In 2017, while working at a well-known media company, I took a vacation to my home country, Nigeria. When I left, my hair was permed-sleek and straight. When I came back, I had long braids. “Oh my god, I love that!” one white woman said to me in the pantry, while going in on it without my consent. Another, wide-eyed, asked, “How long do those take? It’s so cool!” and proceeded to invade my space to inspect. Neither woman, it seemed, considered her actions culturally insensitive—which is part of the obstacles plaguing people of color in the workplace. We learn to smile and keep it moving in those uncomfortable moments.
Companies have long failed to address such encounters. Instead, they rely on one-size-fits-all diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) training—mind-numbing slide shows, dull videos, and obscure certificates to sign at the end. These programs are typically forgettable, lack assessable impact, and, studies show, ineffective. After the killing of George Floyd sparked nationwide outrage last summer, corporate America leaned harder into these superficial solutions. Companies were quick to promise an inclusive work environment, flooded their social media pages with Black and brown faces, extolled allyship, and put on socially distanced town halls on race.
Recently, however, some major corporations are trying something new: virtual reality. What if, VR creators say, instead of slides on the impact of unconscious bias, corporations could have employees experience discrimination themselves? By centering the perspectives of people of color in digital simulations, tech firms claim they can help companies be more equitable and less reactive, and better measure DEI commitments.
This approach is a step up from the caricatures in PowerPoint decks. But these problems go deeper than inadequate inclusivity training—and it will take more than advanced technology to fix them. No virtual world can teach white America to see what they don’t want to see in the real world; to see that Black people exist outside of racial stereotypes and acts of brutality against us.
Virtual reality as a tool to increase racial understanding is not new. Tech startups and established firms like Debias VR, Vantage Point, Oculus’s I Am A Man, and Google: Immerse VR's Racial Identity have explored the potential of simulations to foster racial empathy. Yet humanity, measured by the increase in hate crimes, is no less racist.
In 2020 a report released by the International Data Corporation found that demand for virtual-reality experiences is on the rise, and sales of VR headsets are predicted to grow 48 percent annually over the next four years. Combined with corporate America’s heightened awareness of its DEI shortcomings, that makes this an ideal time for tech firms to try again—it’s good business.
Praxis Labs, for instance, is a new virtual-reality-based platform that allows users to take on identities of different racial and gender backgrounds to face bias. After beta-testing with Zoom, Amazon, Google, Uber, and Target, it officially launched in February. The founders—Elise Smith, a Black woman, and Heather Shen, a first-generation Chinese woman—say their Pivotal Experiences DEI training program is an immersive solution that will close existing learning gaps.
“The immersive nature of Praxis is about learning to empathize” in a practical manner, Shen tells me. “We're not just giving that momentary, ‘OK, you went through an immersive experience.’” In their VR world, employees put on a headset, take on the form of someone else—a woman in a hijab or a Sikh man with a pagri headwrap, for example—or act as a bystander in a given scenario where part of the experience is observing the avatar’s reflection they’ve embodied in a virtual mirror. They interact and respond out loud to other avatars. In the end, there is a required assessment that asks the employee to reflect on what they just experienced, hoping that over time the reflections show a more empathetic user.
“The question mark for me is, ‘Is racial empathy possible?’”
Courtney Cogburn, associate professor of social work at Columbia University
Courtney Cogburn, a social scientist and professor of social work at Columbia University who Shen and Smith consulted on the experience, is more skeptical of the approach. “The question mark for me is, ‘Is racial empathy possible?’” she says. “I don't think you need to understand what it feels like to be the person on the short end of that stick in order to see it and assess it and not be OK with it.”
Cogburn, a Black woman and leading expert in the field, developed 1000 Cut Journey, a VR immersive experience that premiered at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival and was widely received, hailed as a program that makes you feel real emotions. In the 10-minute experience, participants walk in the shoes of a Black man, Michael Sterling (a combination of Michael Brown and Alton Sterling, two Black men killed by police), who experiences racist incidents as a toddler, teenager, and adult. Upon reviewing the feedback of the immersions, she discovered user reactions were contingent on who the person was. “You can't pour training into a container that's not ready to receive it,” she says. If people “don't understand why it's necessary in the first place, or are consciously or subconsciously rejecting the notion that they need to do it at all,” it may not have the intended effect.
In his 2018 book Experience on Demand, Jeremy Bailenson, a cognitive psychologist and founding director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL), details a 2009 VR study by his then doctoral student, Victoria Groom, who wanted to use the virtual mirror to induce racial empathy in white participants by assigning them black avatars. (Praxis Labs is taking a similar approach.) Groom’s study, of some 100 Black and white participants, used the Implicit Associate Test—a gauge that measures automatic reactions and one Bailenson admits is ineffective at determining the long-term effects of such experiences—and found that wearing a black avatar did not create empathy. “Regarding virtual racism, it seems that the story is complicated,” Bailenson says in his book about the study. “Wearing a black avatar actually reinforced stereotypes and made them more salient.”
The founders of Praxis Labs also sought Bailenson’s advice and spent a few months at Stanford’s VHIL. Bailenson describes the repetitive quality of Praxis Labs’ experience as “fantastic.” “What's needed most is people moving away from this notion that simply doing one VR experience is going to transform the way one thinks,” he says. “We want you to screw up in VR, because that's how you learn.”
Cogburn, on the other hand, tells me she cautioned the founders on the use and promotion of VR as a cure-all for creating a genuinely anti-racist and inclusive workforce. “Emotional empathy is the ability to understand how someone is feeling,” Cogburn says, “I'm not sure it's possible, and certainly not with a few minutes in VR, to know the burden that comes with trying to survive whiteness from birth. I don't think I could create the experience you would need to have. Do I just leave you in VR for five years?”
For those who have never experienced discrimination, what these immersive experiences really ask is, what if this was you? Such experiences serve as a peek into what it’s like to be the Other in American society, especially in those spaces where we spend most of our days. And given the kind of year we’ve endured, with Black and brown lives being disproportionately killed and the recent spike in anti-Asian and anti-Semitic rhetoric and attacks, there isn’t a better time for people to start having candid conversations about race in America and how it spills over in workplaces. It’s time to move on from the black and bad-taste yellow squares as woke social media markers to tangible steps—and perhaps one of those measures can include a VR experience. But when we take off the goggles and each step out on the streets of white America, our respective racial experiences don’t change.
And that is precisely the issue with turning to VR experiences to learn racial empathy: If you cannot see that racism and its sordid history in America have long subjugated nonwhites; if you continually choose to remain blind to the mounting and disproportionate deaths of Black and brown people at the hands of mostly white police officers; and if you are fine with benefiting from your whiteness while your coworker of color is passed on for that promotion or raise you know they deserve, I don’t know that putting on a headset can fix that. You either care about humanity or you don’t.
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It’s more than awkward interactions about hair or uncomfortable water cooler experiences. It’s about a system—made up of everyday people, some of whom perpetuate divisiveness—rooted in white supremacy that allows this sort of behavior to pervade white institutions. Meanwhile, those of us who are regularly otherized are left to contort ourselves to fit into spaces not made for us. Right from when we are young, we are conditioned to accept the side effects of succeeding in white America: insensitive remarks about the smells of our cultural foods, our acrylic nails, our physical features or mannerisms—all the beautiful things that make us who we are. To survive, we learn to strip ourselves of our identity for the sake of white acceptance.
In March, Bloomberg published a report that tracked businesses' response to the Black Lives Matter demonstrations that followed Floyd's death. It found that corporate America remains predominantly white and still struggles to grow its Black and brown employee workforce. The study detailed personnel counts by race and gender for roughly 40 percent of America’s largest corporations, and the numbers for people of color were staggering. Though 13 percent of America’s population is Black, for example, only four of the 37 companies reviewed had Blacks in management or executive roles. McDonald’s was the only company to exceed the US population percentages of Black and Hispanic women managers or executives.
Corporations don't need to simulate more diverse workplaces, they need to make them happen.
No immersive VR experience can translate to a less-white corporate America. Nor can any virtual world replicate the present-day effects of 400 years of subjugation or the generational trauma of a people. At best, VR exercises momentarily produce visceral insights into the lives of others. It is not sensible to go through any bias training—VR or not, mandatory or not—and come out on the other side and say you know the lived experiences or struggles of this Black skin.
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