NOTE: The following has been edited for length and clarity.
Larry: Hey, Courtney, how’s it going?
Courtney: Hi, Larry. How are you?
Larry: Good. Well, for the audience, you’re Courtney Cogburn, Dr. Courtney Cogburn, Associate Professor at the Columbia University School of Social Work and faculty at the Columbia Population Research Center and Data Science Institute, and you co chair the Computational Social Science Working Group.
Very impressive credentials. I also know you work a lot on social and racial justice and have done some really interesting things in VR, virtual reality. I’d like to start by talking about your VR experience you helped create called A Thousand Cut Journey.
Courtney: Yes, you know, it was an interesting undertaking because when I wrote the proposal for this project I’d never used VR. I barely understood what it was. I’d never worn a headset, but I was motivated by this sense that the data we were producing on the empirical side of things related to health and equity and other issues related to racism just weren’t doing the job I hoped it would do in terms of motivating people to change and really understanding the nuances and complexities of racism.
And so I thought, maybe people need to walk in the experience. Maybe they need to have a more personal connection that’s less intellectual, for instance. So VR presented an opportunity to do that. So we reached out to Jeremy Bailenson at Stanford at the Virtual Human Interaction Lab and just cold called and asked if he’d be interested in working together on a project that tackled issues related to racism.
He was on board and our teams came together and decided to try and produce something that would capture you know, essence, the essence of structural racism. So the ways in which racism shows up in patterns across systems across the life course. So we created a virtual reality experience that puts you into the shoes of a black male experiencing racism from that character’s perspective as a child adolescent and as an adult and really trying to convey that experiences with racism are varied. Some are micro, some are macro. Starts at the beginning of life, carries across a life course and occurs in different contexts over time.
Larry: And you know, I, I think I was part of your target audience and in fact was in the audience.
I went to the Stanford Center and had an opportunity to see the video. But, you know, I’m old enough to remember a book that came out in the sixties called Black Like Me, which was designed to teach white people what it means, what it’s like to be in the, in the body of a black person. The Green Book came out a couple of years ago, a really, a fantastic film in my opinion, which gave me a sense of what it might’ve been like to be traveling through the South if you were a black person, yet at the same time, it would, I would be lying to you if I, as a white male, even gave you even the slightest impression that I fully understood the black experience, even after being, watching your video. I mean, these are all useful tools to help me better understand what other people’s experiences are like, but that’s a lot different than living them.
So I guess what I’m asking about, even with the power of VR, and I guess I’d like you to talk a little bit on why you think VR might be a more powerful media than a book or a lecture or a movie? But even with the power of VR, I mean, how far can we really take this? And what else do we need to do? So people truly, I don’t know what the word is, understand.
I, you and I had an argument over what, whether empathy is even within the cards. We, we, just for the audience, we met at a meta event a few weeks ago. I had a wonderful series of conversations, including a bit of a disagreement over what it means for a white person to be empathetic. And so I’m just thinking about all this in the context of, okay, you produced this VR experience.
What were your expectations? What’s the reality and, and what are the limitations?
Courtney: Yeah, I think, you know, one way to think about, and that this is related to the conversation that we had to think about why might virtual reality be powerful is to take a step back and reframe what I feel like we did in our virtual reality experience, which is not to show you the Black experience.
And if I were to show you a Black experience, I might show you a host of many, many other things that are not racism. What we’re attempting to do is to show you racism from the perspective of a black person, which is different, right? So you’re not really being asked to focus or analyze blackness or even how a black person may be feeling.
It’s really centering on you, the user, to think about how you’re feeling as you see racism from this perspective, which is really different. And in that regard, I think virtual reality is potentially really powerful. I think a key part of racism and talking about racism, and I think this comes up in our conversations about diversity, equity, and inclusion as well, is that we often center our analysis and focus on the oppressed group, the underrepresented group.
And we don’t often enough turn our focus to whiteness or the source of domination or over representation. And so I think in this experience and in centering a white liberal audience in particular as our target for the experience we created, the goal was to get that group to see racism differently, not to analyze or consume blackness in any way.
And I think there’s a lot of potential there. I think there’s lots of possibilities there. And so related to our conversation about empathy, one of the points I was making was for us, for me and, and Jeremy may feel differently actually empathy wasn’t the goal. Empathy was not what I was aiming for.
I was aiming for white users in particular to have a different relationship to racism, to see themselves in it, as a part of it, and not as something that’s only happening to other people that they are somehow completely removed from using the perspective of a black male, which is really different than empathy.
Larry: But, just to push back a little bit, I mean, can a media experience, no matter what the media is, truly impart the terror that somebody must be going through when they’re walking down the street minding their own business and they’re being harassed and perhaps potentially threatened by a police officer, for example, or a group of racists or whatever it is that they’re dealing with.
I mean, can it even begin to express that? I mean, I’m not saying it didn’t have an impact on me. It did. But I guess maybe I’d almost be flattering myself if I, if I suggested that I walked away from that video with a true understanding of what it’s like to.
Courtney: And I think that’s, that’s partly why I don’t think empathy is fully possible, right?
The stakes are not nearly high enough for you to understand the terror of feeling unsafe simply because of the body you’re in, walking down the street and at the whim of whatever person you happen to come across on the street or a cashier or whoever it is. If they decide to react to you in a particular way, you’re in your entire day, your life could take a turn based on their whim.
There’s no way to really convey the terror of, of that. And I think in fact, that’s, that’s partly why that’s not the goal for me and that’s not exactly what empathy is. But even to think about empathy in terms of if you think you could possibly understand what that feels like from the perspective of someone else, I’m just not sure it’s possible and I’m not sure it’s the goal and I’m not sure how useful it is.
If the long term goal is behavior change, because ultimately my goal is not necessarily for you to care more about me. My goal for this particular experience was for white people in particular to see themselves as a part of the systems that are creating this oppression. And there’s many, many different ways you could have gone about that.
We chose this, this particular path, but that’s very different than you understanding the terror. So the way I would describe it is structural competence, what some people call structural competence. Racial consciousness is another phrase that people use to say, do you understand how race and racism are functioning in our society?
And then the question is, do you need to feel the terror in order to see that and appreciate that and understand that you really need to have deep empathy in order to give an analysis of how our society is functioning? So I’m not saying empathy is irrelevant. I’m not saying it’s not something we should think about.
I’m saying there are other things that we may also make as our targets for using VR that it would potentially be helpful in, in helping us achieve different types of goals.
So the question, the outstanding question is and is related to our debate around empathy. Do you need to understand what it feels like in order to understand its implications in your own relationship to it? And so I’m not sure. I think VR could be effective at you walking into a bar and getting hit on or being verbally accosted by a male or feeling threatened. But ultimately the stakes are never high enough for you to really attach to empathy, I think.
Larry: Yeah, but it doesn’t, it doesn’t relieve me of the responsibility, A, not to perpetuate that kind of oppression on other people personally, or not to stand up when fellow men or fellow white people or politicians that I help elect are engaged in those activities.
Courtney: When you think about differences and in relative social domination, right? So women, women’s survival has depended on understanding men has depended on being able to read them.
Understand when they’re in danger, react accordingly, try to de-escalate, etc. Men have not had to do that to women. Black people have had to understand white people and whiteness and threats of whiteness. I have to read rooms and spaces that I’m in. People who are gay have to read and assess threats in space, which means they are analyzing and scanning space in other people more frequently because of their positionality.
So if you occupied multiple forms of social, socially dominant positions, your survival has not depended on understanding and seeing other people. Your survival hasn’t depended on that. It hasn’t, the stakes weren’t high enough for you to have to do that. You may have done it, but your survival hasn’t depended on it.
So we have different jobs right? So we don’t all have to think about “I need to see other people as being the same as me”. People who have certain levels of oppression, I think, are more likely to see their connection with other people than people who have occupied dominant positions historically. It’s harder.
It’s not as necessary for you to have to do that. So it may take an extra step for you to see how you’re connected to people who are experiencing oppression.
Larry: I’ll give you an example. Even when I posted on Facebook, I had happened to go to a dinner with some Israelis and I was feeling particularly upset about what happened because I heard very close personal stories of people whose lives were horrendously impacted directly by the October 7th attack.
And I said something to the extent that, yeah, I don’t like Netanyahu and I’m critical of Israel and this and that. But what happened was horrible and I heard from a lot of people, most of them agreed with me, but a couple of my Muslim friends pushed back and, and on one hand I was kind of disturbed by that.
These are people I really care about, people I know well and love. Very, very close to, and we’ve never had an argument about anything. We always tend to agree with things, but they push back. And as hard as that was, it was also kind of important for me to have to confront the fact that somebody had a very different perspective on things.
I mean, is that a good thing? Is that? Are we moving? Are we growing? Are we, is there a potential here as a result of that type of experience that any of us could have?
