Confronting the Assumption of Whiteness in Virtual Spaces

We must avoid thinking that this new virtual frontier is somehow separate from the violences and exclusions that shape the ‘outside world.’

by Kara Melton on October 19th, 2016

Sample screen capture of Oculus Rift Development Kit 2 screen buffer: image is like looking through binoculars, capturing a concrete floor with dozens of cardboard boxes flying in the air.

Photo CC-BY Ats Kurvet.

How are we designing virtual experiences and spaces in ways that uncritically privilege whiteness? In this article, I argue that the use of haptics in virtual spaces, the designs of “future” virtual reality interfaces, and the content being developed for the platform, reveal important assumptions about the end user which continue to privilege whiteness in our growing virtual communities.

In these contexts, the deeply complex workings of race are flattened through an investment in recreating the ‘real.’ Take, for example, the basic premise of haptic technology: it “enable[s] consumers to perceive touch sensations when using electronic devices. The touch sensation… makes a virtual experience seem more physical and realistic” (Immersion Corporation). What’s lost here are the various ways ‘realness’ is shaped through the deeply subjective experiences that form at the intersections of race, class, sexuality, ability, and more. I cannot help but wonder which, or perhaps more accurately whose, version of real may take precedent. When the white male is imagined as the end user of virtual technologies, this assumption shapes the types of experiences and interfaces that are designed, which in turn allows whiteness, and white maleness in particular, to continue to circulate as a type of neutral user experience.

Let’s begin with thinking on what I mean when invoking whiteness. In a recent interview on whiteness in the Canadian academy featuring Dr. Malinda Smith, Dr. Annette Henry, and Dr. Sunera Thobani, Dr. Smith comments “[t]here is something about whiteness which leads people to think it’s invisible, it’s neutral, it’s objective”. Adding to this, I want to quote Dr. George Lipsitz, who argues:

“More than the product of private prejudices, whiteness emerged as a relevant category in American life largely because of realities created by slavery and segregation, by immigration restriction and Indian policy, by conquest and colonialism. A fictive identity of ‘whiteness’ appeared in law as an abstraction, and it became actualized in everyday life in many ways. American economic and political life gave different racial groups unequal access to citizenship and property, while cultural practices including wild west shows, minstrel shows, racist images in advertising, and Hollywood films institutionalized racism by uniting ethnically diverse European-American audiences into an imagined community — one called into being through inscribed appeals to the solidarity of white supremacy.”

The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: Racialized Social Democracy and the ‘White’ Problem in American Studies

When thinking on and addressing whiteness, I am engaging with not only the singular identity category, but the collection of social processes and systems that are deeply invested in systems of violence and exclusion. Importantly, even this is a fraught category wherein the inability to appropriately perform the hegemonic form results in various exclusions.

Whiteness and VR – Haptics

Close-up of two black people holding their ankles and lower calves in their hands, feet upturned.

Photo CC-BY Cristian Newman.

When we start to investigate how haptic experiences are envisioned in virtual spaces, we find that they rely on the assumption of white male positionality. These issues are highlighted by the AxonSuit and AxonStation developed by AxonVR. Likely the next step in virtual experiences, the AxonSuit, AxonSkin, AxonStation, and AxonSkeleton are designed to produce experiences of “full-body virtual reality that feels real.” Marketed as the “interface between your body and the virtual world,” these hardware and software systems work together to “create sensations ranging from the brush of a butterfly’s wings to the impact of a punch.” Unsurprisingly, it is a white male featured in each image on the site.

The assumption of whiteness shapes who we can imagine having access to these virtual experiences, and, therefore, how we imagine we must build these experiences so that the user is fully immersed. In favor of producing seamless immersive experiences, that are not complicated by our varying, racialized relationships to touch, we seem to be losing sight of the truly complex mechanisms that produce it. When touch is understood only as a tool to produce immersive experiences, we lose sight of the real context of engagement: the lived experiences of the gameplayer. Even in virtual spaces touch is not contextless, and, more to the point, its only context is not the game. In this way, we should take pause when we begin to discuss touch and haptic experiences as if they can produce some sort of neutral reality.

Acknowledging the subjectivity of haptic technology brings up several questions:

1. How will virtual realities positioned around the white male as end user erase the experiences of marginalized people?

2. What assumptions about hardware and software design may result from these assumptions of whiteness?

3. What are the implications of recreating racialized hierarchies and violences in virtual spaces? What does this tell us about the ‘future’ of these technologies?

4. How are virtual spaces particularly prime for recreating racialized violence?

5. What can we learn about whiteness by engaging with the ways it circulates in our virtual spaces?

Failure to address these questions will have negative effects on those who are not understood as the imagined user (black people, women, people with disabilities, and even white people who do not perform the idealized expectations of whiteness), and recreate non-virtual violences in virtual spaces.

