I’ve often thought it might help to curtail police brutality and murder if white and black, or white and some other minority, officers were routinely paired up as partners.
Partners spend lots of time together each day. They eat together, travel together, and they act in concert, often in dangerous situations where their safety – and the safety of innocent civilians around them – depends on how well they have each other’s back. Essentially, I thought, if a white officer got to know, intimately, a black or a Hispanic one, it would help to humanize the suspected perps they encounter on the street. Then, when push came to shove, they might hesitate to pull the trigger or to use excessive force.
The point of my theory is, let’s help the white police officers understand how much they have in common with their minority peers, and how much their perceptions and bias impact their behavior. Thanks to technology, there may be a way to achieve the same goal without needing the actual ride along.
Virtual reality startup SPACES Inc. has created an implicit bias virtual reality program that enables participants to embody or to mirror a minority. I spoke to John Singh, a representative for SPACES, and he said basically, participants put on a head set. They see a mirror in front of them, have simple tasks they can perform, but they see themselves as a person of a different color or gender. He said research indicates even relatively short exposure to this kind of mirroring or embodiment can have a measurable impact on efforts to reduce implicit bias.
And before you say, that’s great, but I’m not biased. I – blah blah blah and blah. No. Everyone has bias about something, and implicit bias is particularly virulent because people hold stereotypes and perceptions they are often completely unaware of. They’re ingrained.
When we spoke Singh only mentioned being able to do certain tasks while in the VR program, but if it’s not already part of the package, I’m sure as technology advances the tasks one can engage in will become more complex. Eventually, a black male executive might be able to spend the day or even longer as a white, blonde assistant, dealing with all the things she encounters – the rudeness, the sexism, the insults to her intelligence, the disregard for her time and efforts when it comes time for rewards and recognition – things that shouldn’t be present in a conscious, inclusive workplace.
Or, a white man might be able to spend a few hours as a black man, so he’ll understand just how much privilege insulates him from a lot of unnecessary crap he never realized was so challenging, time consuming and emotionally and physically draining to deal with. It might even do someone like me some good to walk around as a white man… Nah. I might have too much fun.
Initially developed to facilitate academic research on implicit bias, the SPACES program is now available for scientific researchers, corporate trainers and law-enforcement organizations. Singh told me the tool is best used as part of a larger training program to develop greater sensitivity.
But I think sensitivity is just the tip of the iceberg here. Think what a difference this virtual reality body mirroring could make in the workplace. To quote Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, “I must say, the mind reels.” If participants were open and willing to act on lessons learned and new information gathered after they step back into their own “skin,” behavioral, even policy changes are right around the corner. Well, one hopes.
But VR can definitely shine a light on how implicit bias affects our world view, our communication styles and the way we work and interact with others. Singh said, “This is a way for someone to truly experience, to suddenly realize that you are different than you imagined.”
Sometimes we need to be shocked or surprised. We need to have those light bulb moments so that knowledge can stick, and we adapt our behavior accordingly. If we have to virtually step into someone else’s shoes to get there, so be it.