Creator Of ‘1000 Cut Journey’ Uses VR To Help White Liberals Understand Racism

Creator Of ‘1000 Cut Journey’ Uses VR To Help White Liberals Understand Racism


Not many educators can share their IMDb page and clippings from the Tribeca Film Festival as a part of their accomplishments or research. Dr. Courtney Cogburn is one of those rare individuals.

An assistant professor of social work at Columbia University, Cogburn is the co-director, writer, producer and co-creator of “1000 Cut Journey”, a 12-minute immersive virtual-reality experience that highlights the social realities of racism.

Understanding racism is the essential first step in promoting effective, collective social action and achieving racial justice, according to the film’s creators. In the viewer becomes Michael Sterling, a Black man encountering racism as a young child, adolescent, and young adult.

Photo credits for the experience shots: Tobin Asher

“1000 Cut Journey” was part of the 2018 Tribeca Immersive program showcasing works by artists who are pushing boundaries and using technology to tell stories and create new experiences.

To make the movie, Cogburn teamed up with the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University and led the Cogburn Research Group at Columbia University with funding from the Brown Institute for Media Innovation to produce the project.

Cogburn’s background in racial inequality and health disparities span beyond her everyday personal experiences as a Black woman. Her education and vast research history support her extensive work in this field. She earned a bachelor’s in psychology from the University of Virginia, a master’s in social work from the University of Michigan and a Ph.D. in education and psychology with postdoctoral training at Harvard University and the University of Michigan. Cogburn created a project, “Black Face to Ferguson: A Mixed Methodological Examination of Media Racism, Media Activism, and Health.” She is a senior advisor at the International Center Advocates Against Discrimination in NYC.

FILE – In this May 3, 1963 file photo, a 17-year-old civil rights demonstrator, defying an anti-parade ordinance of Birmingham, Ala., is attacked by a police dog. On the afternoon of May 4, 1963, during a meeting at the White House with members of a political group, President Kennedy discussed this photo, which had appeared on the front page of that day’s New York Times. (AP Photo/Bill Hudson, File)


Cogburn uses her research to help others understand bias against Blacks through common racist practices. She co-created the “1000 Cut Journey,” with mental health expert Teff Nichols from the Jewish Board Child Development Center and Elise Ogle, Tobin Asher and Jeremy Balenson from the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University

“1000 Cut Journey,” helped bring the journey to life for “white liberals,” Cogburn said in a Moguldom interview.

“It is possible for one to espouse beliefs of racial justice and equality, but fail to truly understand the nature of racial inequality.” —  report from the Brown Institute For Media Innovation at Columbia University

Cogburn talked to Moguldom about the benefits of users experiencing “1000 Cut Journey,” and the future of the VR experience.

understand racism
vPhoto credits for the experience shots: Tobin Asher

Moguldom: Who was your inspiration for Michael Sterling?

Dr. Courtney Cogburn: Michael is an amalgamation of people and experiences.

Moguldom: Whom do you think should be taking the journey of Michael?

Dr. Courtney Cogburn: People who think they are not biased or those who know they are biased. White liberals are the target audience — I think there’s quite a bit of variation within that group regarding self-awareness of bias.

“Achieving racial justice requires that we understand racism—not only an understanding that emerges from intellectual exercise or even in the consumption or production of science—but rather a visceral understanding that connects to spirit and body as much as reason.” — Creator’s statement, Brown Institute For Media Innovation

understand racism
Photo credits for the experience shots: Tobin Asher

Moguldom: What has the feedback been from white users?

Dr. Courtney Cogburn: It has been mixed. Mostly, it seems that white people who go through the experience are moved. Tears are not uncommon. They seem to connect more deeply with something they know and understand conceptually but have never felt in quite the way that happens in the VR experience. Others have had more subdued reactions — not as verbal. I have interpreted this as everything from indifference to some people feeling a little overwhelmed and at an immediate loss for words. This assessment is anecdotal — we’ll know more about these patterns based on the empirical evidence once our study begins later in August.

Moguldom: Have you personally followed back up with users to see if they have carried any of the lessons learned from the Journey with them?

Dr. Courtney Cogburn: No, I haven’t had time for any follow-up. There have been a few instances, however, when users have followed up with me or someone else on our team — stating that they are still thinking about the experience and that it has “stuck” with them. This is a promising response.

understand racism
Photo credits for the experience shots: Tobin Asher

Moguldom: Where do you see this being implemented in the future for mass use?

Dr. Courtney Cogburn: “Mass” use is a challenge currently given the expense of running a VR experience of this sort. We are, however, in conversation with several organizations (private, university, nonprofits) regarding the possibility of piloting the VR experience in conjunction with their existing racial equity initiatives — most likely targeting leadership within those organizations and tracking a variety of metrics.