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.
“You can’t separate this from the history of blackface, yellowface, and redface in this country.”
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 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.
Two employees raised concerns about white actors mimicking Black dialect while acting as Black characters.
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?
Mursion was not created to provide diversity and inclusion training. It began as a K–12 teacher training tool, enabling teachers to practice lesson plans on avatar children before going into a live classroom. In 2015, Mursion first began expanding into corporate education, offering companies an opportunity to “improve their employees’ interpersonal skills with customers.” In early 2019, it began advertising simulations about diversity and inclusion, according to an archive of its website.
But Mursion’s diversity business expanded after the groundswell of support for racial justice initiatives that followed the murder of George Floyd. As corporations pledged billions in donations to racial equity causes, and the Nasdaq began requiring companies to publicly disclose diversity metrics, Mursion was quick to capitalize on the trend. In November 2020, it closed a $20 million Series B fundraising round with a press release stating that “many recent collaborations are centered on the implementation of immersive Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) training.” Weeks later, the company won 20 medals in the annual Brandon Hall Group Technology Excellence Awards, including the organization’s top prize for “diversity and inclusion innovation.”
“It’s like having a white person play a Black person.”
By late 2020, Mursion was providing simulations about sales, customer service, and other interpersonal skills for some of the most famous brands in the world — Coca-Cola, Starbucks, LinkedIn, and Johnson & Johnson. Meanwhile, it had expanded its offerings to include training for teachers of neurodivergent pupils, such as those with autism. The company enlisted neurotypical actors to play neurodivergent children in simulations with scenario plans, but no scripts.
Three employees who spoke with BuzzFeed News said a set of simulations for teachers that involved acting as an autistic child made them uncomfortable. Documents shared with BuzzFeed News include instructions for actors to imitate self-stimulating actions like “rocking” and “hand flapping” to portray the character. One employee who underwent initial training to perform the scenarios declined to finish because they felt they lacked a sufficient understanding of autism to authentically portray the character. Mursion developed these scenarios with help from an advisory group led by Stanford professor Lynn Koegel, who told BuzzFeed News that avatar characteristics were based in part on standard psychiatric criteria and included input from autism experts and neurodiverse people.
But other scholars in the field question whether that’s enough. Catherine Lord, professor of psychiatry at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and a practicing clinical psychologist focused on autism, told BuzzFeed News that having non-autistic people play autistic people, when there are autistic actors available, was “unfortunate both in terms of respect for autism but also to the education of the audience.” Dr. Marilyn Augustyn, director of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at Boston Medical Center, agreed: “It’s like having a white person play a Black person.”
To address questions from BuzzFeed News, Mursion arranged a roundtable discussion with several of its simulation specialists, some of whom were people of color. Atkinson put the question to his employees outright: “Why is it OK for a white actor to play a Black avatar?” Their answers touched on both of the company’s main arguments: that consistently role-playing as Black avatars in scenarios about discrimination could be traumatic for actors of color, and that avatars are not meant to comprehensively represent any one race or ethnicity. One former specialist, a man of color, said “the work is not about playing a Black avatar, or getting into character,” it’s instead about helping learners navigate tense situations in real life.
“The work is not about playing a Black avatar, or getting into character.”
Mursion says its actors can opt out of any simulation that makes them uncomfortable. But most are not salaried employees; they are “variable part-time” workers, paid hourly, so declining to perform certain roles could mean less income. Nonetheless, multiple employees described Mursion’s actors as the leaders of an internal push to improve the company’s DEI practices, in which they have raised concerns about participating in “digital blackface” and requested comprehensive, companywide diversity training.
Atkinson, in an email to BuzzFeed News, portrayed the company’s actors as supportive of its casting practices. He wrote that Mursion’s white actors “have agreed to step up” and act in scenarios about diversity, equity, and inclusion. “I am proud of them for taking on this risk,” he added. “I am proud of our non-binary and BIPOC colleagues for urging their white colleagues to do so.”
Employees who spoke confidentially with BuzzFeed News took issue with Atkinson’s statements. “That’s some magic — it’s beautifully written, and it’s beautifully bullshit,” said one. Another called the nonbinary and BIPOC colleagues referenced “a figment of Mursion’s imagination.” A third referred to the explanation as “white-savioring.”
Debates about racial equity and caricature in casting have shaped the last century of American theater, from the NAACP’s 1954 condemnation of blackface in the long-running radio and television show Amos ‘n’ Andy as a “gross caricature of the Negro,” to the Actors’ Equity Association’s 1990 decision to boycott, and then not boycott, the use of yellowface in a production of Miss Saigon. And while new forms of digital media — video games, for example — have stretched our understanding of what it means to depict a digital character, experts were quick to distinguish the debate around representation in theatrical acting from Mursion’s corporate education product.
“This isn’t art,” said Hutchinson, who used to be an actor. “This is commerce. This is business. And that means the people who are telling these stories are making money off of these stories.”
Multiple professors of theater told BuzzFeed News that Mursion’s argument about scale — that cross-racial casting is necessary to facilitate its business model — is often used as an excuse in theater to not cast people of color. Those academics, along with several DEI experts, told BuzzFeed News that if Mursion was having difficulty casting Black actors to play Black avatars, it could at least cast actors who are members of some racial or ethnic minority.
“This isn’t art. This is commerce. This is business.”
This is already being done — just not by Mursion. Jason Chen, a psychologist and DEI specialist at the William & Mary School of Education, has used Mursion simulations in this way since 2017, working with his own team of scenario designers and actors, who are all people of color and experts in diversity and inclusion. His scenarios teach geoscientists to speak up for more diversity in their departments.
Chen believes his research shows that such simulations — when combined with attendance at in-person diversity workshops and reading discussion groups — can make scientists more comfortable advocating for diversity, at least in the months directly following the training. But that raises a more basic question about Mursion’s off-the-shelf offerings: Do they actually work?
The company provided research to show that math teachers who practice their lessons with Mursion get better results in the classroom than teachers who do not. But it did not provide similar supporting research for its diversity, equity, and inclusion training. Mursion told BuzzFeed News it would take years to build out such a research program, but that it is “slowly developing an ecosystem of research partners … to replicate these findings.” It also pointed to “proprietary client studies,” which it declined to share.
In an email, Mursion CEO Mark Atkinson said, “I have the utmost respect for our clients who understand and appreciate” the company’s casting choices. But it is not clear how much thought Mursion’s clients have given those choices — or whether they are even aware of them. Atkinson said the company tells customers that single actors play multiple characters. Asked if the company makes it explicit that sometimes the Black avatars in their simulations are being voiced by white actors, he replied, “Do we say those literal words? No. But we are fully transparent.”
BuzzFeed News reached out to more than a dozen of Mursion’s corporate clients about their use of Mursion simulations and asked specifically whether they knew actors were portraying characters of races different than their own. Some companies, including Coca-Cola, LinkedIn, and McKinsey, declined to comment, and others, including Johnson & Johnson, Blue Cross Blue Shield, and Starbucks, did not answer our inquiries. A 2021 civil rights assessment for Starbucks, prepared by the law firm Covington & Burling, recommended expanding an initial partnership with Mursion as part of the company’s DEI program. But Starbucks Workers United, a group of Buffalo-area Starbucks employees seeking to unionize, told BuzzFeed News that they “do not condone digital or other forms of blackface.”
“We do not condone digital or other forms of blackface.”
Other Mursion clients, including Google and Nationwide, a large insurance company, acknowledged partnering with Mursion, but said they did not use its simulations for diversity and inclusion education. Mursion’s website says that T-Mobile ran a simulation focused on “supporting a traumatized employee through incidents of racial injustice.” Mursion simulation specialists described this scenario, which involved an employee experiencing an incident of racial profiling, to BuzzFeed News. But a T-Mobile spokesperson told BuzzFeed News that though the company works with Mursion, Mursion “hasn’t supported” its DEI program.
Only one company, Indeed, commented on Mursion’s cross-racial casting practices. A spokesperson wrote that the company was “not aware and this is concerning to us. If true, this does not align with our company values and we would discontinue the vendor relationship.”
Minda Harts, author of Right Within: How to Heal From Racial Trauma in the Workplace and the keynote speaker for Mursion’s Actionable Empathy Symposium earlier this month, was also unaware of the company’s casting practices until contacted by BuzzFeed News. In her symposium address, Harts said, “Two things can be true at the same time. Someone may not intend harm, not intend racism — but they may nevertheless cause harm, and cause it through racism.”
Asked about Mursion’s casting practices, Harts replied: “Sometimes, DEI practices and solutions have every intention of helping their workplace be a more inclusive environment, but the impact might do more harm than good.” She continued, “I want more companies and organizations to be aware of that, and when they do make a misstep, be courageous enough to own it and commit to better equitable practices.” ●