November 9, 2016

Listen In, but Hold Your Judgement

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Racial dialogue is a sensitive topic in the United States. It seems as if a special blend of courage is required to participate in it. Such thinking is wrong, but it is inadvertently perpetuated when people eschew “race talk” rather than participate in it. A recent study by Pew Research identified “profound differences between black and white adults in their views on racial discrimination,” with 88% of African-Americans saying there is more work to be done to achieve racial equality, while only 53% of white respondents shared those views. The intensely polarized views and no less intense feelings that come with them create a “someone else can talk about it” mindset among people that are new to the idea and practice of interracial dialogue.

It is no surprise, then, that Race and Empathy first isolates you, in order to connect you. Part of the CCA Biennial, the piece stands in Mann Library lobby, a bustling space hardly conducive to small talk, let alone deep introspection. It is in that deafening space that a group of three Cornell professors want you to hear. To listen. To internalize and maybe to respond. The professors are Corinna Loeckenhoff and Anthony Burrow from the School of Human Ecology, and Francois Guimbretiere at the Information Science department, who teaches a popular course called Rapid Prototyping. The project was done in collaboration with Mann Library, Cornell Intergroup Dialogue Project and students Kevin Ma grad and Dongwook Yoon grad.

The installation is a telephone booth shaped like a human ear, made out of carbon casting tubes and soundproof foam. As you walk inside the ear and make your way around a curved corner, there is a telephone connected to a tablet, which is lit up with a selection of pictures (one, notably, of a police cruiser). The soundproof material creates a sense of comforting privacy once you are inside. Pick up the phone, tap on one of the images and you are presented with an anonymous recording of a monologue or conversation about racial prejudice, microaggressions and other race related problems.

Casual in nature, the dialogues achieve their purpose of making you feel as if you are in the conversation. You can also record a response or your own story. Yet, the system artificially constrains those options, not letting you record anything until the audio is done. There is no way to interrupt; you can either listen until the end or walk away. “It was an intentional design decision to, kind of, override what you would usually do in interface design, and in this case force them to listen,” said Loeckenhoff. The intention is that the listener actually performs her role until the end, instead of immediately thinking of a response; but the value of these training wheels is unclear. In my mind it brought up the question of how far should we go into “designing” a space for racial dialogue, when outside of such spaces there won’t be a safety net to fall back on? And how do you ensure that people walk out of the exhibition internalizing what they heard? “These are important questions that I am not sure are easily answerable… part of it is to create a space and see what people do with it,” said Burrow. After a moment of contemplation, he continued: “There is something about this space that reifies and reinforces the idea that the experience is still there,” which will remain so even after the exhibition closes, because the recordings will be preserved on a website. Burrow concluded saying, “I don’t know if we ever designed this thinking you need to empathize, part of it is, ‘What do you want to say?’ And I hear you” – the latter three words are written on the outer wall of the booth.

The inspiration for the project came from creators’ deeply personal experiences. Burrow recounted to me an incident from his time at UNC Chapel Hill, where he attended college, when he and his friends drove to a friend’s apartment off-campus. On the way back, “as we were driving out of the apartment complex, 9 police cars surrounded us. 10 to 13 officers got out with their guns pointed.” Burrow and his friends, all black men, were arrested on charges of stealing the car they were in, and they were meant to be driven to a magistrate. The police, however, turned around after a report came in that the car wasn’t stolen. Someone called the police on Burrow and his friends after allegedly seeing them steal the car. “I have the police recording… she [the accuser] said, ‘I didn’t actually see them, I just suspected that was what they were doing.’”

In creating this installation, the professorial trio relied upon the garage of Ms. Loeckenhoff and Mr. Guimbretiere’s (they are married). “We were using all kinds of materials that are not meant for their purpose [in the project],” said Loeckenhoff with a pause. She then added that “the interior structure is gigantic carbon tubes that are designed for concrete casting… the people who delivered it were very surprised because they never delivered this to any residential property.” The completed piece had to be transported in two parts using a rented truck. The most surprising element of this story is that buying an actual phone booth, like the classic British red telephone box, would be more expensive than this process. Aside from financial concerns, the self-made nature of the piece also manifested an emotional value: “At the end of the day, we couldn’t just go find these readymade spaces; there was something about building this space that met the real need of what we were trying to get at — it kept us going,” said Burrow. The design blueprints and the tablet interface were created by Professor Guimbretiere, who also decided to rely on a physical phone as opposed to a microphone to add an additional level of intimacy for the listener, who is left on his own with a mysterious interlocutor on the other end of the line.

The recordings for the installation were made in collaboration with the Intergroup Dialogue Project, an on-campus organization that leads workshops, meetings and several courses on intergroup dialogue for undergraduate students, graduate students and even faculty levels. Jazlin Gomez MPA ’17, Garrett Heller ’17 (both IDP facilitators) and Adi Grabiner Keinan, IDP’s director, conducted conversations with other members of the group about “different types of oppression that occur, from the interpersonal and individual to also the institutional and structural level,” said Heller.

After this year’s unprecedented presidential campaign and the waves of racially charged violence (which of course spans over decades), wouldn’t it be cathartic to just listen, empathize and then respond? But actually, maybe you should hold the response for now.

The Race & Empathy exhibition will be on display in Mann Library, behind the lobby, for the rest of the semester. An online version of the project is available at

Andrei Kozyrev is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected].