Five professors at the University of Arizona have launched a virtual reality project to show what it’s like to experience anti-black racism, providing yet another tool to help push academia’s social narratives.
Funded with a $50,000 grant from the state university, the researchers aim to create settings, such as department meetings and classrooms, where participants wearing virtual reality headsets can see what it’s like to be black – or at least what it’s like in the version of reality created by the authors.
For instance, real-life actors in the meeting and classroom scenes will make “snide” comments and otherwise portray a hostile attitude. The idea is to create a “visceral reaction” to a real-feeling experience, creating more empathy and understanding.
“Those are the kinds of microaggressions that typically go unaddressed,” project leader Bryan Carter, a professor of Africana studies and director of UA’s Center for Digital Humanities, told the university’s internal news outlet.
“They’re difficult to track, and we want to take people into the world of someone who experiences things like that so they can differently understand what that experience is like.”
In another type of scenario, participants will use a mobile device with geolocation software to play out an augmented interaction with a police officer in their actual location. Different responses by the participant will lead to different interactions, but in any case, the person will be treated unfairly by police. Unlike real life, there will be no interaction in which the black first person isn’t mistreated.
Carter said the program will allow participants to “step in the shoes of others” by being a first-person observer, so the “invisibility of systemic racism can be uncloaked.” He is joined in the project by four other researchers, including linguistics professor Sonja Lanehart, a practitioner of critical race theory who drew attention last September by posting a Twitter message branding evangelical Christians as white supremacists.
“White evangelical members would deny Jesus if its leaders spoke out against 45 (then-President Donald Trump) before they would admit that 45 is a white supremacist and that is the cause for which he most represents,” Lanehart tweeted. “It’s not sanctity if (sic) life. It’s not law and justice. It’s all about white supremacy.”
White evangelical members would deny Jesus if its leaders spoke out against 45 before they would admit that 45 is a white supremacist and that is the cause for which he most represents. It’s not sanctity if life. It’s not law and justice. It’s all about white supremacy.
— Dr. Sonja Lanehart, PhD (@sonjalanehart) September 30, 2020
Ironically, Lanehart posted her racially inflammatory message one day after telling a local media outlet that “words matter,” which she called her home’s “motto.”
The Arizona research team is capitalizing on the convergence of two hot themes: virtual reality and anti-racism narratives. A Columbia University professor made a similar effort on a smaller scale in 2019, creating a 12-minute virtual reality film that aimed to show viewers what it’s like to be a black teenager being mistreated by police.
Big Tech has the same kind of messaging in mind, according to undercover journalism outlet Project Veritas. Footage from an internal meeting in January showed Roy Austin, Facebook’s vice president for civil rights, questioning whether the company could use its Oculus technology to show white police officers what it’s like as a young black man to be stopped, searched, and arrested.
“I want every major decision (at Facebook) to run through a civil rights lens,” Austin said.
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