Dark Travelers Through Cyberspace: the Impact of Disclosing Racial Identity in Online

Dark Travelers Through Cyberspace: the Impact of Disclosing Racial Identity in Online

Dark travelers through cyberspace: The impact of disclosing racial identity in online discussions

Talmadge C. Guy, University of Georgia, USA

Paper presented at SCUTREA, 31st Annual Conference, 3-5 July 2001, University of East London

DARK travelers through cyberspace - the title of this paper is intended to invoke visions of mystery and cloaked identity. More specifically, it aims to call attention to the problem faced by African American and other people of color who venture into cyberspace only to find that they lack a grounding for their identity as persons of color. A brief exercise in mental imagery may clarify the issue at hand. Imagine, for a moment, that you are an astronaut traveling aboard the space shuttle at nearly 200 miles altitude above the earth. You are first in awe of the view you have of the planet, unlike any that you have ever personally witnessed. In the distance, you observe another spacecraft. As it nears, the hatch opens and an astronaut appears, you see the form of a person but cannot make out any other distinguishing feature. You are pleased to know that someone is coming to keep you company, even though you are not certain of the person's identity. The person gestures a greeting and you return the favor, perhaps with just a bit of anxiousness. I hope this scene is suggestive of the kind of communication that occurs daily in cyberspace - pleasant, distant, and virtually anonymous. The identities of the participants are rarely divulged.

We live with, or perhaps have come to accept, the myth that the Information Superhighway is the highway to a grand and better future. One manifestation of this is that modern computer and communication technologies are revolutionizing adult learning (McKittrick, 2000). Adult education is being freed from the constraints of time and place as learners increasingly access information and instruction via online resources (Kasworm and Londoner, 2000). But for all its promise, the virtual world of online learning holds some serious pitfalls to learning and the building of community. In this paper, I present an analysis of transcripts of online discussions that illustrates perhaps an infrequent but telltale example of how online interaction can undermine the quality of online learning. I begin with some background.


In the summer of 1998, I taught a graduate course in adult education administration. I used online discussions as part of the course to review and discuss assignments. Initially, I conceptualized the online portion of the course as a convenience to students and me and as a way to promote interaction among students. The university's online web based software, WebCT, was accessible off-campus and contained software features to enable students to hold group discussions and whole class discussions related to topics, or threads as they were called in WebCT jargon. Since I had chosen to employ case studies as a central instructional method, organizing discussions online seemed a straightforward task. The class, composed of 14 students at the masters and doctoral level, was small enough to make the plan manageable but large enough to make it seem worthwhile.

As part of the class, I introduced a unit on cultural diversity and reviewed some of the literature on managing diversity. I included two case studies that linked together the themes of transformational leadership and diversity.

After presenting some literature on the topic of diversity in organizations, I asked students to review the first of two cases and to organize groups to discuss the cases. While the class was racially mixed-there were nine white and five black students in the class-there had been no indications that there could be problems with this approach. I was aware that there was some conflict between two participants, both white females, owing to competition between them in their jobs. As I had separated them into two different discussion groups, I expected no problems as a result of this situation.


As the class proceeded, it became clear to me that online discussions had produced conflict and power grabbing among students in the class. I was unaware of any references in the literature to racial differences affecting online discussions. As a consequence, I decided to conduct an analysis of online discussion transcripts in order to further understand this phenomenon. This exploratory study is an analysis of archived computer mediated communication (CMC) among students enrolled in an online learning experience that was conducted as part of an adult education graduate course at a U.S. University. Employing discourse and content analysis techniques (Patton,1990), computer mediated discussions among a class of fourteen graduate students of diverse age, gender, occupational, and racial backgrounds were analyzed concerning the role of racial identity in the nature and extent of online communication.

The research questions that framed this analysis were: (1) What role does learner's racial identity play in online discussions? (2) What are the consequences of disclosing learners' racial or gender identity for reflective and deliberative discussion?

Relevant literature

Several conclusions can be drawn from a search of relevant literature. First, the number of studies about online learning and virtual classrooms is growing exponentially. This is certainly to be expected inasmuch as online learning is growing exponentially and represents, in a fundamental way, the emergence of a new mode of teaching and learning.

There were a body of research reports that address the vitally important issue of low income and minority access to computer use, as well as the problem of equity in the social distribution of computer literacy and computer resources.

