How VR could diminish implicit racial bias but is not an “Empathy Machine”



If you hate me simply because I identify with the black race, then you will probably always hate me.


You will not feel empathy for me or anyone that looks like me. And for people that fit into this category, that is your truth, and this truth might never change.


And for those of us who keep trying to seek their empathy need to stop.


It’s like telling a cow to meow. Hopeless!

Let them be and let them have their explicit biases and/or prejudices. No matter what you do, you can’t change their minds. Luckily, they don’t control the universe and they never did, even if their mindset at one time dominated past beliefs of many (including many who identified as black).


But people who explicitly hate people simply because of the color of their skin is in the minority. At least that is what I choose to believe.


Most of us don’t explicitly hate each other because of skin tone. That kind of thinking is too primitive for advanced minds. But we all have implicit biases that have been trained into our mental psyche. These implicit biases have become our default settings that control how we think, how we interact, and what we believe about ourselves and others.


Implicit Association Tests show that white people may assume that a phone is a gun in a black person’s hands more so than in a white person’s hands. Many black people assume that white people’s products or services are better than black people’s products or services. Neither scenario need actually be true, but it’s the underlying default biases in our minds that make reality and direct our behaviors that cause untruths, prejudices, self-loathing, and baseless assumptions about ourselves as well as others.


But we are never powerless when it comes to changing our life’s expression. From Italians being hated in America, to blacks being slaves, to Europeans being peasants controlled by a king or queen, we all have historical heritages that leave us all questioning the humanity of others that demand we learn to rise above others’ primitive believing about who we are or can be. And these past experiences of biases, prejudice, hatred and division can become learning tools for us all. They can help us collaborate and appreciate our differences more. These historical heritages can empower us all to co-create a better world that we all can enjoy a little more than before.


And one of the leading tools to help get us there is VR. VR is virtual reality.





VR is more than a game. VR can be a transformational tool that can change the world for the better, if we choose to use it that way.


VR can not only transform where you are, but who you are. Changing the body can change the mind.


Evidence of various trials shows reduction in implicit racial biases in certain circumstances. Specifically, when white people are put in black bodies using VR in positive or neutral circumstances, white people’s implicit biases toward black people decreases. This racial embodiment from white to black in positive or neutral circumstances seems to trigger empathy within the participant towards himself. And because the embodiment creates illusory body ownership, the subject becomes more empathetic to himself or herself whether embodied in a white body or a black body.


Illusory Body Ownership is defined as multi-sensory data coming into your brain that involves contradiction. And the brain reconciles this contradiction by creating an illusion that is believed (at least for a period of time).


Illusory Body Ownership was investigated by Jaron Lanier who is normally credited with popularizing the term “virtual reality.” Lanier used multi-sensory data to embody himself as a lobster. The illusion of body ownership whether part body or full body has been well established and investigated. Many of you have heard of the rubber hand illusion or the Pinocchio illusion.





Victoria Groom, Jeremy N. Bailenson and Clifford Nass in Psychology Press published the results of their study where they examined how racial representation in VR affects racial bias. They had white participants embody black bodies in a job interview scenario. What they found from the test was that “the results indicate that the experience of being embodied by an avatar in an immersive virtual environment affects users enough to change automatic tests of racism outside the virtual environment.” But their findings indicated that the change was an increase in implicit racial bias by the participants.


This study seems to indicate that when white people embody black bodies in seemingly stressful experiences, like job interviews, white people’s implicit racial bias after the experience increases. They tend not to have less empathy towards black people.





Generally, we think of empathy as a critical key to getting an enfranchised group to feel the indignities of a disenfranchised group. And VR is a method many believe can offer those experiences. The initial thinking is that if you can get people to have VR experiences of indignities while embodying the disenfranchised body, they will become more empathetic towards the disenfranchised group in real life and have less implicit racial bias. But the results of the Groom, Bailenson and Nass study challenges this thinking. Change will not occur just through empathy according to Mel Slater and VR is not the empathy machine many hoped it would be.


This same finding may very well be true for black people embodying the black body and experiencing disheartening situations like police shootings, political racial games, racial discrimination experiences etc.. Blacks have been trained to believe that being slighted is somehow an indication of our greatness coveted through hatred. So as a result, when we experience these atrocities, they align with the fate of the black personality. Therefore, for many black people, these experiences don’t reduce our own implicit racial biases against ourselves but reinforces a disempowering personality. And until we can adopt a different personality, our own implicit racial biases against ourselves could be the hidden barrier keeping us from the statistical advancement in this country we keep reaching for but can’t seem to grasp.


It's never the body that demands respect, it’s the personality that animates the body that wants respect. We all have personalities, but these personalities can want different things. The white personality is traditionally trained to believe that they are to be respected, especially in comparison to a black person. And a VR black body experience doesn’t change that underlying personality, it reinforces it. So, the results of the Groom, Bailenson and Nass study actually makes sense to me.


I am not saying that as a black person you need to change your body using VR to be white to improve your state of existence in America. No, not at all. In fact, if you did that in a VR experience, it might just reinforce your own feelings of being perpetually slighted. As a black person you just need to obtain body ownership of being black your way in 2021 and adopt a new black personality.

As a black person you can be (even should be) aware of all the past atrocities but learn to become unattached to them. See them as experiences your ancestors had, deal with the post-traumatic slave syndrome and the racial fatigue as best you can, but simultaneously develop a new black personality for yourself. In essence, you have to create (or adopt) a new black personality while taking full ownership of your black body. You have to experience a type of cognitive dissonance with the traditional personality of being black in America.


Studies have shown white people embodying black bodies in negative situations, have a type of cognitive dissonance with the negative experience, i.e. this negativity can’t be happening to my white body despite the VR black body experience. This cognitive dissonance experience by white people also results in subsequent increased implicit racial bias.


But this data isn’t disheartening to me. In fact, it’s good information for black people seeking to change the game of being black in America. Black people who begin to have a type of cognitive dissonance with the black personality of old, may find themselves rising above any skin color barricade of the body. Look at Boyce Watkins and the B1 movement. It’s as if they have taken on a new personality that says, “this negativity can’t be happening to my black body. My way of being black is like this not that.” To do this requires an adoption of a new black model of being. One that is more aligned with living in 2021 with information at your fingertips and opportunity at the whim of your willingness to bet on your own imagination.


Racial categorization has been around for centuries and whether it ever leaves us is no longer my main concern. Remember race was only a tool invented in politics and backed by science to create a labor pool. Laws and social interactive customs passed from generation to generation supported the embodiment of these racial categories. But racial categorization is an illusion as well. It’s an illusion not only in the white person’s mind, but it’s an illusion in the black person’s mind.





VR may not be the empathy machine many of us hope it can be. But it could assist in the exposure of these racial illusions that many of us have for ourselves. And if used in its m ost optimal way, VR could be used to create a more collaborative, less combative illusion of self, and self in relation to others.


As the popularity of VR increases, and more and more people begin using it and experience the power of their own imagination, then the power of embodiment will become more prevalent. Whether you use it to disrupt your own illusions about yourself and others is up to you.


ShonSpeaks is the managing member of The Fleming-Bruce Law Firm, and creator of the Free Your Thinking Mind blog. She is also a licensed brain health professional. Check out other blogs, webinars and content of ShonSpeaks at Freeyourthinkingmind - Motivational Content, Transformational Content


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