Swing and a Miss

This VR racial-sensitivity course uses — wait for it — digital blackface

At a company called Mursion, white actors are voicing Black characters. Oof.

CW: This article includes discussions of blackface and racial stereotypes.

Stop us if you’ve seen this one before: A group of white people decide to don blackface, or some variation of thereof, in an incredibly misguided, cringe-inducing attempt to illustrate the horrors of racism. The Office. Tropic Thunder. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. The tech company Mursion.

Unfortunately, the last example is a very real thing, according to a new deep dive by BuzzFeed News.

Launched with what sound like the best of intentions, Mursion “provides human resources training to some of the world’s largest corporations,” including VR racial-sensitivity courses. And that’s about where the positive aspects end.

According to Mursion itself, the business regularly employs white actors to voice Black characters and other people of color. If that sounds to you like a tone-deaf digital version of old time minstrel shows, well, you are far from alone.

Oh yes, it gets worse — Multiple experts on race, workplace inclusion, and American history all seem to voice similar “Shut it down!” sentiments when it comes to Mursion’s current “colorblind” policy. “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,” Y-Vonne Hutchinson, CEO at the diversity and inclusion consultancy firm ReadySet, told BuzzFeed.

The company reasons that the blind approach to who voices which avatars prevents employees of color from retreading “the same cultural biases, microaggressions, and outright discrimination in our society that too many Americans suffer today.” Meanwhile, the company’s CEO, Mark Atkinson, appears to be taking a “Well, what can we do about it?” stance on the issue. “It’s necessary for our business that one person plays all the characters in a simulation — otherwise it doesn’t scale,” he told BuzzFeed. No, really.

The potential positive — Hutchinson explained that it doesn’t have to be this way when it comes to VR racial-sensitivity training. “We have seen some positive indications,” Hutchinson said, but acknowledged “problematic dynamics” when consultants don’t possess a “deep area of expertise or lived experience.” You’re telling us.