Virtual reality experience aims to raise personal awareness of racism’s effects
A siren wailed. A police car pulled up to the curb. Officers jumped out and shouted at me to get down on my knees, put my hands in the air and look at the ground. With my heart pounding, I immediately dropped into the position. I was in shock.
My response was much the same as thousands of others who have taken “1,000 Cut Journey,” an immersive virtual reality experience designed by a team at Columbia University School of Social Work, in collaboration with Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab. The program became available this month for free download to millions more, having been adapted to run on the Meta Quest platform thanks to the XR Initiative at the University of Michigan.
Unlike the shooter games, exercise routines and interactive sports that make up most of Meta Quest’s offerings, 1,000 Cut Journey isn’t entertainment: It’s a visceral tool to spur awareness about racism and help people to see how it pervades so many aspects of life.
“We feel that nothing like this really exists, and it’s important that we make it as accessible as possible,” said Courtney D. Cogburn, associate professor at Columbia’s School of Social Work, who launched the project with Jeremy Bailenson, Thomas More Storke Professor in Stanford’s Department of Communication. “The hope is that white people will come out of this experience and say, ‘I thought I understood racism, but I don’t.’ It lays the groundwork for a different conversation,” she said.
When I did the 1,000 Cut Journey two years ago in the lab at Stanford, I was surprised to see my reflection in a virtual mirror: it was an avatar representing a Black six-year-old named Michael Sterling. (I’m a 62-year-old white man.) When I lifted my hand to wave, he waved too. As the program continued, I was transformed into Sterling at 15 years old and then Sterling at 30 years old. At each age, I was exposed virtually to a different form of simulated racism.
At the beginning, I am sitting on the floor in a first-grade classroom, playing with three white kids who are throwing blocks and urging me to join in. As soon as I do, the teacher disciplines me, singling me out from the other kids. When I then morph into the teenage Sterling, my mother is warning me not to wear a shirt like the one seen on a crime suspect the police are searching for. I comply but as soon as I hit the street, the police arrive. By the time of the third vignette, I am a graduate of Yale and applying for a job at a corporate firm. After I show up at the office, the interviewer ignores me and briefly assumes, incorrectly, that the white candidate is the one from the Ivy League whom he’s excited to meet. The interviewer tells him to come in ahead of me. Later when I pick up a voicemail from the interviewer, I hear that they found someone else who is a “better fit.”
“It’s an intense experience for people,” Cogburn told me when I shared how exhausted I was by the end of the program. “I don’t want people to underestimate it,” she said. “While some people are fine and maybe just a little reflective, others are crying in their headsets.”
Cogburn, who studies causes and effects of racism, had never worked with virtual reality before this project. She had been studying racism and health, and she became drawn to VR in 2016 after realizing that the empirical data and other anti-racism education approaches were not moving people to grasp the scope of the problem. She reached out to Bailenson, a Stanford communication professor who founded the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab in 2003, to ask whether he would be interested in collaborating on a grant to the Brown Institute for Media Innovation. For as long as he had been researching how VR can affect human perceptions and beliefs, Bailenson had wanted to do a project that used immersive technology to address racism. He had been waiting, however, for a partner with the right expertise. Cogburn was the perfect match, he said.
Cogburn drew upon her and others’ qualitative and quantitative research as well as personal anecdotes to craft the story for 1,000 Cut Journey. The three scenes emerged from more than a year of Cogburn’s and Bailenson’s teams scripting and testing different narratives. Cogburn’s team focused on authenticity, keeping the narratives empirically grounded; Bailenson’s team made sure they were meaningfully using immersive experiences. The program’s name, a reference to the phrase “death by 1,000 cuts,” suggests that the incidents in the journey are emblematic of hundreds of others like them throughout life that cumulatively lead to the psychological and physical harm caused by systemic racism.
The 1,000 Cut Journey made its official debut in 2018 at the Tribeca Film Festival, and since then Cogburn has used it to give anti-racism trainings at law firms, medical schools, universities and technology and media companies. She, Bailenson, and other scholars have studied its effects, and while more research is needed, the data suggests that, particularly when combined with anti-racism education, the virtual reality program made people more aware of racism’s harms and more open to engaging in serious discussion about racism, Cogburn said.
