Changing your race in virtual reality

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…

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