The Reality of Racism Comes to Life in VR Film

Courtney Cogburn, an assistant professor at Columbia’s School of Social Work, created a 12-minute virtual reality film, 1000 Cut Journey, that allows others to experience the impact of racism on African Americans today.

Adam Piore
January 14, 2019

You’re a young man of 15, heading out to meet friends at a basketball game. The next moment, you’re kneeling on the sidewalk in front of your house with police officers screaming and cursing at you, hands on their holstered guns. You’ve been mistaken for somebody else. The world goes dark and you hear your mother’s voice pleading, “Just do what you have to do to get home alive.”

By now, this nightmare scenario has become all too familiar in the age of Trayvon Martin and Black Lives Matter. But it’s entirely different to experience such trauma first-hand.

Courtney Cogburn, who joined Columbia’s School of Social Work as an assistant professor in 2014, studies the mental and psychosocial consequences caused by the stresses of racism. She found that many colleagues and friends— even those who speak ardently of social justice—were out of touch with the impact of racism on African Americans today.

So she decided to find a way for others to walk in the shoes of someone living that experience. “We wanted people to have a visceral sense of what this feels like,” she said. “It’s more likely to trigger empathy, and to help you understand the scope and nature of racism and racial inequality in our society.”

A Google search led Cogburn to Jeremy Bailenson, a cognitive psychologist and director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, who studies how immersive virtual experiences can affect psychological processes, including empathy and social perspectives, racial bias and decision-making. In one experiment, participants who viewed Bailenson’s virtual reality (VR) film, Becoming Homeless, had more positive views of the homeless and were more likely to sign a petition in support of affordable housing. “Virtual reality can be a powerful lever of behavioral change,” he said.

A woman, wearing a black boat-neck blouse and jade green earrings, miles into the camera

With a flagship grant from the Brown Institute for Media Innovation, a bi-coastal institute located at Columbia Journalism School and Stanford Engineering, Cogburn and Bailenson created a 12-minute virtual reality film, 1000 Cut Journey. It immerses viewers in the life of a fictional African American man, Michael Sterling, as he encounters racism as a child, adolescent, and adult. It debuted last April at Tribeca Immersive, the Tribeca Film Festival’s virtual arcade, which showcases virtual reality and augmented reality films that viewers watch using headsets and VR goggles.

The Cogburn Research Lab is still in the process of studying the impact of the 1000 Cut Journey in lab and field experiments. For the project, Cogburn assembled a team of 10 to refine the film’s concept and create storyboards. “I knew that the empirical data was there,” she said. “There are also news stories about the preschool-to-prison pipeline, stop-and-frisk practices, and mass incarceration. Too often that information doesn’t quite land with people.”

Cogburn has been keen to address these issues since graduate school. She grew up in a small, predominantly black town outside Oklahoma City in a “bit of a bubble.” She attended the University of Virginia, where she recalls spotting a Confederate flag in a dorm window and hearing a member of the school’s Board of Visitors complain that the school reduces its standards when admitting black students.

But what she encountered at the University of Michigan, where she received her master’s in social work and Ph.D. in education and psychology, had more of an impact. Many fellow students claimed to take a color-blind approach, which she believes ignores obstacles standing in the way of social progress and economic mobility.

Cogburn says she often hears people who identify as liberal excusing patterns and situations that to her seem clearly racist with such comments as “if only he had been more respectful to the police” or “if he had pulled his pants up” or “if he hadn’t talked back.”

The scenes in 1000 Cut Journey are designed to illustrate such incidents. Viewers first see themselves as Mike in first grade, being disciplined by his white teacher while his white classmates are not chastised for the same behavior. Next comes the police scenario, followed by an unsuccessful job interview, where the white interviewer favors a white candidate, although Mike is a Yale graduate with a stronger resume.

“There’s a tendency among white liberals to want to believe that racism is about ‘those people over there, we’re not talking about me,’ or ‘I am not culpable in these systems and processes and dynamics that we’re talking about,” Cogburn said. “In order for us to more meaningfully and collectively engage issues of racial equality, we all need to be on the same page. And if white liberals think of themselves as removed from these systems of racism, then we aren’t on the same page.”