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  • Writer's pictureIris Chen

Between the Virtual World and Me

On the corporeal experience of racism and the pedagogical possibilities of VR.

By Iris Chen

Within the world of virtual reality, it takes all of three minutes to become Michael Sterling. Look down and see that you now wear jeans and a knitted turquoise sweater. Raise your hands and look in the mirror across the room. You now inhabit the body of a Black man.

Michael Sterling is the protagonist of 1,000 Cut Journey, the brainchild of Dr. Courtney D. Cogburn, an Associate Professor of Social Work at Columbia. In the visceral 12-minute virtual reality film, which first premiered at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival, users experience three pivotal moments of racism in Sterling’s life. First, playing with blocks in elementary school, the teacher implies that you are aggressive and will hurt the other children. Later, as a teenager, you wear the same outfit as a wanted Black man. The police stop you, forcing you to kneel with your hands up. Finally, when you are 30, you walk into a job interview and the hiring manager walks to the white candidate, asking him if he is the interviewee from Yale. He is not—you are.

Most non-Black people are likely familiar with these circumstances as a spectator rather than as a victim. They might feel bad. Yet as Cogburn emphasized, feelings without action rarely bring about justice. Much of modern racial discourse is subject to her criticism: It tends to minimize the schema of insults, violence, and discrimination with calls for solutions like ‘racial justice’ that are amenable to intellectual discussion but fail to prove their relevance in the situations that 1,000 Cut depicts.

The juncture between conceptual and corporeal experiences of racism is one of the linchpins of modern racial scholarship. In Between the World and Me, writer and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates articulates racism as the “visceral experience” of violence unleashed upon the body, one that spectators are incapable of understanding.

Virtual reality has the potential to reconcile the conceptual and corporeal. Over the past two years of Zoom teaching, various VR projects have begun to redefine Columbia’s milieu. Parixit Davé, the director of Columbia University Information Technology’s Emerging Technologies Consortium, collaborates directly with professors. Last year he worked with Dr. Brent Stockwell, a professor of biochemistry, to create a teaching space in VR. “It forces you to be present,” Davé noted from his half of our Zoom call. Walk away from the device or check another browser and Stockwell would be able to see.

In other instances, dental students can learn to inject novocaine in a virtual world with haptic feedback tools that build muscle memory; surgeons can overlay a VR-facilitated CT scan over the body before cutting open real patients. There are pedagogical possibilities for children as well: Davé’s seven-year-old daughter who wanted nothing to do with the solar system has become “hooked” to a space VR program—in part because it lets her throw objects on different planets and in part because she can customize her avatar. “It’s a reflection of who she wants,” he said.

Our Stories Were Our Lives

David Kalinoski’s orange hoodie is the first thing I see when he logs onto our Zoom call. It is only later in our conversation that I become aware of its significance.

Illustration by Rosaline Qi

Kalinoski, Cogburn’s former Master of Social Work student, explained that “My mom would forbid me from wearing a durag. I would rarely go out of the house with a hoodie, not because I didn’t have hoodies, but my mom was just like, ‘You cannot be having hoodies as your daily wear.’”

Kalinoski’s relationship with his mother recalls Cogburn’s TED Talk, during which she discusses the days after the death of Trayvon Martin. Many of her pregnant Black friends felt anxious about bringing their children into the world. She, too, has a young Black son, and wonders when strangers will stop “oohing and ahhing” and begin to perceive him as a threat.

During the research process, the team often sat down over dinner to share their experiences, mapping them onto a storyboard to create a blueprint for Michael Sterling’s life. Kalinoski worked on 1,000 Cut Journey as a research assistant from the fall of 2016 into the spring of 2017. “Our stories were our lives,” he said.

When he was a college student in Philadelphia, Kalinoski was accosted by police officers for “walking down the street, basically.” In the moments that followed, he was slammed against the hood of a car and forced to the ground. “There are folks within this last decade, and just historically who are Black, that do not make it out alive,” Kalinoski said, matter-of-factly. He considers himself lucky. Despite putting his hands in his pockets—a “mistake,” he added—the police officers did not do more than command him to stop moving.

