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Can Virtual "Racism" Evoke Empathy?

You can never "turn off" your race, your ethnicity or other characteristics that people may choose to use against you.

An Australian national charity called All Together Now recently released a free iOS and Android app that “challenges what you think you know about racism.” Characterized as a game/education app, Everyday Racism offers its users the options of playing as yourself or as an Aboriginal man, a Muslim woman or an Indian student. My first reaction was that this could be a creative tool in combating prejudice. But as I learned more, I realized that some aspects of the app were problematic.

The app’s users, over the course of seven days, immerse themselves in virtual environments where they encounter everyday microaggressions (instances of subtle antagonistic interactions). These microaggressions range from racist tweets to harassing workplace exchanges. The user then chooses how to respond with one of two scripted responses, or by opting to just remain silent.

If the user decides that the “immersion” is too much to handle, s/he can opt out of the week’s experience and continue playing as an observer. For authenticity purposes, consultants from each character’s background contributed to the character’s creation.

Though the app hopes to make its users empathetic, its approach is flawed. For one thing, its very premise reflects ignorance of the characters’ identities. Neither “Muslim” nor “Indian” are races. A Muslim is a member of the religion known as Islam, and “Indian” is a nationality that refers to people from the nation of India.

Worse, by presenting characters that do not represent the full diversity of the communities they purport to represent, the app actually risks perpetuating stereotypes. For example, without context, the app implies that there is one type of Muslim: Brown-skinned, and if female, hijab-wearing. Classifying Indian as a unified race overlooks India’s ethno-religious diversity. Both labels paint the marginalized populations they seek to help with a broad brush — and ignore the nuances of our diverse identities.

There’s more. The app subverts its ultimate goal by offering users the choice to “opt out” of their experience. If you are a person who constantly has to confront the experience of being marginalized, you’re stuck. You never have the option of opting out from your experiences and related discrimination. Your only choice is to respond or remain silent.

You can never turn off your race, your country of origin, your ethnicity or many other characteristics that people may choose to use against you. And though you can choose to change your religion, you should not feel compelled to do so in order to escape discrimination.

Equally troubling is how the app is being marketed. By turning the experience of discrimination into a “game,” as opposed to an experience from which you can learn, the app risks trivializing the pain that everyday bias and discrimination causes.

Finally, the app lacks follow-up options after the seven-day challenge. It lacks a discussion forum or implementation plan for addressing real-life microagressions. It simply creates an isolated alternative reality without challenging the user to apply the lessons learned from the app.

The app creators seemingly hope to reach people who discriminate against others, and to encourage these users to change their ways — after virtually experiencing “racism.” This limits their target audience to conscientious racists. And if there are such self-aware racists, are they really so oblivious to what needs to change?

Perhaps this app could better achieve its goals if it chose a name that didn’t perpetrate misconceptions and stereotypes, and if it marketed itself as a resource for multicultural education programs, practical diversity trainings or even sensitivity workshops.

Imagine if the app were renamed to reflect reality: Being Different Is Normal — But It Ain’t Easy.

This app has all the right intentions, but falls short on its implementation.

Joyce S. Dubensky is CEO of the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding, which built the first toolkit on religious diversity for workplace managers (now a major online resource for global Fortune 500 companies). Previously she served as the first General Counsel and created the legal department for UJA-Federation of Jewish Philanthropies of New York, and was the executive director of the National Conference for Community and Justice. Reach her @TanenbaumCenter.

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