Courtney: Of course, and I think, you know, and I think it’s, it’s an important example of how VR is never going to be that, I don’t think, right?
It’s not going to replace having an established relationship with someone who you care about. Disagreeing with you, or being in conversation with them over dinner, but the effects of that might be something that we could try to replicate, right? That’s what makes you, what are the characteristics of a conversation or a relationship that makes you want to stay in a difficult conversation or continue listening to someone with whom you disagree?
I think you can take elements of that and try to translate it into things like virtual reality to maybe speed up the degree to which people are willing to engage in difficult conversations or consider perspectives that are different than their own. And I think as I keep referencing, considering their own positionality and how that can create blinders for them and their own experience.
And when they’re listening to someone who is sort of sitting heavily in an oppression, a systemic oppression, not a, not a particular moment of violence, but in systemic oppression, and they’re sharing something different than what you’re seeing and we’re all in those positions.
They switch in turn, right, depending on and switch in turn more for others some more for some than others. But when that’s happening, how might we translate that? Because I think it’s quite powerful. The expectation is not that we agree or that we perfectly align on how we see the world, but can we take in and consider a broader range of perspectives?
Can we continue and stay in difficult conversations and can we acknowledge that depending on our positionality there just may be things about the world that we do not see and understand in the way that other people do. There are aspects of the world that you just acknowledge that as a man you will not see and understand that women experience. So when a woman is telling you something, right, if our, our experiences don’t carry equal weight when we’re describing a situation, when I’m saying as a woman, this is my experience. And then you as a man say, but as a man, I don’t see it, you’re in the position in that case where you’re not in a position to see it.
It’s not your experience. So there’s an opportunity to listen and learn from the person who’s steeped in the oppression that we’re talking about. And I think that’s just as important as suggesting that we all have an equal voice and how do we listen to each other and learn from each other’s perspectives.
Larry: Does this translate to other divides? So, for example, our country is almost equally divided between people who might vote for Donald Trump and people who might vote for Joe Biden. And, you know, politics aside, there’s some very different value systems associated with those decisions as to who you vote for.
Yeah, and I have a tough, okay, I’ll be very honest. I have a tough time. I live in California, you live in New York. I don’t meet many Trump supporters. I know there are some listening and maybe I’d love to hear from you. The divide between me and them is probably as big as that my divide with anyone. I mean, I, I just don’t understand.
I, truly have trouble and I, and I’ve read all the books and heard all the interviews, et cetera, but we are not talking to each other. We can have a friendly conversation with someone, and I have. There is really, how can I say it? I mean, it’s night and day. They’re seeing the world. They’re seeing threats that I don’t see.
I’m seeing opportunities that they don’t see. How do we begin to reunite as a country?
Courtney: You know, I don’t know. And I feel like there’s like, so your, you know, sort of core question there was about this, does this translate across other issues? And I think there’s, there’s a certain kind of broad strokes assessment of this that yes, there’s, there are difficult conversations.
There are times when we agree and there are times that we don’t. How do we have conversations when we don’t agree? How do we have conversations when we don’t agree and the stakes are really high, right? I think you could categorize, right, some of those things, but I think it’s also important that it is different in some of the characteristics and nuances of these kinds of divides, different kinds of divides are really different.
It may require different kinds of solutions. So the one that you’re pointing out right in the United States, the divide along political lines. And I can’t even say party now because it’s not just Democrat or Republican. It’s not a matter of, oh I just need to walk in the shoes of you know, a Trump supporter and see how they feel and understand the world.
I think it’s just way more complicated than that. I think there are differences there, there’s a difference between ideology and there’s a difference between identity in our, and there’s a difference between social conditions and circumstance. And then there’s the difference between the ways I’m attaching my beliefs to myself.
And I think when you’re talking about Trump supporters in particular, there seems to be this intertwining of belief and identity in a way that really changes what I think might be reasonable solutions to, to bridging that divide.
Larry: You know, as educated coastal quote elites, you and I, they perceive you and I as they’re oppressed.
Some of them think that you’re their oppressor, that I’m their oppressor or representative of their oppressor because we have, you know, graduate degrees and I live in major urban centers, so I mean, how do you, how do you deal with that?
Courtney: And to be clear, right, and I think there’s ways in which coastal elites people in the North versus the, in say white people in particular in the North versus those in the South, they fancy themselves significantly different than these other people. And there, there are others who would say, you’re not that different. You’re not that different in terms of your positionality in the world. And they would lump you all together as a group and so there’s ways in which there are divides between you and other people that may feel just as big as the divides you see between yourself and, say, Trump supporters.