Dominic Cathey, a 2017 graduate of the School of Social Work, also worked on 1,000 Cut Journey as a research assistant. He described a similar experience in which five police officers entered his home, assuming he was a suspect they were pursuing, and put him in handcuffs. “To be in that moment and not feel heard and not feel seen, similar to what Michael Sterling experienced, was traumatizing to remember.” Like Cathey’s Black friends and family, Michael Sterling also knows the familiar retinue of life-preserving habits that Black parents teach their kids: to keep your hands in visible places if stopped by the police, to avoid driving in dim spaces or wearing certain items of clothing in public. For that, he feels real.

Cathey remembers growing up and facing different treatment as one of the few Black people in all-white classrooms where “there was this hypervigilant observation of Black bodies.” In a more recent experience, he described how he applied for a job with other classmates but was denied despite his similar, if not superior, qualifications.

Anecdotal experiences like Kalinoski’s and Cathey’s are subjective, but they are supported by empirical evidence. In New York, for example, 48% of arrests from 2006 to 2019 were of Black people, who make up only 24% of the population. Such data contextualizes Kalinoski as just one of countless Black individuals brutalized in a similar manner by the police. Likewise, Cathey’s hiring experience is common among Black men—for instance, Black men with criminal records are hired statistically less often than white men with similar backgrounds.

In creating 1,000 Cut Journey, the team understood that experiences similar to their own exist across the Black community. While attempting to define the Black experience in three instances may seem reductive, America’s racial caste system subjects Black men to a sheath of comparable threats. As Cathey explained, these are experiences that Black people have across their isolated, individual spheres.

In such tense situations, Kalinoski described how “you’re just your pulse, you’re just your bodily reactions.” He continued, “There’s so many expectations of what to do in that moment. You’re not thinking clearly of anything. You’re just trying to survive.”

Oftentimes, violence against Black Americans is justified by the flimsy defense that perpetrators feel ‘threatened.’ However, without having experienced police brutality themselves, such individuals fail to understand that these behaviors are defensive responses to external threats: instinctive and uncontrollable. 1,000 Cut Journey fills this experiential gap. Preliminary evidence shows that physical reactions in a virtual world parallel those of our world; heart rates speed up, hands become sweaty and sometimes limbic systems go into “overdrive.” While one’s mind may know that the virtual world is not real, the body is almost certainly fooled.

Scholarship shows that visualization aids performance and informs behavior. And indeed, virtual reality experiments that focus on color blindness and age gaps show that users who inhabit color-blind avatars become twice as likely to go on to help color-blind people. In Experience on Demand, Stanford psychology professor Jeremy Bailenson describes another virtual reality program that stimulates tree-cutting; afterwards, subjects used 20% fewer napkins to clean up a spill. 1,000 Cut Journey endeavors to prompt similar behavioral changes within the domain of race relations, allowing bystanders to experience racism on a physiological level.

Creating the Journey

Cogburn had a working relationship with Bailenson, founding director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, before virtual reality’s involvement in the project. After securing a Magic Grant from Columbia University’s Brown Institute for Media Innovation, she reached out to him.

Over the next several months, the team flew back and forth between their lab at Columbia and Bailenson’s lab at Stanford where they tried out different VR programs. In one, the team went through an obstacle course. In another, they endured an earthquake. “That really gave me a foundation for what was possible, for somebody else to put on the headset and experience Michael Sterling at the time,” Cathey noted.

When the project first premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2018, most of those who experienced 1,000 Cut Journey were white liberals, Cogburn’s target demographic. In talks on the project, she often emphasizes the difference between not being racist and actively being anti-racist. The boundary between these two states is most apparent among white liberal audiences who wash their hands of racism but benefit from its infrastructure. At Tribeca, Kalinoski watched users try the experience. Some cried; others emerged with blank stares. Kalinoski admitted that it was always interesting to be faced with “white tears.” He was unsure if he should “coddle” them or “just let that ride out.” As a researcher, he had a responsibility to maintain his neutrality, but even so, he could not “remove” his skin and was aware that just by being there, he could influence the way users answered his questions.

