Black Virtuality

Across digital media, Black people are portrayed in ways that are derogatory and harmful–if Black people are depicted at all. The representation of afro-textured hair is noticeably limited, with options ranging from comically large afros, unstyled dreadlocks, and misshapen cornrows. Through projects like ‘Ye or Nay? and the Open Source Afro Hair Library, artist A.M. Darke explores the consumption of Black bodies and the construction of a Black virtuality. In this talk, Darke shares a critical and liberatory approach for engaging marginalized communities in games and digital media.

Watch the lecture:

Remote video URL

Watch the highlights: Coming soon!


Key Terms:

Black: Darke points out that the word “Black” was a term invented by white Europeans to be imposed on people for the purpose of trading them as commodities. But the concept of “Blackness” can be reclaimed for the better; rather than define Blackness for white interests, Blackness can instead be associated with a number of positive qualities through the constellation of stories, cultural practices, ways of seeing and making enacted by Black communities.

Phantasms: Drawing on the work of D. Fox Harrell, Darke talks about phantasms as images imbued with meaning through the projection of a situated worldview. A women’s restroom sign of an abstract figure with a skirt is an example of a phantasm. Regardless of whether people agree with an association of women with skirts, people that recognize this association because of the culture they live in can immediately intuit what the sign refers to.

Black Virtuality: Darke argues that the concept of Blackness, as originally constructed by white Europeans, is already akin to being virtually, or almost human. Instead of sharing the same phantasms of Black people as created by whiteness, Darke argues that virtual spaces create opportunities to make new, more positive phantasms of Black people. This involves approaching, perceiving, and doing things with computational media in a way that is informed by Black lifeways and worldviews rather than whiteness.


Starting to Define Black Virtuality

To start defining the concept of Black virtuality, Darke draws on several Cambridge dictionary definitions of “Black” and “virtuality”:

  • Black: Without hope, very bad or sad; to blacken something, to make something black; without any milk or cream added; of or belonging to a group of people
  • Virtuality: created by or accessed through software, appearing to exist but not formally existing, almost a particular thing

Darke notes that people we refer to as “Black” had the term imposed on them, pointing out that “Blackness was invented by white Europeans for the simple purpose of justifying trading human beings as commodities.” These histories continue to shape the way that people receive and create images of Black people, including in virtual spaces. Even in the absence of white people, ideas of Blackness are produced and defined against a privileging norm of whiteness.

On the 3D model library CGTrader, for example, the search term “black hair” does not, by itself, bring up Black hairstyles – Darke points out that even in the process of trying to search for key terms needed to find these hairstyles, Black people have to consider the ways in which whiteness might perceive them. Further searches for Black hair on CGTrader turned up images of Black people that were based on deeply harmful stereotypes that hearkened back to the racism of the Jim Crow era. The technical proficiency required to create these 3D models was rarely matched with an appropriate level of cultural sensitivity; these models function as virtual images of Blackness constructed by whiteness.

Although this white viewpoint sees Blackness as akin to being virtually, or almost human, Darke argues that Blackness can be reclaimed and adapted by Black people and associated instead with a whole constellation of cultural practices. Regardless of whether seen with a Black or non-Black worldview, however, Darke provides an initial definition of Black virtuality as “the way that Black bodies, Black cultures, and Black identities are constructed and consumed in a virtual space.”

Reflection questions: What is the significance of drawing on multiple different definitions of virtuality and Blackness? Why is there such a difference in the technical knowledge needed to create 3D models of Black people and the cultural knowledge needed to understand the stereotypes these models are based on? How might different stakeholders close this gap (e.g., educators, scholars, players, game developers, etc.)?

Phantasms

Darke draws on D. Fox Harrell’s idea of phantasms, defining them as “images imbued with meaning through the projection of a situated worldview.” A women’s restroom sign featuring an abstract figure with a skirt is an example of a phantasm. Regardless of whether people agree with an association of women with skirts, people that recognize this association because of the culture they live in can immediately intuit what the sign refers to; they may even continue to perpetuate this association if this image is used in their work. Unlike stereotypes or biases, phantasms are not based in any objective reality, but still deeply impact the way we view the world.

Different phantasms of the same concept can reveal how cultural norms are perpetuated. For example, Darke shows how photographs of actress Viola Davis provides examples of Blackness as defined by whiteness in contrast to Blackness as defined by a Black imaginary, with the former evoking narratives of enslavement, and the latter evoking a royal kind of beauty. Noting the many definitions of “Black” and “virtual”, Darke offers another definition of Black virtuality: a way of approaching, perceiving, and doing things with computational media, informed by Black lifeways and worldviews.

Reflection questions: What other phantasms affect Black users in virtual spaces? How do phantasms of race intersect with phantasms of gender, sexuality, and/or class? What protocols are in place to ensure that your research accounts for the phantasmic dimensions of media representation?

The Open-Source Afro Hair Library

This is a 3D model database that deliberately aims to create new phantasms, giving Black artists the time, space, and money to author their own representations in 3D modelling. As opposed to the marketplaces that allow users to buy individual virtual 3D wigs and Black body parts, the Afro Hair Library is totally free and represents Black bodies as full people, not as objects to be bought and sold. Like Darke’s other projects, the Open Source Afro Hair Library is an assertion of Black virtuality that interrogates the idea of Blackness in the white imagination and provides multifaceted conceptions of Blackness as created by Black artists.

Citing Safiya Noble’s work, Darke further notes that search algorithms are populist by nature and, like phantasms, can re-entrench negative conceptions of Black people and women. For this reason, the Afro Hair Library uses a tagging system instead of a search system. Rather than a capitalist idea of wanting all users to find exactly what they’re looking for to facilitate easy purchase, usage of the Afro Hair Library is dependent on knowing the language of Black hair or learning it from the library. Users of the Afro Hair Library are presented with images of Blackness they might not have imagined they were looking for because they couldn’t even conceive of them. Conceptions of Blackness, created by Black artists, are celebrated on the platform.

Reflection questions: What other kinds of web applications and online libraries could apply tagging systems rather than search algorithms to present different phantasms to its users? How could the Afro Hair Library be used (for its models, or as a model itself) in your own projects?


A.M. Darke (She/He)

Image of A.M. Darke

A.M. Darke (she/he) is an artist experimenting with media in the form of games, performance, software, and social practice. An Associate Professor of Digital Arts and New Media, and Performance, Play & Design at UC Santa Cruz, Darke's practice is informed by her expansive identities and interests, particularly as a neurodivergent, genderchaotic Black woman in search of collective freedom and healing. His work has been shown internationally and featured in publications such as VICE, The New York Times, and NPR.

Darke’s other projects include ‘Ye or Nay?, a modified version of Guess Who? that examines the language society uses to describe Black men, and FairlyIntelligent.tech, a speculative algorithm taking the form of a game questionnaire that demonstrates the impacts algorithmic biases have on our lives. You can learn more about Darke and see more of her projects at https://prettydarke.cool/.