These studies represented the particular focus of research on marginalized individuals or groups relative to computer use and online learning. No studies could be located that explicitly address learner diversity (such as the racial identity of learners) or how disclosure of racial identity affects online instruction and learning. Several studies do address the bigoted behavior of men toward women in online discussions such as might take place in chat rooms or in newsgroups.

In fact, many studies emphasize the importance attending to the mechanics or the technology of online communication and on the properties of the CMC technology related to effective online interaction and learning (Palloff and Pratt, 1999). Only a few studies actually focused on the interactions and formation of a sense of common identity among online learners (e.g., Etzioni & Etzioni, 1999).

Overall, in reviewing the literature on online discussion, I was left with the sense that well planned online discussions could be quite beneficial and enjoyable for learners. The task and challenge for the instructor is to attend to the pedagogical aspects of using the technology to achieve effective learning. Where, then, are the analyses of sociocultural and political issues in the online discussion process? My purpose in this study is to raise questions regarding the adequacy of existing research and the nature of online learning as distinct from traditional classrooms with regard to marginalized identities and how such revealed identities shape discussions.

In a political analysis of class discussion, Brookfield (2000) argues that discussion in traditional classrooms is not a "unitary" phenomenon. Rather it is a set of very complex and culturally situated processes that involve differing interpretations of both the process and the goals by participants within the context of race, gender, and class.

I view online discussions in a similar light although there is a virtually complete absence of this conceptualization of online discussions in the literature. This absence might be is a function of modernistic epistemological assumptions that frame online classes, i.e. objective, competency-based, and transmissible knowledge. Finally, I assume that the cultural or racial identity of those who offer such courses reinforces existing views of race as framed essentially by whiteness and the asymmetrical power relations embedded in that view. It is with these assumptions and this point of view that I approach the analysis of the data in this study.


Data in this paper come from the text entered online by participants in the class as they discussed class assignments.

In particular, the data are a subset of all online discussions for the class and pertain only to those discussions involving a consideration of some aspect of cultural diversity. Online transcripts were archived and sequenced and prepared for analysis. A "pseudonym" in the form of initials was assigned to each participant. Analysis was conducted using content and discourse analysis techniques. A semiotic approach was taken with respect to extending this idea to the communication that occurs in online discussions. A review of such discussions should reveal something about the identities of the participants as discussants position themselves in relation to each other and to the topic under discussion.

While most course topics were discussed online, it should be noted that not all discussions occurred online. Other discussions were held in traditional classroom fashion.

Consequently, students were familiar with each other. From my point of view as instructor, the primary goal using online discussions was to facilitate interaction and critical thinking about course topics between class sessions.

The online discussions took place relative to assigned case studies. Data analyzed related to two case studies included as part of the course: Leadership in Diversity and Suzanne DePasse at Motown and the Diversity at the Aims Consulting Company. To provide some background, the Leadership in Diversity case is about a small high tech consulting company that is diversifying its workforce.

Concerns emerge among some of the minorities that the best consulting jobs were going to the white members of the team despite the competence of the minority members.

The owner of the company is Bill whose three sons form the senior executive team of the company. Organized into teams, the staff includes African Americans, Asian Americans, and a gay white male as well as straight white males and females. The Motown case relates the success story of Suzanne DePasse, a black woman, who turned the Motown Recording Company around in the 1970s and 1980s. In each instance, students were asked to consider relevant questions to each case focused on leadership issues.

For example, the questions on the Motown case asks students to consider aspects of DePasse's leadership that led to success at Motown. As instructor I was able to view and "pull off" discussions for distribution to class as transcripts.


These findings present themes that emerged from the analysis of the transcripts. The passages selected reflect points in the discussions where the issue of race and student's racial identity were introduced. They reveal how racial identity disclosure influences dialog online in ways that produce tangible and intangible consequences.

Emergent themes that were identified were: (1) superficial and prejudicial perspectives of racial or gender difference; (2) racial self-disclosure is high risk, and (3) anonymity preferred in online dialog and(4) strategic silence. While asynchronous communication provides an opportunity for learners to engage in critical reflection and discussion of important course topics, asynchronous discussions also mask issues of race and gender.

