Changing your race in virtual reality

Chris Ip

John Howard Griffin was perhaps the best-known race swapper of the 20th century.

In 1959, the white Texan writer went undercover as a black man in the Jim Crow South. Griffin spent days under a tanning lamp, took drugs for the skin pigmentation disorder vitiligo and shaved his head but otherwise spoke and acted exactly as he had as a white man. In assignments for the African-American magazine Sepia and later his acclaimed book Black Like Me, Griffin aimed to convey to white Americans what it was like to be the other. This was before Rachel Dolezal, Iggy Azalea or any of the Kardashians; blackness for him was not a cultural adornment but a target on his back.

After his transformation, Griffin was taken aback by how quickly his sense of self adjusted to a new identity. Peering in a New Orleans bathroom mirror for the first time after his temporary metamorphosis, he reflected:

"All traces of the John Griffin I had been were wiped from existence. Even the senses underwent a change so profound it filled me with distress. I looked into the mirror and saw nothing of the white John Griffin's past. No, the reflections led back to Africa, back to the shanty and the ghetto, back to the fruitless struggles against the mark of blackness. Suddenly, almost with no mental preparation, no advance hint, it became clear and permeated my whole being."

People around him flipped their behavior just as starkly. Black acquaintances who knew he was white lapsed into discussing "our struggle" with him; white women on the bus shot "hate stares" his way.

Through six weeks of travelling through Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia, Griffin conveyed to white people a truth that African-Americans had been saying for a long time and still holds today: People of different races in the US inhabit different realities.

Everything from police interactions to job applications can be experienced differently according to your race. As the comedian Dave Chappelle said in an interview earlier this summer, "If you had some glasses that someone could put on just to see the world how you saw the world, it'd be probably fucking terrifying."

Yet as Chappelle made those comments in a New York radio studio, it turned out Courtney Cogburn was working on something like that just uptown.

An assistant professor of social work at Columbia University, Cogburn and her team have been creating a project named 1000 Cut Journey in collaboration with Stanford's Virtual Human Interaction Lab, which is led by Jeremy Bailenson. Showcasing today for the first time at the Brown Institute for Media Innovation, the experience uses an HTC Vive virtual reality headset to put users in the body of a black man, Michael Sterling, at four different stages of his life. Titled in reference to the gruesome torture method of death by a thousand cuts, each scene in the experience is a composite of real-life stories -- garnered from the media and personal accounts -- that reveals the myriad ways race infiltrates one's quotidian experiences.

Essentially, it's a first-person simulation of the racism faced by a black male, for non-blacks to experience temporarily. Although tamer than Griffin's gruelling social experiment from half a century ago, its aims are similar -- except it's contained entirely within a headset.

(1000CutJourney)

When 1000 Cut Journey starts, you're seven years old and in the first grade. You begin by looking into a mirror and, like Griffin in that Louisiana bathroom, acclimatize to your new body.

Soon, it's free time in your modern but neutral-looking California elementary school, and three kids are playing with blocks on the floor as a teacher tutors some other students in math across the room. You physically crouch to join the kids making robots and fireballs with their blocks. "Mike is the black fireball," one of them says, to giggles from the other two. "Yours would be the scariest because yours is black and black is always the scariest."

One boy starts throwing blocks at the others' models. As soon as you join in and fling a block -- however tamely with your childlike hands -- they stop abruptly and stare. The teacher, a white woman, stands up, arms folded.

While your character and environment are 3D models, the other humans are all live-acted, and the teacher looms over you. "Mike, look at me," she orders. "I shouldn't have to tell you not to throw things in the classroom. You're being dangerous, and you're going to hurt someone." The next scene cuts to you in the corner, in front of another mirror reminding you of your new body, while your three classmates continue to play in the distance, seemingly oblivious to your embarrassment.

There is little interactivity in the linear experience but this, too, reflects racism: the unequal treatment you receive through little choice of your own.

You empathize with Michael's childhood innocence and feel the hot shame of being singled out for scolding by the teacher. The early demo I tried lasted only several minutes, and the simple 3D models were redolent of PlayStation 2-era graphics, but there was still a feeling of presence. There is little interactivity in the linear experience but this, too, reflects racism: the unequal treatment you receive through little choice of your own.

Most significantly, the scene revolved around the kinds of small incidents -- being stereotyped as aggressive, treated unfairly -- that may sound easy to dismiss in third person but when experienced first-hand in VR have a visceral impact.

"You may be affected even if you don't notice that it's happened," said Cogburn. "Even if you can't articulate to me what it was about the school scene that made you feel uncomfortable, we know what happened in the scene that may have triggered that response."

Virtual reality seems uniquely suited to revealing the hidden texture of implicit bias. In this context, the term -- also called unconscious bias -- refers to the subconscious reactions we have to people of other races. It's not about blatant racial epithets but subtle, socially conditioned beliefs that, for instance, black people are a greater physical threat or even feel less pain than white people. These biases often emerge in the open through the sorts of microaggressions that -- because they're unintentional and don't necessarily align with an individual's professed beliefs -- can easily go unnoticed by one person even as they're painfully obvious to the other.

Traditional three-act storytelling in films, books or the news homes in on specific moments of tension and drama, involving a protagonist, antagonist, conflict and resolution. Yet communicating implicit bias is less about clarifying moments of moral rightness, and more about showing the quiet, coded moments of racial bias that shape one's worldview and sense of justice over time. Virtual reality doesn't need to put a spotlight on a racial flashpoint nor list a series of facts about inequity to have an impact. By immersing you in another person's experience, you understand his hurt intuitively.

