There’s no denying that the world runs on implicit bias. When we interact with others, we tend to mentally categorize them into stereotypes that shape our perceptions. The “boxes” that we put each other in may not be rational, but they exist nonetheless.
Racism works in a similar way. In our minds, certain physical characteristics such as the color of a person’s skin become associated with racial stereotypes, and we thus expect the person to behave “in accordance with his or her race.” This, in turn, influences how we feel about a person and how we end up treating them. Unfortunately, some of these biases are unavoidable.
In the era we live in, racial tensions are at an all-time high. In fact, it’s almost as if the world is about to implode from conflicts arising due to racial unrest. Racial bias has adversely affected members of marginalized communities, many of whom do not receive adequate opportunities to succeed socially and economically.
While the members of these communities are increasingly resentful of the unfair treatment meted out to them, those of privileged races are unable to fully comprehend the root of their peers’ agony. Given the disconnect between those who are suppressed by racial bias and those who benefit from it, what can we do to mitigate institutional racism?
A virtual body-swap. Though it sounds fantastical and Freaky Friday-esque, it is, in fact, quite simple.
Two professors, Manos Tsakiris and Mel Slater, experts in the field of psychology, have performed body-swapping experiments with the aim of boosting their subjects’ empathy towards members of different races. How did they pull off these body-swaps? Using a computer system to map the faces of the test subjects (white males and females) onto faces of black males and females, as well as body-tracking motion sensors to mimic their subjects’ motions, they created a simulation that made the subjects feel like they were in control of someone else’s (the computer’s) body. The simulation was so realistic that when the scientists grazed a Q-tip across the face on the computer display, the test subject actually reported that he felt that light graze across his face!
After the simulation process was complete, the subjects were asked to retake a subtle racism test (which they had taken a few hours before the simulation) and most of them scored far lower! Though these experiments were only simulations, they managed to target the neurological root of racism. By altering how test subjects saw themselves, the experiment caused individuals to become less prejudiced towards people who bore resemblances to their simulated selves. The working principle of this device can be best summarized by Tsakiris herself: “The results show that a person’s sense of self isn’t as rigid as once believed. When our own identities are malleable, it blurs the lines between in-groups and out-groups.”
A very useful addition to this device would be to allow people to interact with each other through their digital simulations. For example, if a white male (who is simulated as a black male) steps into a simulated world with others, he might just be able to experience what racial discrimination feels like. The device would therefore not only allow the user to see himself through a different light, but also to comprehend the prejudice that people of color feel on a day-to-day basis. Under these circumstances, white men and women can learn to feel true empathy towards their black counterparts by actually experiencing the problems that they face.
It’s fascinating that a technological simulation can actually alter a person’s perception of self, casting it into an unfamiliar mold—that is, by making the unfamiliar familiar. This just goes to show that racism is actually solvable, given the dynamic nature of self-identity. If this virtual body-swapping device is to be implemented in the right way, it could have a tremendous reparatory effect. By allowing people to empathize with each other, it can begin to mend the severe social damages resulting from centuries of racist behavior. After all, you can only really get to know someone when you walk a mile in his shoes.