On an October morning, Michael Avis makes his way to a gymnasium. He has come to a Toronto Catholic elementary school to provide anti-racism training to staff. But unlike more traditional forms, Avis is using virtual reality to have learners better understand bias, microaggressions and privilege.
“Virtual reality is very good at putting you into that situation … and feeling a visceral empathy or feeling a connection,” said Avis, founder and president of Tapvigo Solutions, a communications company that focuses on technology-enhanced, human-centred learning.
The father of three felt a renewed need to find a tool to have difficult conversations about race after witnessing his kids’ online classes during the pandemic.
“It’s Black History Month … and I get to hear what the teachers are saying to my kids. And that’s where I started to think some of the language they heard was problematic. There were a few things that I really didn’t like, and that got me thinking,” he told Global News’ The New Reality.
Avis, who is also an educator, said there was a lot of “they and them statements” but maintains that the teacher is a “wonderful” teacher, adding, she “was not trained to have these conversations in diverse communities like Toronto.”
Avis wondered, “how do we help her think about the language she’s using? And that’s where it all came from.”
So in 2021, Avis and a group of Black fathers, with similar concerns, came together to make a video to share their personal stories, and their worries about their kids.
“We came together today, just kind of a quick conversation about some of our feelings about growing up Black and having our kids growing up Black in East York, and being part of the education system,” Avis said in the YouTube video.
In addition to posting the video the fathers offered to be a resource for their children’s schools. It also got Avis thinking about other possibilities.
So he reached out to Bodyswaps, a VR and AI company based in London, U.K., to see if his idea could be achieved. Together they created, “Let’s Talk About Race,” a series of modules to help users identify and verbally practise addressing prejudice in real time.
To ensure the project wasn’t causing harm, especially to racialized people who would also participate in the modules, Avis worked with George Brown College professors Charlene Dunstan and Gail Hunter, who are experts on these types of subject matters, to get the content right.
“We don’t want to … trigger harm of past experiences, but we do need to put it on the table,” said Avis, who is also a former George Brown educator. “That’s why we spent a lot of time being very specific about the language that we were using.”
The simulations are also tailored to fit the Canadian reality and experience. That’s because Canadians need a little bit more messaging, and “subtlety than perhaps our southern neighbours do,” Avis added.
How the training works
Getting started is relatively easy. All you need to do is put on the headset, grab the handles, pick the program and off you go.
Even if you don’t have a VR headset, you can run this software on a regular computer.
In all three of the different modules in the series, the software asks the user to speak out loud to practise language skills when addressing these issues.
For example, in the microaggressions simulation, participants are asked to point out and call out racist statements spoken by an avatar.
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At first, the software teaches the users how to disarm and challenge prejudicial beliefs. Then, users are asked to speak directly to the avatar, which is recorded and can be reviewed by the user. The software also analyzes words used and gives tips for how to better approach the situation in the future.
“Psychological safety is the number one thing,” Avis told Global News. “If you can’t speak to truth yourself in a room by yourself, then you’re never going to do it.”
So far, Avis has shared this training tool with companies, schools and health-care networks.
Research to determine if virtual reality can fight racism?
There are other anti-racism-type VR platforms available. In 2016, associate professor Courtney Cogburn and a team of social workers from Columbia University in New York met with a group of human-computer interaction (HCI) specialists from Stanford University in California to develop their own VR experience called “1000 Cut Journey.”
“I thought virtual reality would help me offer that difference in perspective, but also … capture subtleties of racism that are difficult to explain if you haven’t … encountered them,” said Cogburn, whose VR experience played at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2018.
In “1000 Cut Journey,” users embody a Black male named Michael Sterling as he encounters racism at three stages of life: a young child, an adolescent and a young adult.
Cogburn wanted to capture “structural aspects of racism,” and demonstrate that it starts very early in life and it “occurs across a life course.”
The roughly 10-minute VR program gives participants a glimpse of what it’s like to experience racism specifically from white people as a child getting disciplined in a classroom, an adolescent facing the police, and as an adult encountering workplace discrimination.
“We’re not showing you a Black experience. We’re showing you racism from the point of view of a Black person, which is a really different orientation,” Cogburn told Global News’ The New Reality.
“I think it helped keep us in this place that made it really rich and powerful … and not about entertainment and not about performing as a Black person,” she added.
Cogburn has been studying the effect the VR platform has had on those who’ve tried it, and if it achieved a lasting impact.
The study group, which was made up of white liberals, had changed their perspective on issues of race. She followed up with them 14 weeks later.
“There’s this shift from … ‘It’s a thing I’m observing out there and it’s now a thing that I see myself as a part of.’ … So, I think there’s something about the VR that’s been really powerful in shifting that perspective,” she said.
Over the last few years, there has been growing awareness of racial injustice and inequities, but solutions and real change still need to happen.
While VR might be one tool to help bring more understanding to issues of race, Cogburn said it’s “not a magic pill” and won’t solve the problem alone.
Avis agrees, but he hopes the “Let’s Talk About Race” immersive series will help to broaden people’s ability to have difficult conversations about racism, and reflect on their own biases and language use, so that we can all have a better tomorrow.