Buzzfeed: Is this company's virtual diversity training the digital equivalent of blackface?

I’d never heard of this company before but apparently they’ve been around since 2014. Mursion does different kinds of training but all of it involves virtual reality scenarios in which the trainee interacts in real time with digital characters on the screen. In some cases there could be four or five digital characters in a familiar scene (a school classroom or maybe a zoom call) but all of those characters are actually being played by one person behind the scenes. Mursion calls them “Simulation Specialists.” Essentially, they go through whatever pre-planned script is set up for that particular interaction, playing various characters in real time.

One area that Mursion has gone into is Diversity training. Here for instance is an example where the person being trained is interacting with two characters when the male character says something inappropriate about women needing help because they have children at home. In this case both the digital characters are being played by one simulation specialist.

Today, Buzzfeed reports that there’s some concern that having actors portray black characters in these simulations is being deemed problematic by some:

In simulations viewed by and described to BuzzFeed News, Black avatars called out other characters’ acts of discrimination, asked participants to rally their companies to support Black Lives Matter, and practiced “supporting a traumatized employee through incidents of racial injustice.” One involved a scenario in which Child Protective Services removed a child from a Black family. In each case, white actors played the roles of the Black characters. In other Mursion simulations, white actors played characters of Asian descent, and neurotypical adults played autistic children.

Mursion, which does employ some actors of color, told BuzzFeed News that such “open casting” is necessary to scale its business and to protect employees of color from having to just endlessly replay “the same cultural biases, microaggressions, and outright discrimination in our society that too many Americans suffer today.” It defended the practice by saying that its avatars are merely “hypothetical characters” that are not meant to stand in for “the entirety” of any culture, race, sexual orientation, or gender identity.

But scholars of race, theater, and digital media told BuzzFeed News that white actors playing characters of color in DEI simulations like Mursion’s could bring their own unconscious bias into scenarios intended to mitigate bias. Moreover, seven current and former Mursion employees, speaking confidentially with BuzzFeed News, expressed concerns about the company’s own diversity and inclusion practices.

One employee described the use of white actors in Black roles as “a really tough thing for a lot of us to stomach.” Two raised concerns about white actors mimicking Black dialect while acting as Black characters. Three independently described an incident in which a white simulation specialist used the n-word while acting as an avatar of color. That actor now trains other simulation specialists. Employees also raised concerns about the visual creation of Mursion’s avatars, citing lack of variation in the skin tone, hair, and facial features of their characters of color, and about the company’s failure to promote and support women employees of color.

A University of Michigan professor named Apryl Williams told Buzzfeed, “You can’t separate this from the history of blackface, yellowface, and redface in this country, even if you have the most sensitive actors in the world playing these characters.”

Mursion has a whole page on its website defending these practices. They frame this as an example of allyship and a way to protect minority simulation specialists from having to portray the same scenes over and over:

Mursion delivers a wide variety of simulation content to address the unique and varied situations where challenging workplace conversations arise—from factories to hospital emergency rooms. Some Mursion simulations address sensitive, complex, and nuanced content, including conversations about diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I). While Mursion has an extensive and diverse community of Simulation Specialists, we do not restrict the delivery of our DE&I simulations to staff that represent the identities addressed in DE&I scenarios. All Mursion Simulation Specialists are invited to deliver our DE&I simulations once they are fully trained and certified to do so. This includes the notably complex and sensitive staffing of white Simulation Specialists in simulations that center a Black, Indigenous or Person of Color (BIPOC) avatar and/or address issues of racial microaggression.

While we recognize the complexity of our approach, we promote this policy in the spirit of allyship and to protect the psychological safety of our Simulation Specialists who experience the same cultural biases, microaggressions, and discrimination that too many Americans in our society suffer today. To ask these same staff members to exclusively shoulder the weight of learners’ inadvertent microaggressions (and occasional incidents of outright bias) would jeopardize the psychological safety of Mursion’s BIPOC Simulation Specialists.

To mitigate this risk, Mursion’s white Simulation Specialists, with training and support from outside experts and Mursion staff, also deliver DE&I scenarios. When they do so, they take on the task with humility and the candid acknowledgment that they can never fully represent the lived experiences of their BIPOC colleagues.

This seems like a really odd intersection of current political and cultural concerns. On the one hand, Mursion is clearly trying to spread DEI training widely using their training system. On the other hand, having white people portray minorities in the simulations seems like it could itself qualify as some kind of microaggression, especially if those specialists are using some kind of stereotypical dialect or diction.

I guess my first reaction is that this seems like a case of live by the sword, die by the sword. If DEI is your business, or part of it, you should expect to be held to those same standards. But I think you could also argue that there ought to be some wiggle-room for learning/training about these issues. Take for instance the NY Times science writer who was fired after a student asked him about the appropriate punishment for using the n-word. Donald McNeil Jr. asked a clarifying question before he responded: “I asked if she had called someone else the slur or whether she was rapping or quoting a book title. In asking the question, I used the slur itself.” Was using the word without malice in response to a question about using the word an offense? The Times initially said it wasn’t and then two years later, after a revolt inside the newsroom, said it was and fired him.

I guess the point is that the woke brigade doesn’t seem to want to allow any wiggle room on these issues which means Mursion ought to be in trouble. But there are a lot of people, myself included, who think more nuance is required. Maybe that’s the case for Mursion’s DEI training. I certainly think it was the case for Donald McNeil, who shouldn’t have been fired by the NY Times for what he said in the context in which he said it.