After the elementary school scene, 1000 Cut Journey places you in Michael's shoes at age 15 having his first encounter with the police; age 30, interviewing for an elite corporate job; and finally age 50, looking back at his life. (These scenes weren't yet ready in the build that I tried.) Taken as a whole, they have the potential to reflect the structure of racism: not isolated incidents but a pattern of little events that start in a child's formative years and accrete over the course of a lifetime, creating a window on the world that is fundamentally different from those in the racial majority.

"What I really want is for people to come out saying, 'I thought I understood this but I don't.'"

Someone who has lived through experiences like a run-in with police could find revisiting them in VR disturbing. But similarly to Black Like Me, this project is made primarily for those who have lived a different life.

"What I really want is for people to come out saying, 'I thought I understood this but I don't.' [For] whites, in particular, I would like for that to be the reaction," said Cogburn. "And for blacks and perhaps other people of color who go through the experience to come out saying, 'That's it exactly.'"

Virtual reality has long been touted as a vehicle for empathy through body swapping, and crossing race barriers has been part of several projects.

Nonny de la Peña's One Dark Night reconstructs the shooting of Trayvon Martin entirely from public records and 911 calls, showing what every witness saw or didn't see. Janicza Bravo's Hard World for Small Things is a short, powerful film that places the viewer amidst a race-related accidental shooting in LA. Earlier this year, Australia's public broadcaster SBS released a VR experience of racial abuse on a bus -- first from a bystander's perspective, then from the victim's.

1000 Cut Journey, however, is unique in its efforts to bridge narrative and social science. The project builds on specific research developments over the past five years in what's termed embodied cognition. One key insight from the field is precisely what the race swapping Griffin learned the hard way: When you change the body, the mind quickly follows.

In one study, white subjects were set up with a prosthetic dark-skinned hand. A researcher stroked the hand with a paintbrush while simultaneously stroking the participant's hidden real hand. The procedure took only a few minutes. Yet participants showed a drop in unconscious bias in the implicit association test, a common measurement of unconscious bias. In another experiment, brushing a white person's face with a cotton bud as he or she watched a video of a black person being brushed the same way led to subjects reporting that the black person's face looked more like their own.

"You can very easily fool the brain into thinking that a different body belongs to you."

"You can very easily fool the brain into thinking that a different body belongs to you," said Manos Tsakiris, a professor of psychology at Royal Holloway, University of London, who co-published these papers. "[Including] a body that has a different appearance than yours."

Subsequent studies applied these techniques to VR, putting mostly white subjects in dark-skinned bodies and seeing how their implicit bias decreased. Interestingly, the VR experiences themselves did not involve racially charged scenarios and contained no lessons on racism. Participants were simply asked to follow a tai chi instructor's movements, or play a photo description exercise, all the while conscious of their new bodies. The brain accepted its new skin and rearranged its biases and attitudes accordingly.

In contrast, an earlier study by Stanford's Bailenson explicitly asked white participants to imagine a day in the life of a black character, and then to act out a VR job interview as if they were that person. Their implicit bias ended up worse than subjects who played a white person in their interview. It's possible that instead of engendering empathy, participants relied on black stereotypes when told to imagine their world. An effective way to remove unconscious bias, it seems, is by showing not telling.

There are still open questions with this technology. How long, for instance, can a VR-induced reduction in racism last? (A 2016 study by the University of Barcelona's Mel Slater showed it could be effective after one week). What is the precise neural mechanism that takes place when we embody a different race?

The key issue, however, is whether changing attitudes in virtual reality can also change real-world behavior.

"As soon as you take off the head mounted display, you still find yourself in real reality," said Tsakiris. "This is where behavior matters. And this is where behavior has significant consequences."

The point could apply to many socially conscious virtual reality experiences, which don't get far beyond the film festival circuit or the university lab. Yet one key application could be in diversity training. The NFL has had discussions with Stanford's Virtual Human Interaction Lab in overcoming race and gender bias. Meanwhile, Alexandra Ivanovitch, founder of the nonprofit Equality Lab, is creating a series of first-person VR trainings with the Police Foundation, with hopes of bringing them to law-enforcement departments across the country. The idea is to allow police to virtually switch places with the communities that they are protecting -- such as people of color -- and therefore train them in racial sensitivity in a less didactic form than mandatory lectures.

"If we can actually have positive results in that type of environment, where the culture is historically not very favorable to racially sensitive programs, I think that we can make a tremendous impact across the board," said Ivanovitch. "We can make it across a whole variety of social impact areas, like schools, hospitals, court rooms."

Still, it's doubtful any virtual embodiment researcher would suggest that VR alone will end racism. The way that humans have carved into factions based on our most superficial physical traits is part of a political, economic and cultural structure that stretches generations. The point of these projects in race swapping is for people to comprehend that structure better. It's for a tech-enhanced degree of cross-cultural understanding that perhaps wasn't possible before; shortening the distance between one mind and another.

"We blame individuals because of their choices and their behaviors, and we don't think about history or policies that deliberately disadvantage particular people."

"As I see it now -- and this is not just for race, this is for any number of social issues, especially in the United States -- we're very individualized when we think about problems," said Cogburn.

"We blame individuals for their plights. We blame individuals because of their choices and their behaviors, and we don't think about history or policies that deliberately disadvantage particular people. It's that type of logic that I would like to shift."

Projects like 1000 Cut Journey are an illustration of how virtual embodiment can aid that shift. While virtual reality has already proved it can immerse us in fantastical narratives and games, experiences such as this show a far more socially compelling use: helping us understand the neighbors we walk past every day but hardly know. It's not using VR to escape the world, but to see it more clearly.