And that’s that positionality piece that I think can be difficult to step out of and step back and try to see our relationship to different groups of people.
Larry: No, this is a, this is a really hard conversation. And I mean, and again, it’s one of the reasons I invited you on the podcast is because as I remember over coffee, we did have, I wouldn’t say a disagreement, but a different perspective on the conversation with her on empathy, but it could be around a lot of things.
And I guess, you know, there’s nothing new about this. I mean, I was around during the civil rights movement and remember very distinctly some of the conversations. I happen to live in California. I didn’t live in the South, but some of the conversations that happened around just things that we kind of don’t even talk about anymore.
Desegregation. I mean, some people talk about them, but even going back then and how was in my case as a young white teenager to get my head around. Just the fact that there needed to be substantial change, you know, just, just getting my head around that was difficult. And, uh, and I guess what I’m, what I’m asking is, is there cause for hope?
Can technology, that’s one difference between now and the sixties is we have the internet, we have social media, we have virtual reality, we have artificial intelligence, we have mass communications, we can make free video calls anywhere in the world. Is any of that going to help?
Courtney: I think so. I think there’s lots of, lots of potential.
And I think, especially if we expand and diversify the people who are designing what we do with these technologies and designing the technology itself. I like this quote from Ruha Benjamin, a professor at Princeton, where she says that most of us are forced to live in other people’s imaginations.
So what these technologies are, how VR has been used and imagined, is coming from a very small slice of people’s imaginations. A small slice of how people are thinking about how these technologies can be used and how they should function in our lives. And so I think there’s a lot of possibility that we have not tapped into, but that will require a broader swath of the public engaging and thinking about and imagining how we use these technologies.
And I think with VR in particular, and this goes back to the empathy point, the focus on empathy point, puts your focus on the person experiencing the thing that you’re that you’re observing. And what I’m saying is that people in socially dominant positions need to see and observe themselves and think about themselves just as much as they’re observing the atrocity over there bserving oppression. And there’s this tendency, and it’s why I focused on white liberals in particular, because ideologically there’s this tendency to remove yourself and treat yourself as if you’re a neutral observer of the bad thing happening. And you’re much less likely to consider yourself as a part of the bad thing that’s happening.
So VR and empathy emphasizes you consuming and understanding my experience as opposed to understanding yourself. That’s not empathy. That’s focusing on yourself. So I would argue that’s certainly equally as important. I would argue probably more important than you trying to understand how I feel because I am not the only person experiencing racism.
We’re all experiencing racism. I don’t own racism. It is not mine. It does not belong to me. It belongs to us. And so the more that we see ourselves connected to it the better. And so I think VR could be quite powerful in not just having someone walk in someone else’s shoes, but to think about how we’re all connected and that we’re not separate.
Larry: So you do a lot of work around the nexus of racism and mental health issues and I was wondering if you could sort of talk about what that means and the kind of work you’re doing.
Courtney: Yeah, I’ve spent most, most of my career thinking about how we conceptualize, characterize racism.
What is it? How does it show up in society? And then figuring out how to measure it. So how do we quantify it or capture it in a way that will help us understand its effects? And I focus specifically on health. So I think about different dimensions of racism as exposure to stress. And there’s, there’s different ways to conceptualize it, but.
Having to contend with racist systems, being exposed to differential treatment, consumption of media and messaging around race and value and violence, et cetera, take a toll on the mind and body over time. So a lot of my work is focused in that space.
Larry: Any thoughts in terms of how we should approach that from a, from sort of a societal standpoint?
I mean, it seems fairly obvious to me, you know, what you’re saying. I don’t mean to trivialize your observation, but, but you’re right. I mean, it’s, I can see that clearly that you put people through incredible stress. It’s going to have an impact on their health, physical and mental. But what does that mean in terms of how we as a society, we don’t seem to have a, you know, like every time there’s a mass shooting, the people who want to see more guns in the hands of more people say we need better mental health, but then they don’t do anything to increase the mental health budget. I mean, where do we go with this?
Courtney: Same thing happens with racism, right? So, instead of grappling with the realities of that well documented phenomenon, we’re pushing against saying, we can’t talk about this in classes and this shouldn’t be a part of our curriculum. So, I think, unfortunately, most people who work in this space spend way too much time trying to convince people that this is a reality and not nearly enough time informing what we should be doing about it. And there’s been ebbs and flows in that, right? So there’s certainly ways in which people are thinking about health policy and economic policy and housing and all the ways in which racism shows up and creates inequity.