Superficial and prejudicial perspectives of difference

The first occasion that racial identity was disclosed and presented as a factor in the discussion related to the Suzanne DePasse case. As mentioned, DePasse is an African American woman who successfully transformed the Motown Corporation into a profitable and multi-pronged entertainment business. VK, an African American woman, wrote: VK: I understand the problems that DePasse faced in trying to work with those around her ... Sure she was assertive but she had to be. As a black woman I've had it happen to me that people don't really take you seriously unless hold them accountable. DePasse held her staff accountable and those people in other parts of the organization who could get in her way. She had to do it or else they would think that she was soft.

VK identified with DePasse's identity as a black woman as a way to offer her interpretation of the challenge to DePasse's leadership in the Motown organization. The following exchange of messages occurred: MJ: I don't think DePasse faced anything different than any other leader in an organization. Good leadership doesn't have a color. Leadership rests in one's ability to conceive a direction and a vision and to make it happen.

DePasse had a lot of leadership ability. She was a talented person who had a vision and was insistent on making it happen. This challenge faces anyone who has to run a large organization. I've faced it myself in the military as an officer ... people just run over you even though you think that you have the position but that only carries you so far... VK: I think that anyone in new leadership role has a big job to convince the people around them that they can perform. DePasse was already successful in the business and most of the people in the company already knew her ... I think she had some other issues that maybe other managers don't have. So this meant that she really needed to keep her focus in order to overcome it because if Gordy was still there things would have been very different because he founded the company. But if another person from another company had been brought in then it would have been different for them.

MJ responded indirectly to VK's point about the trials of a black woman manager and diverted the discussion to the trials of new leadership. In so doing he effectively discounted VK's perspective as a lens for interpreting the challenge to leadership that DePasse may have experienced. VK seemed to understand this point in her reply and discursively sought to decontextualize the DePasse case by generalizing about the challenges to successful leadership in all situations.

Following this exchange, MJ did not reply nor did anyone else. The 'silence' was deafening because VK seemed to leave the door open for more discussion by introducing the idea of comparing DePasse's experience with another that of another executive.

High risk

In discussing the Leading Diversity case, BC, an African American female, commented on Bill's (the owner of the company) whose leadership and vision for the company seemed to encourage and support diversity in the workforce.

Bill's sons appear to be less supportive though not openly opposed to diversity.

BC: My second job was in a college where I was supported by a supervisor who was a white male. Bill sounds very like him. As the only black female in the administration, I felt alone and isolated in meetings and in being "in the know". Its hard to keep your focus and not react to situations because you're always on the defensive, on guard against someone saying something, or someone overlooking something you say that could make a difference. So in Bill's case, if it weren't for him, this company probably wouldn't have the African American and other minorities in the company. One person can make a difference even though it's still hard.

I know how much I appreciated the support I received and I believe that's the case with Kevin and Arthur (the African American men in the case).

Strategic silence

At several points, the discussion seemed to end when a participant referred to her race in the course of making a point about a case. As already mentioned above, MJ did not reply to VK following her response to him about the role of race in Suzanne DePasse's case.

Another salient factor was that most participants in the discussions never revealed anything about their identity as it related to the topic, even when the opportunity to do so presented itself. Of the 14 class participants only 4, all African American, ever mentioned being black. None of the white participants ever volunteered anything about their race and when several of the African American participants did mention it, only two white students ever responded to the point. The silence on the point led to the end of discussion on the point of race much like a dinner conversation would flounder when someone raises a provocative issue and no one chooses to respond to it.

Strategic silence on the part of white students effectively squelched discussion.

However, strategic silence was not limited to most of the white students but also to one African American student who never broached the subject. The absence of voice, however, seemed not to be missed because most of the other African American students did speak up at some point. Was her silence a show of support? Or was it strategic in the sense of distancing herself from the issue of race in the discussion?


Of the 14 class participants, only five, four African American and one white student, ever divulged or responded to the issue of racial identity in the course of the online discussions.

The remaining seven white students and one African American student avoided the discussion of race or revealed anything about their professional or personal experience related to race.

Participants in online dialogs do not share much about themselves as persons. While students knew each other from class, and more frequently "spoke from experience" in the classroom, the data show surprisingly few instances where anything, let alone racial identity, was shared or discussed as a means of analyzing, interpreting or representing points of view.