Carnegie Mellon University
June 22, 2017

"Mind Field" Aims To Raise Awareness of Subtle Racism

By Julianne Mattera

Julianne Mattera
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A student-created interactive film explores the potential for subtle racism in questions as commonplace as, "Where are you from?"

Carnegie Mellon University undergraduate and graduate students produced "Mind Field" to raise consciousness about race, stereotyping and inadvertently offensive comments that can occur even among friends.

"We think 'Mind Field' will help CMU students navigate the complexities of our diverse community and contribute to a learning environment that is inclusive and affirming for all," said Ralph Vituccio of the Entertainment Technology Center who co-taught students in the Morality Play course this spring along with Andy Norman of the Department of Philosophy.

Mind Field features everyday scenarios, such as students working on a group project or prepping for an interview. The viewer engages in these short vignettes as the third or fourth person in the scene, participating in the conversation by selecting word bubbles with responses at the bottom of the screen. Following each vignette, the character who has been slighted by a classmate or friend speaks in a monologue about how the situation impacted him or her.

Students in the course created the basis for Mind Field by interviewing dozens of students on their experiences with microaggressions and race, Norman said. They wrote the film's script, playtested the script and film clips, and produced the interactive film.

Norman said students also created a 25-page guidebook for Student Affairs staff that distilled what they learned about race on campus and can be used as a facilitator's guide for future discussion leaders.

CMU Assistant Dean of Student Affairs Holly Hippensteel said she was pleased with the thoughtfully developed interactive tool and guidebook. Her department plans to begin piloting the tool this summer as part of facilitated discussions with groups of students, and she said there could be more opportunities for participation in the fall.

"Mind Field will provide a unique opportunity to spark important dialogue with and among students about complex social dynamics and interpersonal relationships," Hippensteel said.

Norman said the course in past years has tackled the topics of economic inequality, privacy and government surveillance, sexual assault on college campuses and academic integrity. He said the goal is to create an experience that will change the way people think and feel about a morally significant issue.

ETC student Christopher Weidya, one of the Morality Play team's programmers, said he hopes this year's interactive experience on race, stereotypes and microaggressions would give its players a window into other points of view.

"We hope that this experience can try and promote empathy from our players, and that they'll be more considerate and be more thoughtful of what's actually going on beneath the surface," Weidya said.

Rony Kahana, ETC student and co-producer and writer of the film, said students learned about multiple instances of microaggressions that occur around campus. Mind Field shows an example of a subtle offensive comment when a student organizing a bake sale asks a student of Indian descent where her parents are from. When the student says that her parents live two hours away, the bake sale leader presses, "But that's not where they're originally from, right?"

"Asking 'where are you actually from' is insinuating a lot more," Kahana said.

When confronted with that situation, Kahana said instead of calling someone "racist," it is important to try to start a conversation to promote better understanding.

Kahana said the students tried to make Mind Field's aggressors diverse. While the Indian student is the victim in the bake sale scenario, she becomes the aggressor in a vignette involving a group project.

Like others on the Morality Play team, Min Kim said her work on the project's research also made her reflect on her own experiences of being asked where she is from.

Kim said, sometimes when she tells people that she is from Los Angeles, they ask for more information about her heritage. While she believes they are trying to make a genuine connection, oftentimes it borders on a microaggression.

"I've just been fielding those questions all my life, and I have been desensitized," said Kim, who graduated in May with a master's degree in design. "Interviewing all these people brought that up to the surface again and got me really thinking about where I stand."