Why The Virtual “Racism” App Is Flawed
All Together Now, an Australian national charity, recently released a free 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 every day 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, she or 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 nuisances 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 characteristic 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 every day 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 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 as 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.
Download the app and decide for yourself
Joyce S. Dubensky, J.D., C.E.O., of the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding.