Experiencing the Impacts of Racism Through Immersive Virtual Reality Is Now Possible

September 1, 2022 @ 4:55 pm

As Dr. Courtney D. Cogburn sat with the visceral discomfort of the death of Trayvon Martin in 2012, she found herself wondering what would be necessary for a white individual to go beyond the level of not just acknowledging that racism exists, but actively understanding the ways racism truly presents.

“While some white Americans may know that racism is a bad thing, they can resist acknowledging that racism permeates every facet of society and the roles they play in upholding and benefitting from systems of racism,” Dr. Cogburn explains. “I thought about what it would take for the experience of racism to translate on the level that is necessary to achieve racial justice.”

It is Dr. Cogburn’s strong belief that achieving racial justice requires this level of understanding of racism—a visceral understanding, she says, that is based in mind and spirit, not solely science or intellect. Her work within the Cogburn Research Group and the Columbia University School of Social Work is motivated by the knowledge that racial justice goes beyond empathy and into the ways to dismantle the societal effects of racism that have become embedded in American culture.

Startling statistics show that racial health disparities persist at every level of socioeconomic status. Dr. Cogburn says that of the 50 leading causes of death, including heart disease, cancer, hypertension, and stroke, Black individuals have an earlier onset, faster progression, and earlier death than white individuals. Despite the many barriers to accessing equitable care, this issue goes beyond education, income, and health insurance—the problem is racism itself.

Dr. Cogburn strongly links these health disparities to the overall physical and psychological effects of experiencing racism. Furthermore, although some white individuals face other forms of discrimination due to sexuality, gender identity, ability, or socioeconomic status, there is empirical evidence that they can stubbornly underestimate or ignore racial inequities in society.

“There is evidence to support an experiential difference in the ways Black people understand racism compared to white Americans, and this difference in “understanding” is a key factor in how individuals choose to engage the realities of racism – what they teach their children, the policies and legislation they support and importantly how they understand their own relationships to systems of racism,” says Dr. Cogburn.

In order to allow white individuals to cultivate the empathy and understanding necessary to examine both their own implicit racial biases and the societal implications of racism, Dr. Cogburn and her team at CCSW collaborated with Dr. Jeremy Bailenson and his team from Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab to create 1000 Cut Journey, an IVR experience that allows the user to step into the life of Michael Sterling, a Black man.

“1000 Cut Journey doesn’t directly address all of these complexities, but we have found that it changes the way people engage and learn about this difficult topic – people who’ve gone through the experience tend to be more open, honest and willing to engage,” explains Dr. Cogburn. “While no single media experience can magically solve racism, this piece helps to change the conversation,” added Dr. Bailenson, who is the lab’s founding director and a professor in Stanford’s Department of Communications.

Designed for standalone VR systems, such as the Oculus Quest 2, the project builds on both previous VR studies surrounding empathy and pressing concerns regarding racial inequities in society. Development of this experience began in 2016, and was funded by a Magic Grant from the Brown Institute for Media Innovation. The project has also recently expanded to include the Center for Academic Innovation at the University of Michigan, with the goal to make the experience more widely accessible.

Constructed with complex uses of quantitative and qualitative data, the simulation takes the user through the life experiences of Michael Sterling at ages 7, 15, and 30. The technology allows users to feel their own real-time emotional and cognitive responses to the experiences of the virtual avatar, ranging from classroom and workplace microaggressions to encounters with police.

The Immersive Virtual Reality (IVR) experience draws from hundreds of sources, including previously created VR content, published research, twitter, blogs, podcasts, and the team’s personal experience with race. The project also examines effects of the immersive virtual environment (IVE) on changes in attitudes and beliefs about social and racial inequity in society, including colorblindness, systemic injustice and empathy. Ultimately, this data informs how we may improve competencies related to racism, which is critical for efforts to address and remediate the effects of racism, such as racial inequities in health and their causes.

Although not an instant solution to the deep systemic racial inequities that exist in the United States, 1000 Cut Journey hopes to open the eyes of individuals to the everyday realities of life as a person of color in an effort to further the conversation surrounding racism. The increased accessibility of this IVR experience has immense potential to create an opportunity for empathy and growth when it comes to how people perceive racism.