Rooms Full of Mirrors

Even if VR can produce empathy, that doesn’t mean it should

When I was eight, my mother took me to see the African-American a cappella ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock perform a set curated for children in the small town where we lived in Ohio. The climax of the show was an original composition called “No Mirrors in My Nana’s House.” In the song — and the accompanying children’s book — the narrator recounts a girlhood in which she didn’t see her reflection. The absence of mirrors meant she could not see that her “skin was too black,” her “nose was too flat,” or even that “her clothes didn’t fit.” Instead, she found out that “the beauty in everything was her [Nana’s] eyes.” The song presented a world where black beauty can exist only in a refuge.

As a migrant black child, I had a sense of disquiet when I saw this song performed again and again: In an animation of a children’s TV program, by Sister, Sister stars Tia and Tamera Mowry — and yet again whenever I looked in a mirror. Given my youth and the media accessible to me, I could not yet imagine another way of looking. It was hard to find instances where my lived experience was able to stand on its own, without justification or explanation. I was isolated and, for me, representation was defined in a negotiation with an other not like me. If I could abnegate my Afrocentric features and lift the financial outlook of my providers, my life could begin to resemble the life made desirable by the media. As much as it was memorable for me, “No Mirrors in My Nana’s House” also felt defeatist: It lacked imagination for a future that could be any different from what it already was.

To suppose VR is a solution to racism implies that racism is personal and not also a social pathology

Two recent virtual reality projects take up the latent messaging behind “No Mirrors in My Nana’s House” and reverse it: Rather than posit a world without mirrors to evoke a world where no one perceived race or class, these VR works confront both factors directly by placing viewers in the experience of a black person looking into a mirror.

Courtney Cogburn, an assistant professor of social work at Columbia University, leads a team developing a VR project called “1000 Cuts,” which has users embody an avatar of a black man through childhood, adolescence, midlife, and old age as he (you) experiences the way race affects how he (you) is treated — in an elementary classroom, by police as a teen, during the job interview process as an adult, and in retrospection on the sum of his lived experience in old age. As Cogburn says in her recent TEDx talk, her project asks, “Can we immerse people in a virtual experience of racism to get them to better understand the complexities of the realities of the racism?”

Another VR project, “NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism,” a three-part installation by an interdisciplinary collective of women called Hyphen-Labs, has users enter into the avatar of a black woman in a futuristic neuro-cosmetology lab as she gets “Octavia Electrodes,” speculative extensions interwoven with brain-stimulating cables for heightened focus and alertness. The futurist salon highlights the necessity and joy of a self-care practice to ready a black, femme-presenting body for the outside world.

Both “1000 Cuts” and “NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism” acclimatize viewers with opening sequences in front of mirrors reflecting a new virtual identity, highlighting one of the assumptions that drive the projects: that to wholly enter the world the people in the narratives live in, we have to fully leave ours. Both use virtual avatars to remove the participant from the infrastructure supporting their own identity, whether it aligns with the virtual one or not, to view the subject matter on its own terms to feel the multifacetedness of black life. And both underscore the underappreciated difference between observing subjugation and taking up a bodily form to purportedly experience what it’s like to live under it.

Proponents of virtual reality have touted this illusion of embodiment as somebody they are not as a means of generating empathy for the other whose body and experience viewers are consuming. The format can supposedly serve as a panacea for discrimination and bias: If folks enter the lived experience of those unlike themselves, they can come to a better understanding of others and thus act more compassionately. This is the framework that supports the mission behind VR content providers like Within, conferences like the Parsons School of Design’s VR for Change Summit, and VR consultants like Cathy Hackl. Excitement over the social ramifications of VR reaches its peak over the possibility of virtual bodies giving new insight on combatting stereotypes and prejudice. But does VR deliver on what is being asked of it?

Psychological research has long explored the link between our bodies and our sense of self. The “rubber-hand illusion” and enfacement illusions show how subjects can be made to sense a prosthetic as part of their body, or perceive another person’s face as their own. These illusions work across racial lines, and psychologists have used them to study how embodying a different race affects participants’ biases.

If the goal of VR becomes to more acutely and precisely tap into emotions in order to spur charity, charitable giving may become biased toward compelling VR rather than need

But immersive VR research has not definitively found that the more elaborate immersion in another’s experience simulated by VR also intensifies the reduction of bias. This past April, the Experimental Virtual Environments lab in Barcelona published a paper showing that while immersive VR increased mimicry behaviors when out-group race was embodied, there was no change in bias, as measured by the Implicit Association Test. While this no-change response corroborates an earlier study finding VR actually increased implicit racial bias, differences in experimental conditions make it difficult to draw definitive conclusions. The slew of research into virtual embodiment still leaves open questions into how long the effect of the embodiment lasts as well as whether or not different genders and races respond differently. But it’s telling that Manos Tsakiris, a professor at the Royal Holloway, University of London, and a leader in the field of immersive VR research, admits to Popular Science that virtual reality isn’t a solution to racism. To suppose VR is a solution to racism implies that racism is personal and not also a social pathology. And so, while VR addresses individuals, it does not fix the broader social systems of discrimination that feed and are fed by the individual feelings of animus.

