This Is Blackface”: White Actors Are Playing Black Characters In Virtual Reality Diversity Training

DEC 03, 2021

Mursion tells big corporate clients that its VR simulations will help teach racial sensitivity. But the actors playing its Black characters are often white.

A tech company that provides human resources training to some of the world’s largest corporations has been using white actors to portray people of color in virtual reality simulations about diversity, equity, and inclusion.

The simulations, created by corporate education company Mursion, are hypothetical scenarios between a participant and animated humanoid avatars. The avatars are played live by human actors, who follow detailed scenario plans and sometimes improvise. Mursion’s actors, called “simulation specialists,” work alone, playing all the roles in each simulation by using a voice modulator and remote controller to switch between characters. As a result, they often play characters of a race and gender different from their own.

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.

Mursion CEO Mark Atkinson

Mursion CEO Mark Atkinson told BuzzFeed News that the company is working hard to improve its diversity and inclusion practices, and detailed multiple steps it has taken to address the lack of avatar diversity and support for employees of color. "We recognize that, as humans, we make mistakes,” he said about incidents of stereotyping. He denied any knowledge of an incident in which a simulation specialist used the racial slur. The specialist did not respond to a request for comment.

Mursion is one of many corporate training companies that quickly expanded its diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) offerings after the murder of George Floyd. But attempts to rapidly scale up DEI training programs have led to wide variability in their quality and depth, said Y-Vonne Hutchinson, CEO of diversity and inclusion consultancy ReadySet. “We have seen some positive indications” that virtual reality could be useful for DEI learning, Hutchinson said. But “when providers don’t have a deep area of expertise or lived experience,” she said, “problematic dynamics” can arise.

Some say those dynamics are more than just problematic. To University of Michigan professor Apryl Williams, an affiliate researcher at NYU’s Center for Critical Race and Digital Studies, Mursion’s practice of using white actors to voice characters of color is “just blackface,” analogous to the historically popular, but now widely condemned, use of white actors in makeup to caricature Black people in minstrel shows. Hutchinson agreed: “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 is well aware of such criticism, but the company says the practice is a key to its mission. “It’s necessary for our business that one person plays all the characters in a simulation — otherwise it doesn’t scale,” CEO Mark Atkinson said.

This raises key questions about the ethics of representation in virtual reality. Last month, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced “the metaverse” as “the successor to the mobile internet.” He envisioned a world where users have multiple avatars: “a photorealistic avatar for work, a stylized one for hanging out, and maybe even a fantasy one for gaming.” But what standards should govern how people buy and sell virtual bodies to inhabit in a world where we can be anyone we want?