- Virtually and Actually Black:On VR and Racial Empathy
It must be said: VR researchers and developers are giddy with simulation and will attempt to emulate the experience of virtually anything. Virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier discovered early on that humans are prodigiously adaptable to virtual bodies: "homuncular flexibility" means that people may come to identify with and control simulated bodies ("avatars") that are radically other, "becoming" lobsters and [End Page 303] the like, and achieving several degrees of freedom from their own actual human bodies.1 While such bleeding-edge research is remarkable, far more common is the use of VR in an attempt to engender novel human emotional experiences in other people—that is, VR routinely endeavors to generate empathy.2 VR-induced empathy is produced by machines and designed to be predictable, reiterable, largely uniform, and consistently successful. As such, it is both mechanized and automated.3 Current VR empathy generators purport to educe the experiences of immigrants, refugees, assault victims, persons with disabilities, the elderly, the homeless, addicts, the terminally ill, and so on.4 Along these altruistic lines, racial empathy generators employ VR to create immersive replications of "Blackness" as an experiential category. Such racial simulators purport to increase empathy among those of "differing races" and are designed to reduce anti-Black racism upon completion of user immersion.5 How exactly might this work, and at what cost?
VR is founded upon the manipulation of the senses, with the stimuli of the "real world" replaced by digitally coded stimuli from the virtual world. The general aim of a VR experience, then, is to cause users temporarily to forget (or ignore) the everyday settings in which they are situated—a home, lab, or arcade; their own body—and instead to feel immersed and present in a digitized reality, whatever or whomever that reality may imply. Thus, the first question one must ask of antiracist empathy generators is, "What sensory experiences accompany racism?" We must know if emotional, subjective experiences of racial discrimination and anti-Black hate correspond to precise and identifiable sensory modalities. To what degree can intrapsychic pain and subjective trauma be sensed, and, more pointedly, what does it take to digitally recreate those sensations in ways that elicit empathy, if such a thing is even possible? Somewhat more unwieldy is the question of what sensory experiences accompany Blackness itself. Precisely what sensory impressions must be modeled or simulated in order for Blackness to exist virtually? What sensory experiences will the user have that indicate Blackness? Is Blackness merely the visual experience of skin color (epidermality)? Must there be particular facial features or hair textures? Are there required vocal timbres and dialect? Such questions divulge the assiduous utopianism of VR: if a thing like Blackness is exceedingly diverse, then VR's answer would be to craft more diverse simulations.6 If, on the other hand, VR's answer is that there are normative sensorial qualities of "Blackness" that must be simulated, then VR risks reinscribing the same sensory experiences, yoked to ideology, that construct race historically.7
Mark B. N. Hansen argues that "the conceptualization of the virtual body is a directly political issue, one that will determine not only the image but also the degree of agency our culture is willing to accord the body."8 This lays bare a fundamental tension with the VR simulation of Blackness: the virtual is not the actual, but our reality is already comprised [End Page 304] of both.9 In other words, although Blackness must not (but continues to) be exoticized, there nevertheless emerges an attempt to ask and answer the question—What is it like to be Black?—using contemporary digital tools. This may elicit empathy, but it also tempts the fungibility and fetishization of Blackness and the Black body. Simply put, an allegedly immersive experience of Blackness can be tried on and taken off at will; things are hardly so simple outside of VR.
There is a political and ethical imperative not to reduce Blackness to a wearable, detachable commodity. The therapeutic, VR-induced stimulation of racial empathy is of course a noble pursuit, and empirical data exist that seem...