Feeling Good About Feeling Bad: Virtuous Virtual Reality and the Automation of Racial Empathy

Nakamura, Lisa
Journal of Visual Culture

Virtual reality (VR)’s newly virtuous identity as the ‘ultimate empathy machine’ arrives during an overtly xenophobic, racist, misogynist, and Islamophobic moment in the US and abroad. Its rise also overlaps with the digital industries’ attempts to defend themselves against increasingly vocal critique. VR’s new identity as an anti-racist and anti-sexist technology that engineers the right kind of feeling has emerged to counter and manage the image of the digital industries as unfeeling and rapacious. In this article, the author engages with VR titles created by white and European producers that represent the lives of black and Middle Eastern women and girls in Lebanon, Nairobi, and Paris. She argues that the invasion of personal and private space that documentary VR titles ‘for good’ create is a spurious or ‘toxic empathy’ that enables white viewers to feel that they have experienced authentic empathy for these others, and this digitally mediated compassion is problematically represented in multiple media texts as itself a form of political activism.