Whiteness and VR – Design and Content

A black man in a hoodie and glasses sits in a field of daisies.

Photo CC-BY Wellington Sanipe.

In a recent article, “The Race to Make Virtual Reality an (Actual) Business Reality,” Jeffrey M. O’Brien writes of his experiences at Stanford University’s virtual reality lab:

“…I experience a series of demos that turn me — a forty-something, able-bodied white guy — into various form factors, including a black woman confronting an epithet-spewing racist on a city street and a disabled veteran without full use of his limbs. Clearly, [Jeremy] Bailenson [head of Stanford’s virtual reality lab] feels VR is great at fostering empathy.”

O’Brien’s comments point to a larger trend in the virtual reality space, where the technology is positioned as an opportunity to facilitate interracial discussion of marginalization. Importantly, I’ve yet to come across a platform that is developing content where a racialized character is able to explore and experience whiteness in the way that O’Brien is able to put on the experiences of marginalized folks; whiteness itself remains not only the default, but goes unaddressed and uncritiqued.

In another example, the design of future virtual technologies points to a particular assumption about the end user. In an article titled “The Perfect VR Headset Is Actually Just a Hoodie,” Mark Wilson profiles the products of a design experiment run by the design firm Artefact. To the question “[w]hat could virtual reality be in another five years,” one featured design is Shadow, built “for a person seeking immersion.” The designs looks similar to a hoodie pulled over the user’s head with various systems built into the sleeves and an attached backpack. Importantly, this design makes a particular assumption about the ease with which a user is able to wear this gear while moving safely through the non-virtual world. Who is able to wear pulled-up hoodies without encountering violence? Once again, whiteness remains unaddressed and uncritiqued.

Immersive Experiences – Complicating Subject vs. Object via Du Bois

“By now you’ve probably heard the hype about the coming wave of virtual reality (VR) and the miracles that it can render in videogames, entertainment, and exploration. Interested in flying a Black Hawk helicopter over the Dubai skyline just after dawn? It can put you there. How about walking in Neil Armstrong’s footsteps on the moon, or on the summit of Mount Everest? Done and done.”

— Jeffrey M. O’Brien, Fortune Magazine, “The Race to Make Virtual Reality an Actual (Business) Reality”

Fully immersing the user in these “special, intense experiences… things that are expensive, dangerous, counterproductive, or impossible,” as Stanford VR expert Jeremy Bailenson describes in the article, relies on a particular version of subjectivity, and it is my contention that this subjectivity is centered in whiteness.

Supposedly, virtual and augmented realities move away from the distractions of game consoles and controllers in order to decrease the divide between the tech user (subject) and the character (object). Here, the subject is a neutral actor outside of the virtual space. It is the entry into this digital space that disrupts this stasis and requires the use of haptic and other technologies to return the subject position, which is therefore real.

This format makes a significant assumption about the user – that they understand themselves as a distinct subject that is separate from object. Importantly, sociologist and activist W.E.B Du Bois argues that, for black folks, this version of self doesn’t hold true, and he makes this claim through the theoretical invention of double consciousness. He writes in “The Souls of Black Folk”:

“It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness, — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.

The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife, — this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self.”

Through double consciousness, Du Bois argues that the subject and object exist simultaneously in the experience of black americans, which means that the subject cannot be neutral in its lived experiences. To be a black American is to constantly grapple with the convergence of identity that is shaped through understanding oneself as a subject while simultaneously being made object through various exclusionary systems. In this way, the self does not come into formation as a fundamental subject that is isolated or removed from objecthood.

Building this non-linear narrative into our user interfaces can make room for experiences that perhaps more accurately mirror life. With this type of subjectivity in mind, we may create virtual experiences that are purposefully disrupted – asking for consent to various haptic experiences; a narrative where the experiences of a marginalized person are not consumable, and therefore disrupt neutral whiteness. While these examples disrupt the idea of a fluid immersive experience, I’d argue that the idea of a fluid, immersive experience is itself built off of the expectation of whiteness that can move fluidly and undisrupted through the world. Remembering that marginalized peoples cannot often move this way, fundamentally requires new ways of producing ‘real’ virtual experiences.


What does this all mean? Overall it means we should be paying careful attention to the ways in which whiteness continues to take precedent in virtual spaces. We must avoid thinking that this new virtual frontier is somehow separate from the violences and exclusions that shape the ‘outside world.’ We are building, designing, and crafting stories for virtual reality with specific expectations of the subject, but this is perhaps not an inclusive model. Paying close attention to the ways subjectivity is produced for marginalized peoples not only requires us to consider how we are prioritizing whiteness in virtual spaces, but forces us to acknowledge these realities in our non-virtual interactions.

This piece was originally published in Model View Culture Quarterly #2, 2016.