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A safe place to sound off about race

By Patti Hartigan, Globe Staff, 09/17/99

ayjay is a self-described African-American lesbian mother living in ''tiny town USA.'' XXPat is a minister in Michigan who moonlights in a rock 'n' roll band. Both Ginger in Austin and BigT III in Atlanta are happily married to partners of different races. Betty, meanwhile, is a retired chemist in New Jersey who will tell you she ''is not opposed to interracial marriages or dating but was never given the opportunity to try.''

None of these people have ever met in person, but for the past week, they have been revealing emotional details about their personal lives in a unique online forum. Spurred by the engaging PBS documentary series, ''An American Love Story,'' these intimate strangers have volunteered to participate in an ongoing dialogue about race, relationships, prejudice, and other provocative topics. It's an experiment masterminded by a New York operation called Web Lab, which aims to show that the Internet, despite its crass commercialism, can foster intelligent communication among diverse groups.

''American Love Story,'' the 10-part series that concluded last night, highlighted the unvarnished story of Bill Sims and Karen Wilson, an interracial couple living in Queens, N.Y.; there was something extraordinarily compelling about the ordinariness of lives played out against a backdrop of racism and intolerance. The on-line forum is proving to be just as irresistible. As the participants become more vulnerable, they are unwittingly creating a fascinating study of American attitudes about race and relationships that is as engrossing as the documentary itself - uncensored, honest, and raw.

''I come from the tradition of using a film as a catalyst for getting people to think and talk about things in different ways,'' says Web Lab founder Marc Weiss, a former filmmaker who also founded the PBS program ''Point of View.'' ''We wanted to create a safe place on the Web for people with historically profound differences to create a dialogue.''

The forum is not a typical chat room or bulletin board, where the discussion often degrades to inanity or profanity. Participants fill out an application form, and then Web Lab staffers create small groups of people who agree to join for at least three weeks. After the group is formed, the members moderate their own discussions, which are posted publicly on the Web site. ''Most of what happens on regular posting boards is random at best,'' says Weiss. ''We call it drive-by postings, with people who post once and never come back to engage in a conversation.''

To view the forum on the Internet, go to:

The idea is to provide a combination of anonymity along with accountability. Participants submit a bio, in which they reveal as much as they choose. They are also bound by the group ethos to remain civil, despite any disagreements. So far, the ''Love Story'' discussions have politely tiptoed around controversy. But Weiss, who has overseen similar on-line discussions about the Vietnam War and the Starr Report, predicts that the boards will heat up as people become more comfortable.

''We're not asking people to leave their emotions at the door,'' says Weiss. ''Ordinary people can find a way to talk about the things they disagree on without blowing each other away or obliterating their opponent.''

That is precisely what Anthony Fontana hopes will happen. He joined the discussion because he is a white man married to a black woman and is naturally interested in the dynamics of the discussion. ''I tend to deal in the extreme; I'm not a middle-of-the-road kind of guy,'' says Fontana, who runs a construction business in Atlanta and uses the screen name BigT III. ''I don't allow people to stay in their comfort zone.''

Right now, the groups are lingering in the comfort zone, with most of the postings expressing a kind of ''We are the world'' mentality. But both Weiss and Fontana note that the discussions will generate an edge as time goes by. In Fontana's group, for instance, some members have already begun challenging each other. Consider this exchange:

''I've experienced more and more blacks with a chip on their shoulder regarding relationships or contacts with whites,'' writes a retired educator in Arkansas.

''I'm white, married to a young, black Christian man,'' responds Ginger in Austin. ''He has been stopped by police several times for doing things I take for granted. ... Yes, I do think that some black people have a chip on their shoulders. But as a white person who has seen firsthand what it's like to be black in America, I can understand why.''

To that, Betty in New Jersey retorts, ''My chip is that I resent the fact that black men marry white women and leave eligible black women alone...''

These are ordinary people sharing everyday triumphs and woes, similar to the Sims-Wilson family in ''American Love Story.'' At a time when entrepreneurs are tripping over each other trying to figure out how to turn a profit from the Internet, some folks are trying to carve out a public interest niche online, a sort of uncorrupted PBS of the Web.

This story ran on page C1 of the Boston Globe on 09/17/99.
© Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company.