CampusClarity strives to go beyond compliance to create widespread culture change. We think that the laws, articles, and concepts presented in our courses are an important part of creating that change. We also understand that unconscious conditioning has a strong influence on each person’s decision-making, and instruction that singly addresses conscious choices doesn’t go far enough. Culturally transmitted conditioning tells us through a deluge of suggestive images that some people are inherently worth more than others because of their gender, the color of their skin, or their wealth, even though we know that this is not true.
Changing these assumptions requires, among other things, a massive overhaul of the kinds of visual messages that we create and consume. As a training company, this includes depicting non-white characters and narratives in ways that are complex, relatable, and un-caricatured. While on the face of it a straightforward idea, creating nuanced characters within the constraints of online training is not a simple task. Therefore, our student harm-reduction program Think About It is always a work in progress. We hope to improve our stories with every iteration by listening to the valuable input from our users. Some considerations we keep in mind when writing our courses include empathy, race perception, and othering.
Inducing empathy is a powerful tool for social change. It is important that students can empathize with the characters we present in our courses so that they can imagine themselves performing the modeled behavior. In his iconic book Understanding Comics, cartoonist Scott McCloud puts forward the idea that as visual animals, we empathize better with characters that are drawn with less detail, so that we can project our own selves onto them more easily.
This idea has since been backed up by research, and is one of the reasons we have historically chosen to silhouette the characters in our courses. Silhouetting characters removes a great deal of detail about coloring, clothing, and even gender. But what does this choice mean in a culture in which the default identity is “white male,” and any deviation from that model is considered by many to be a “distracting” detail?
Our audience is diverse. College students from across the country use Think About It and have a reasonable expectation of seeing themselves represented in our courses. Campus Clarity is further dedicated to multifaceted representations of people of different races, ethnicities, and sexual orientation. Our writers and illustrators spend a lot of time thinking about the ways to accurately reflect our audience without devolving into tokenization. After all, race and ethnicity reach far beyond just the way someone looks, and extends into culture, lifestyle, and values. For example, not all authority figures are white males, and we hope our courses reflect this reality.
However, we must balance the desire for complexity with the desire to minimize character specificity. When we made the decision to silhouette our characters in pale blue, an unfortunate side effect was the erasure of diverse sociocultural markers. This in turn made all the characters appear ethnically white to some users, when in reality many of the models and voice actors we employed were non-white. This feedback from our users prompted our development team to take a deeper look at the way formal design elements affect our learning goals. In the graduate version of the course, the characters are silhouetted in dark gray, and this issue has been largely eliminated.
Another way we tried to indicate a character’s ethnicity is by directly stating it in the course. This was noted and appreciated by many users. However, due to the aforementioned “white default mode”, this also had the effect of only pointing out when a character’s identity has veered from the “norm,” effectively othering the character and reducing empathy in the user. We plan to address these and other issues in the upcoming version of Think About It.
The vast range of opinions we receive on our courses highlight that there is never a one-size-fits-all approach when discussing sensitive topics. However, it is clear that there is a general consensus about the right direction to move in, and that an inclusive outlook provides the forward momentum for online courses to have maximum impact.