I think people are thinking about the ways to combat that. But I would say A, too much of our time is spent trying to convince people that racism is real and worth talking about and worth addressing. Instead, what comes up too often, and again, I’m not talking about my networks and my bubbles.
I have to step back and think more broadly and think about that broader signal, not just the signal for my networks. The broader conversation is you’re being sensitive didn’t have anything to do with me. I didn’t own slaves. Stop complaining. You’re making my children feel uncomfortable talking about this.
Just pull yourself up and get it together. If this is a problem of your community, not one of society, right? So those are the types of messages that we come against. You can’t implement policy when people think there’s nothing to fix.
Larry: So you’re making me feel uncomfortable and I actually thank you for that.
Because a certain amount of discomfort actually helps you grow, helps you learn, helps you rethink in ways that are positive. And I was very fortunate that when I was an undergraduate at Berkeley, I had many experiences that made me extremely uncomfortable. And I think it made me a better person. I’m not saying I’m a great person, but I’m, I think I’m a better person than I would have been had I not gone through those experiences.
And I’m curious from your experience as an educator, I assume you have students, white students, black students, Asian students, Latin students. Yeah. What, what you’re learning from being around young people and what your perception of the future is. Are you optimistic? Are you pessimistic? I mean, what are you seeing from this generation that’s showing up in your classrooms?
Courtney: Yeah. And I have to give a disclaimer. I’m in a school of social work in New York City, right? The students who enter my classroom are not necessarily representative of the country, but I think I’m quite encouraged by the students I encounter. I admire their boldness.
I admire the ways in which they don’t. They respect people, but they don’t necessarily sort of fall under the pressure of authority. They see themselves as powerful and they see themselves as having a voice and they use it. And I think that’s really important. I think various generations have come up against different ways of navigating the world, right? You have generations that say, put your head down, don’t rock the boat, don’t cause any problems. Just, you know, keep your job and take care of your family. And there’s other people who say, okay, work within the system to try and fight but, but don’t burn down the building and don’t cause too much trouble, but push for incremental change.
And I feel like this generation is saying, no, they’re not accepting incremental change. They’re not necessarily engaged in polite conversation. And what I mean by that is not disrespectful conversation, but they’re okay with creating discomfort for people in the name of social justice and change. And I think that’s different than the way I was socialized, even in my generation.
And I think it’s actually quite encouraging. And I think what I would like to see is just more conversation around intergenerational collaborations and the ways in which we can work together. The other thing I’ve learned is to not rest on the laurels of what I’ve learned thus far and to remember those times when I didn’t know and didn’t understand something and I had an aha moment when someone tried to explain something to me and not sort of rest in this place of being convinced of my own understanding.
I’ve come to my own beliefs deliberately, but I also try to and was forced by my students to remain open to listen when they’re trying to explain something to me and not come to the conversation assuming that I have it all figured out.
Larry: We’re dealing with issues that are so important. And I think you’re absolutely right. They’re not just important for one group of people.
I mean, they’re important for all of us. I mean, I don’t know, it sounds almost patronizing to say it, but I honestly believe this and I, and I say this from personal experience that racism and misogyny hurts everyone. It just doesn’t hurt so called victims because it creates a climate in which we all suffer in one way or another.
And I don’t know. I think that the downside, whatever benefit I get by being a white male, and I know there are some benefits, I think there’s some downsides of living in a society where things are not only unequal, but I don’t even know how to articulate it. They’re just, it’s just doesn’t feel right.
Courtney: And people have written about this and studied this, that this is not good for anybody. It’s not good for the health of a society. It’s not good for our health collectively, both mentally and physically. I think you can see the manifestations of mental illness and pathologies that come up as a tie to whiteness in particular that have been well studied and documented.
And no, it’s not good. It’s not good for anyone.
Larry: And if you can’t think of any other reason to want to create an equal and just society, think about the fact that we’re all getting older. And we’re going to need people to take care of us. And I’m not just talking about the people who may, you know, change your bedpan.
I’m talking about the whole society in which we’re going to age in. The people who deliver our meals, the people who handle our money, the people who create our media. We need to build a society that can sustain all of us. And it’s not going to happen from any one ethnic group. It’s going to happen from Americans as we all are. Anyway with that. I want to thank you so much Courtney for taking the time It’s been a really interesting conversation
Courtney: Thanks, Larry. Thanks for sitting in the discomfort and staying in the conversation. I think I agree. It’s important.
Larry: Okay. Take care.