Turning Racism Awareness into Action

February 28, 2019 @ 5:28 pm
By Communications Office

As Black History Month draws to a close, we check in with Professor Courtney Cogburn and her innovative research project that uses virtual reality to create an immersive experience of racism.

“Before you judge a man, walk a mile in his shoes.” This plea for empathy, which originated in an 1895 poem by a female suffragist in Michigan, seems hopelessly antiquated in today’s America. According to a survey conducted in 2017, roughly half of Americans, and one third of Republicans, say they do not perceive discrimination against Blacks in our society, whereas a large majority of Blacks, backed by a substantial body of empirical evidence, would disagree.

For Assistant Professor Courtney D. Cogburn, the aftermath of the 2012 shooting of the unarmed Black teenager Trayvon Martin, by George Zimmerman, who claimed to be acting in the capacity of a neighborhood watch volunteer, made this empathy gap—the degree to which Whites are disconnected from the social realities of racism—painfully clear.

Dr. Cogburn remembers checking her Facebook feed and seeing a couple of angry and fearful posts by Black friends who were pregnant with sons at the time. Some of her White friends, by contrast, were “posting cute kitten memes and cupcake recipes.”

Dismayed, she began to question what it would take for Whites to wake up and notice—and, perhaps more importantly, what it would take for them not just to feel bad or empathize but to act and feel differently.

A trained social worker, she wanted her White friends to walk a mile in the shoes of a young Black man. Her desire to see this happen only strengthened as reports began piling up of the deaths of Blacks at the hands of police; the Black Lives Matter movement, which started up in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s death, gained momentum; and Cogburn herself gave birth to a son.

She wondered if there were ways to better leverage her position as a tenure-track professor at the Columbia School of Social Work. Perhaps she could design an experience that simulates the what it’s like and how it feels to grow up as a Black male in the United States. She could apply the tools from her doctoral training as a psychologist to examine the effects of such an experience on a person’s level of racial empathy, bias and behavior.

Eventually, Cogburn’s passionate intellectual quest led her to the door of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab and into a collaboration with founding director Jeremy Bailenson. A cognitive psychologist, Bailenson has been testing the theory that psychological processes, including racial bias and empathy, can be affected by an immersive virtual-reality (VR) experience. In other words, walking a mile in someone else’s shoes may prove easier with the 20th-century accoutrements of VR goggles and headphones.

By the time Cogburn encountered him, Bailenson had experimented with creating a VR film on what it is like to be become homeless. Participants came out with more positive views of the homeless and were more likely to sign a petition in support of affordable housing.

Buoyed by a grant from the Brown Institute for Media Innovation—a bi-coastal institute located at Columbia Journalism School and Stanford Engineering—Cogburn and Bailenson started working together on a new venture. Using Cogburn’s research and the skills of Bailensen’s team, they created the VR film 1000 Cut Journey.

In this 12-minute immersive experience, participants don VR goggles, headphones, and hand controllers (these cause avatars to simulate a user’s arm movements) and step into the identity of Michael Sterling, a fictitious Black American male. Through a series of incidents, they feel the emotions of a child who is singled out for punishment by his kindergarten teacher; of a young teen who is harassed by policemen; and of a young adult who is overlooked when applying for a professional job in a “White space.”

1000 Cut Journey debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2018 as part of the Tribeca Immersive program. It has since received copious attention—everything from articles in the mainstream media (e.g., this one in Wired), to an invitation to Cogburn to give a TEDx talk, to a recent feature in the Columbia University Record.

In honor of Black History Month, we asked Courtney Cogburn for an update on her innovative research. Is she persuaded that a VR experience of racism can help White Americans walk a mile in a Black male’s shoes? And perhaps more importantly, can this new-found empathy jolt them into taking action against racism when they encounter it in reality? Here is what she told us:

“I must admit that I started this project with a mixture of both hope and skepticism. But it was during the Tribeca Film Festival where I was able to speak to hundreds of individuals coming out of the headset that I landed more firmly on hope. People rushing to sign-up for place to voluntarily experience racism, fighting to hold back tears and telling me how this experience, in spite of their engagement with these issues in the real world, touched them more deeply—all helped me to believe in the potential of virtual reality as a tool for social change.”

Cogburn noted, however, that reactions to a VR experience at a film festival are one type of input and the empirical data from the laboratory, quite another. “We are in the process of running multiple studies that will help us to empirically assess the effects of the experience, not just after participants first remove the headset but over time,” she explained, adding that she and her team are “excited to see if increased levels of racial empathy lead to actual behavioral shifts.”

We look forward to hearing her reports on the findings.

How to keep in touch with Professor Courtney Cogburn’s research in the meantime:

  • To learn more about Professor Cogburn’s 1000 Cut Journey and reactions to it, please watch this video, made by the School’s Communications team with footage from the 2018 Tribeca Filmfest:

  • If you are in the DC area tomorrow or Saturday, Courtney will be appearing at the Story Movements 2019 conference being held by the Center for Media & Social Impact at American University. The conference (see agenda) brings together filmmakers, activists, scholars, communicators, and others engaged in media and social change.