Not every VR narrative asks users to inhabit the point of view of another. Some “outside looking in” pieces allow viewers to abandon corporeal form and become a floating eyewitness, whether, for example, in the living rooms of residents of the condominium complex where Trayvon Martin was shot (Emblematic’s “One Dark Night”) or a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan (Milk Studio’s “Clouds Over Sidra”). These use eye-level perspective and human-scale proportions to orient a participant close to yet voyeuristically removed from the scene taking place. They allow viewers to imagine what it would be like to be in those environments but unencumbered by a body, letting them have it both ways: They experience a new perspective without having to surrender their own.

There are lessons to be learned from keeping your own identity in the virtual world. The VR narrative chosen for this year’s Whitney Biennial, “Real Violence” by Jordan Wolfson, offers a useful example. The piece begins on a nondescript city sidewalk as two white men, one kneeling in front of the other, make intense eye-contact in the direction of the user, you, before the one standing uses first a baseball bat and then the sidewalk itself as implements to reduce the other to a bloody mess. The headset pumps the sound of the city street and the violence over a low monotonous drone of chanted Hebrew. While the message of this narrative is unclear, the feeling of powerless as the violence unfold sheds light on what complicity can look and feel like.

But works like “Clouds Over Sidra” invite something more akin to sympathy — a the feeling of pity or sorrow or distress of another — rather than empathy, the ability to identify with or understand another’s situation or feelings. Sympathy might be the point. Sympathy, like empathy, can be leveraged in an ask for time, money, or both. Indeed, “Clouds Over Sidra,” made in collaboration with the UN Millennium Campaign and UNICEF Jordan, has been screened at UNICEF face-to-face fundraisers and high-level donor meetings as a fundraising tool. The United Nations Virtual Reality Series claims that “preliminary evidence has shown that VR is twice as effective in raising funds.” Feeling greases the track to giving.

If the goal of VR becomes to more acutely and precisely tap into emotions in order to spur charity, charitable giving may become biased toward compelling VR rather than need. This echoes the argument of Yale psychologist Paul Bloom in his book Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion: “Empathy,” he argues, “is surprisingly bad at making us good. It’s a spotlight focusing on certain people in the here and now. This makes us care more about them, but it leaves us insensitive to the long-term consequences of our acts and blind as well to the suffering of those we do not or cannot empathize with. Empathy is biased, pushing us in the direction of parochialism and racism.”

VR reworks a much simpler piece of technology: the mirror. Speculative mirrors give hope to a future not bound by the conditions of the present

Moreover, the psychologist and social theorist Franz Fanon warned of the effects of what he calls “epidermalization,” or the internalization of inferiority of one race in relation to the power of the other. As actions from those in one race are driven to emulate or curry favor from another, both are more tightly bound to the system that wrought the power dynamic in the first place. This dangerous quid pro quo of feeling for giving can lead to getting more than was bargained for.

This bias toward “parochialism and racism” is magnified by the inequity of backgrounds and experiences of who makes and uses VR. The technology is still in its infancy and has yet to fully realize itself, especially in terms of access to both production and viewership. Producing these stories requires a high amount of technical skill and the hardware used to view them are still cost-prohibitive. Bridges between creators and consumers of VR reflect the already represented divisions of class, digital literacy, and race in the tech sector. The museums, film festivals, and tech conferences where these experiences are shown amplify the identities that already occupy these spaces and the kind of work that comes out of them.

So where do we go from here? While it remains to be seen exactly how VR affects our attitudes and biases toward others, it can affect how we see ourselves, as Wolfson’s “Real Violence” shows. The boundary between our sense of responsibility outside and inside the virtual realm is surprisingly porous. It is an artifact that is explained not just by VR’S technical advances but by the reworking of a much simpler piece of technology: the mirror. As a conduit into an imagining of ourselves in the context of a new history, speculative mirrors give hope to a future not bound by the conditions of the present. The sadness of “No Mirrors in My Nana’s House” is that it’s a Stockholm Syndrome children’s story, where children are the captives and they are being held for life.

This reminds me of a riddle: How do you escape a windowless room with only a table and a mirror? The answer: Look into the mirror, see what you saw, take the saw, and cut the table in half. Two halves make a (w)hole and climb out.

As a bystander watching a VR experience, looking onto the mess of cables, headsets, and whirring computers, it’s hard to tell if the participants are becoming closer to understanding other people or machines. If anything, rather than tap a well of compassion, the experience creates half-human, half-machine cyborgs. We can thereby situate VR in a philosophical tradition of future-building as opposed to the commodification of feeling: Those with the most to gain from VR are those for whom the present world is not enough, if only for the reason that present world only works for a few. As Donna Haraway argued in the Cyborg Manifesto, a cyborg is a condensed image of both imagination and material reality, the two joined centers structuring any possibility of historical transformation.” While, as Audre Lorde said, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” a cyborgian view of VR lets it become a way to construct a speculative world vision, past and present, for what we want the future to be.

W. Sebastian Kamau is a biologist and writer and is on the editorial staff at CLOT Magazine. His work covers technology, race, and bioart. He is based in Seattle.