Virtual reality’s power comes from its potential to let a user feel as if they are walking in someone else’s shoes, Bailenson explained. It often involves a body transfer — it literally holds up a mirror to the user who in turn sees themself as an avatar that may be another age, another shape or even another race. Among academic researchers this effect is known as “embodied perspective taking,” which not only places the user’s mind in a VR narrative but also involves the body in the experience: learning takes place both in one’s consciousness and in one’s physical being. The end effect can be for the user to feel greater empathy for the people represented by the avatar.
But the 1,000 Cut Journey goes beyond eliciting empathy to getting people to question their understanding of racism. Bailenson attributes the program’s effect to its storytelling. “What makes this piece special is that it combines body transfer with VR's unique ability to travel through time — it is an experience of racism as a system,” Bailenson said. “It's not just every once in a while. It's not just happening to a couple of people. It's throughout your life constantly.”
Until this month, the 1,000 Cut Journey could only be viewed on a system that needed a $2000 computer, a special headset and proprietary software. The University of Michigan Center for Academic Innovation spent the last two years converting the program to the Unreal Engine so that it could run on the Meta Quest 2, an all-in-one VR headset, which is much more affordable. The conversion means that 1,000 Cut Journey can potentially reach a much larger audience: the company says that nearly 20 million of their systems have been sold.
“This work is incredible, so it’s really meaningful to be able to put this out in the world,” said Jeremy Nelson, senior director of XR, media design and production at the University of Michigan Center for Academic Innovation. Nelson and colleagues had to move the program from its original software platform, which is expensive to run and no longer widely supported, to one that has less memory and processing power. “We’ve converted it to run on wireless headsets with the same fidelity as the original plus some new special features,” he said. “People will have the same experience as before.”
The developers acknowledge that the program is not particularly slick. The cost for the original program was well under $1 million. It’s not like the commercial offerings that are produced with multi-million-dollar budgets. It was meant to be abstracted, with an animated avatar, 3D animated settings and rotoscoped characters such as the other children and the police.
The ordinariness of 1,000 Cut Journey — the absence of flash and pizazz — may enable it to have a greater impact. Rather than a reproduction of reality, it is more of an evocative experience that encourages people to process internally each incident.
And that’s fitting with its ambition. “This isn’t a magic pill to end racism,” said Cogburn, explaining that the experience is intended to get people who haven’t lived the effects of pervasive, systemic racism to grasp its enormous scale. She said it is particularly targeted at people who identify as white liberals sympathetic to the idea that racism is abhorrent but not aware of its systemic nature. Ideally, she added, they would do a more extensive anti-racism program, with 1,000 Cut Journey as an important element of that training; the VR experience then helps them to understand more deeply the psychological harms and the personal effect of systemic racism and helps them to open up to conversations about how to actively oppose it.
But the program designers say that even as a standalone viewing for millions of new Meta Quest users, the experience will still be educational. It can help people get a glimmer of the emotional impact that comes from enduring racism.
That’s what I experienced when I recently did the Journey a second time, this time with the Meta Quest 2 headset. As a white person, I can’t feel the effects of racism that a Black person may feel, but the program certainly left me rattled. At the end Cogburn’s voice told me, “Concentrate on how you feel in your body right now.” She urged me to accept that the tension I felt was not just what I experienced as Michael Sterling but was perhaps a slight inkling of what many Black people are carrying across their lives.
She said: “It is our hope that you will leave here open and ready to engage with evidence of racial inequality in our society more deeply. Achieving racial equality requires that we all understand racism. I ask again, for you, what would it take?”
The Journey is a beginning.
The version of 1,000 Cut Journey that can run on the Meta Quest platform can be downloaded for free by visiting the Meta Quest Store. The 1,000 Cut Journey was made possible by support from The Brown Institute for Media Innovation.
This article was written by Jonathan Rabinovitz, communications director for Stanford Digital Education. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Photos are by Brian Beams of Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab.