colour were so grossly underrepresented and good skin for us was nowhere. I saw an opportunity, not just to make a little money, but to also represent my people and do something to change things. I had more than one white friend ask me diplomatically, but pointedly if there were enough black people in SL to support a business, to which I always replied affirmatively while being slightly irritated by the question internally.

When I started it was consciously to do only brown skins. It took enormous effort to produce high quality skins and combatting the Kodak phenomenon was certainly one of the biggest challenges. That beautiful ‘blue black’ of deep melanin is impossible in Second Life. It still is.

In 2009 however, I became quite successful at it because my work was good at a time in SL history where I became one of those five designers of black skins and of those five only three claimed blackness, and almost no one did those dark tones that I did.

The structure of the industry in Second Life shut me out because I was a black skin designer creating for black avatars. It was the African-Americans, Asian, Brazilian, Caribbean, continental Africans and East Indian communities thirsty for representation that made me successful, not an embracing of my art by the white Second Life fashion industry. To be a black designer of anything in SL very often means pretending to be white in order to be successful, or sticking to the niche market. It’s to be invisible or damn near invisible.

In Second Life, whiteness is monolithic. Everywhere you go to shop, the white designers choose only white avatars and white skin to represent their clothes, shoes, houses, earrings, hats. Black designers pretending to be white choose white avatars for all their advertising, promotions and store displays. They do this so they can keep making money and that’s it. If you get anything other than white in product advertising in SL, in almost all instances you rarely see an avatar with darker than a deep tanned skin.

All the blogs that cover SL are largely run white avatars (or black avis pretending to be white avis) and all you see are white avis anyway… You are getting my drift here.

Kiko Life was different.

In all of my advertising, promotions and selling activities the fact I proudly declared myself to be black and designing for black avatars. I was an anomaly. I also made a conscious decision at the time not to over sexualise the black female form, and presented my avatars clothed.

When you came to my store it gave me great joy to know that a black woman could see only herself on the walls. When my customers affirmed these choices, it validated my design choices. It didn’t matter than I was a little red girl from St. James, Trinidad. My customers in SL were from this planet, and they did make me SL rich for a time.

My success in the wider industry was hampered though. I made my own niche and that was how it was. The white Second Life fashion industry has zero interest in diversification. It has been reflected in the way the posh shopping sims refused black designers space. Also in how some events in Second Life do not invite black designers to participate despite being as good or better than the artists they are actually promoting. It is insidious and disheartening trying to dent this and I did. I applied, and campaigned and notecarded many of these industry brokers, but they panned and ignored me. Not just me, but the black community as a whole. We were just not welcome en masse. Of course, everyone always has pets.

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This is not the web. It is a 3d environment that is fully animated and interactive. Neither am I speaking about everyone. I’ve made designer friends who live all over the world, black, white, asian, and from countries top to bottom. However, ethnicity and representation is definitely a huge problem in Second Life and across the metaverse.

In a world where everything is created by its users, and you can create or make anything you want, Second Life managed to reflect some of the worst aspects of being ‘black’ in a ‘white’ world.

So fast forward a bit.

Here we are and it’s 2016. At the time of Diogenes Brito’s piece, we’re excited about seeing a brown hand in an icon set to spread like bush fire. I read the piece feeling both pride and also a little disappointment. Not because it isn’t awesome. It is. I am disappointed because in 2015 we’re excited about this icon.

I’m excited too! Our online representation is beginning to change, and it’s an important change to take place. Yet it brings home to me WHY I was successful making black skin in Second Life. My customers told me over and over they were just so happy to get good black skin, and how wonderful it was to walk into the store and see only black faces, and they were excited to see how hard I marketed my work as a black designer of black skins. Their excitement about being really represented for the first time, is the reason why we are feeling excited about getting this icon. Why I am disappointed is because I launched Kiko Life in 2009, and we’re in 2015.

We should have been much further along in 2009, and some years later we’re excited about this which while being important, is still a subtle change. We should be much further along, but all you have to do is ride the surfboard and see that these are baby waves in an ocean. Little waves become big waves though. I read somewhere that a pebble in a lake in Idaho, makes a wave that breaks in China. Or maybe I just made it up… it sounds good. It sounds true.

I am one of the folks that believes virtualisation of the internet is just a matter of time, not a question of if. At some point we will walk through ‘web pages’, and virtual conferencing will mean just that. We will teleport to the office where we can pay our phone bills, our light bills, and we’ll be paying with some form of digital or crypto currency, like Lindens or #BitCoin.

If we can get excited about this icon, and more and more designers make these kinds of decisions, it is my great hope that people of colour will not be invisible anymore, but visible and ubiquitously represented. We will stop getting excited about these small gains and diversification of representations become ubiquitous and something we can take for granted.

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N'Delamiko Bey

N'delamiko Bey (formerly Lord), is a writer, journalist and former Associate Editor for The Trinidad Guardian and a twenty year web development veteran. Her writing has been published in newspapers and magazines across the region, as well as in CAPE textbooks. She is The Sunhead Project's founder and Publishing Editor.
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