“I'm more or less elected to let it ride out, let that sink,” Kalinoski said. “If I can experience this at any given moment, at any point of my life, then as part of the social agreement to doing this experiment is, you sit with that and you process and do the work.” Indeed, it often falls upon oppressed individuals to comfort dominant groups when they encounter injustices that upset their curated state of stability. But ultimately, the project of behavioral change must be self-instigated. It must persist continuously through not just isolated pockets of self-awareness but persistent, behavioral change. As Cogburn, Kalinoski, and Cathey all make clear, 1,000 Cut Journey can be a vital instigator for change but it takes a “willingness to still go ahead” after having uncomfortable moments to make such change enduring.

VR at Columbia and Beyond

Considering Columbia’s commitment to classical ideals and aesthetics, the metaverse perches rather awkwardly atop the shoulders of Virgil and Milton. On campus and beyond, serious conversations about virtual worlds are rarely entertained for long before heads begin to shake and obvious criticisms unfold. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that few of us know what to make of this new frontier. And if history is any indication, VR’s logistical developments will outpace the public’s ability to discuss them cogently.

It is comforting to find people like Cogburn, Cathey, Kalinoski, and other like-minded researchers and educators constructing the virtual world. Currently, VR’s power structure is monopolized by gaming corporations that have the resources and capital to invest in networks large enough to accommodate communities of new users. There are few fresh eyes in such a consolidated industry. Cathey recalls the limited array of hairstyles, clothing, and even skin tones that the 1,000 Cut Journey team was able to choose from. Because they had limited familiarity with VR, Cogburn’s cohort was better equipped to identify these shortcomings.

It becomes even more important to include interdisciplinary perspectives like Cogburn’s when considering that developers have potentially unrestricted possibilities for creation with little oversight. VR world-building no longer becomes an arena for creative freedom but a moral cesspool where developers possess dominion over users’ psychological development. Consider then what it means to create an avatar, perceived as an autonomous actor who willingly enters their position of deference. Without the presence of social workers, psychologists, philosophers, doctors, and other professionals devoted to the healthy, equitable, moral development of human societies in spaces of virtual-world creation, one cannot help but be concerned about the future of human connection.

The current virtual–real-world binary that defines VR discourse implies that people are either in the metaverse or out of it—that the metaverse will bifurcate the world. However, proponents of this view forget that privilege in the real world buoys one’s entrance into a virtual one. And once one enters the virtual world, real-world crises persist. Perhaps conceiving of virtual worlds as an appendage to real ones will allow for a better understanding of the possible merits and harms of the medium.

It has been four years since 1,000 Cut Journey premiered. Now, Cathey works as the senior director of student management of Excellence Community Schools, a charter school network in the Bronx. 1,000 Cut Journey brought Cathey into the virtual world; in his new academic space, he prioritizes computer science education—something he sees as equally important as the arts and traditional curricula. As an educator, he admires Cogburn’s teaching style. While Cogburn was the one who facilitated their research conversations, she was able to create a space where “our voices got to be the experts in the room.” Cathey tries to replicate this environment when working with his students—to see them as “knowledge keepers” and “knowledge developers.” As VR usage increases, he is optimistic that some of his students will be sitting at the table.

If 1,000 Cut Journey proves anything, it is that some structural issues in the real world have too many burrs for real-world solutions alone to meaningfully resolve. Virtual spaces offer creative, experiential solutions that can fit between the spikes. Speaking to Cogburn’s democratic, pragmatic approach to the project’s creation, Cathey explained that “when you relinquish control of the outcome, something magical gets to happen.” VR programs like 1,000 Cut Journey propose the benefit of doing just this—setting aside biases against virtual worlds, long enough to be able to entertain their other face.


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