Lisa Nakamura, Cybertypes: Race, Ethnicity, and Identity on the Internet

Review by Shawntay Stocks
University of Maryland Baltimore County

Nakamura, Lisa. Cybertypes: Race, Ethnicity, and Identity on the Internet. New York: Routledge, 2002. Print.

[1] What would it be like to erase your identity and assume a new one instantly? Imagine that you could morph into any entity you wanted to be; who would you be? Is this a question of identity management or is this a progressive future where we can have self-definition without societal influences? Lisa Nakamura dispels the myth that the Internet is a utopic space where individuals can be race-less entities leaving behind the stigmatizing identity (race) of real life. Using a writing style that is both fluid and direct, Nakamura engages readers on a journey of critical exploration of space and place of race on the Internet. In her first challenge to the raceless space of the "utopian Internet", Nakamura presents the term cybertype. A cybertype is "the distinctive ways that the Internet propagates, disseminates, and commodifies images of race and racism" (3). Additionally, it explores multiple dimensions of Internet access and application, including issues of culture and race in cyberspace. Cybertype is taken from the word stereotype which was a "mechanical device that could reproduce images relatively cheaply, quickly, and in mass quantities" (4). Nakamura coins the perfect word for this extended metaphor which she carries successfully throughout her book. Situated specifically within the realm of cultural studies and new media studies, Nakamura's Cybertypes was one of the first books to critically examine the place of race in cyberspace paving the way for her more recent books: Digitizing Race: Visual Cultures of the Internet (2007) and Race After the Internet (2011).

[2] In examining this post bodied construction, Nakamura first addresses the concept of the digital divide. Within the digital divide are the poor and people of color in America who were not at the "ground floor" of the creation, facilitation and perpetration of the Internet; therefore, Nakamura astutely surmises the need to analyze how this absence impacts the way race is discussed and experienced on the Internet. What say did they have in how they wanted to be represented virtually? In addition, her text questions what their silences meant to the experience of race on the Internet. She contends that the silence gives the Internet a "whitewashed" perspective, where users assume that the people with whom they are interacting are white. Despite this, supporters of the Internet saw it as a metaphorical "technological liberation" where users were free to be whoever they wanted to be. Why create a problem for oneself with the burden of a racial identity on the Internet, especially if its absence is meant to support equality?

[3] Equal access is a component of equality, yet at the onset of the Internet age (early 1990's), middle and upper class whites were the main users of the Internet. During visits in chat rooms, Nakamura noted that white males would take on the roles of Asian samurais and geishas in their Asian themed game rooms. Asians were acceptable "others" to emulate for they were presented as the "model" minority. Asian men were strong, silent warriors, and the women were well rounded silent, sexual beings who were reared to please men. This racial identity appropriation some said gave whites a small inkling of what it meant to be a person of color; however, Nakamura successfully demonstrates how this is an inaccurate depiction of this "cyberplay". Instead, whites and other westerners are engaging in identity tourism where old, imperialistic concepts of race, racial authenticity and the "pure" native play out. Through cybertyping, Nakamura seeks to address the concept of the "mystic" and "ideal" native that never existed except in "imperialistic narratives" (26).

[4] Nakamura uses many references to The Tourist to explain the experience of the western world on the Internet, where ideally, the world becomes a smaller space because the Internet bridges the space and cultural differences. Westerners are able to tour other cultures and localities with the click of a button. Specifically, she claims that white users of the Internet position themselves as the center and when they virtually visit other countries, they situate the natives of that county as "others". In viewing these "others", Whites want to experience people in their "native" and "authentic" form. She uses various examples in references of children in Africa, Asian and India who all appear in their native garb before they became "defiled" by contact with the West. This identity tourism reaffirms white/western center, multiculturality and reification of the "other." In this experience of the Internet, whites and westerners are empowered to mature culturally, but "others" are supposed to stay "native" so that they can be the picturesque stamp on the westerner's Internet passport. Here again, Nakamura calls for an examination of this Internet cultural exploration so that potentially, through the critical analysis of Cybertyping, identity tourism can be challenged. In challenging these concepts, perhaps the Internet can be re-visioned concerning race- thus making the Internet a "vector for social change" (30).

[5] Nakamura explores how certain cyberpunk narratives reinforce the old concepts of race despite society's forward movement thinking of the future raceless world because most people will be a mixture of races. In narratives such as Blade Runner and Neuromancer, the lone white rebellious hacker is the one who will save the rest of the population from the "machine." This concept is reminiscent of the white cowboys who were going to tame America from the "wild and savage" Native-Americans. In the narratives, the white hackers are fighting Asians in Asian themed cyber spaces. Even into the 1990's with the movie, The Matrix, "Neo" is the chosen one who must save the world from the machines. Despite attempting to appear quite multicultural, The Matrix reapplies fixed racial typology. Neo is the "savior", and Morpheus is his black "Sensei" who leads him to answers. Nakamura questions why Morpheus is just a guide, rather than a chosen one. The other main characters, a white female, black female all play supporting roles to help Neo defeat the machine. Nakamura notes that "the hegemonic, cyberspatial, cold regime that has reduced all humans to slaves- is...distinctively and conventionally white and male" (75). A visually looking white male (Neo) is depicted as the natural born leader; thus, whites present as both the villains and saviors of the racist machine they created. However, in real life, Keanu Reeves (Neo) is a multicultural Hawaiian American, who is also Canadian and English. Nakamura contends that his multiculturality is the answer to the white machine, as viewed through The Matrix. She states that the characters are united "against a system or matrix of white purity and privilege as exemplified by institutions such as laws and corporations" (77) Race, in this movie, is a part of the actual body, and in cyberspace, the body is an avatar, where race is reminiscent or "residue" of the lived experience. Nakamura uses the movie, The Matrix, as a metaphor for how race operates in cyberspace under the hallucinatory ideal that race will be eliminated through multicultural collaboration. At the end of the chapter she asks, "can whites continue to be "master" in the face of globalization and racial/cultural hybridity?" (85) In addition, will people of color in the western world become collaborators of the global cyber hegemony through their buy-in for the ideal of a raceless Internet?

[6] Finally, Nakamura asks the reader to question the idea of being a tourist of the Internet. She calls for users to reject commercials and ads that position them as privileged and imperialistic voyeurs of other nations while they vacation at their pc. She challenges users to fight the cybertopia remixing and remastering of race and diversity on the Internet so that it is not obscured in the margins. True cultural collaborations will not ensue through cyberspace if reality is hidden behind the "experience" of the tourist. Nakamura cited N. Katherine Hayles in How We Became Post Human with the thought that in our cyborg/avatar bodies, we will not embody the same identity as real life. Westerners have the ability to redefine themselves and assign any identity they choose to explore. Westerners get this right because they are "the producer(s) of marketable knowledge, the setter of networking and software-language standards" (98). Nakamura successfully proves that the Internet is not a raceless space, and the construction of the Internet has political designs. From chat rooms to web searches, race is cybertyped on the Internet. This manufactured experience and knowledge is not authored equally across socioeconomic and cultural lines. The web can be a great resource to challenge the "system" Nakamura writes, or it can be used to reinforce current racial stratifications. In addition, she calls for more "mestiza or other" to write their own narratives into the web. She ends with scholars within cybercultural studies to continue to help shape and produce the content on the web ensuring that race is not hegemonically silenced. She states, "the lessons of deconstructions have taught us to look for the silences or omissions in discourse, and the ways in which these erasures and suppressions condition the shape of truth" (145).

[7] In the beginning development of the Internet, Nakamura's concern regarding access and the Digital Divide encompassed the grave disparity between content producers/users of the Internet and those who could not afford to have access to it. In 2011, the Internet is even larger and more global as compared to when Nakamura published Cybertypes. Social media from My Space – Facebook-Twitter, have revolutionized cyber communication. Even the "face" of access has changed in America. People across differing racial and socio-economic classes have access through their cell phones, local libraries and schools. Communication is instant in many cases and we no longer have to log into the PC to be a global tourist. Through "smart phones", we carry the "world" of the World Wide Web in our purses and pockets. People become instant authors, photographers and videographers on the web. Chat rooms have changed to virtual worlds such as Second Life, World of Warcraft (gaming) and other virtual spaces where people can interact locally and globally. In many cyber worlds, users can choose alternate identities, broadcast their entire lives through posts and pictures, or have virtual play with people across the globe. Sharing one's race is still an option, and how race is enacted/experienced on the Internet is still not a salient topic in contemporary Internet practices. Nakamura wanted the Internet to be an agent for change where people could challenge the western centered hegemonic structure; the web does this in some form when users share social global causes. People may post and retweet information of events happening across the world, but what gets shared is contingent upon the users. What is seen and known depends on the person posting and the person observing or searching. Our current political climate involving race is centered on political correctness, and this promotes the concept of a "color-blind" society. In a color-blind society, we don't really address race unless it is within academic circles, boxes to check on the Census or a world event that calls for civic action. Nakamura keeps the "voice" of race alive through her more recent works examining the complex interplay of race, culture and media. As new media develops so does Nakamura's analysis of the new tools and user perspectives.