top of page

The Racial Empathy Gap: why other races to yours just don't seem to 'get it'

As a minority, I have had many experiences that led me to consider the relationship between race and our acquisition of knowledge. In my third year of high school, I got into a discussion with a fellow student about the use of the N-word. She remarked that slavery happened more than 200 years ago; therefore white people should be able to use the word as well - a 'justification' that I have heard many a time). However, I was confused as to why this argument seemed popular amongst Caucasians; in my experience, many black people see this word as one that transcends slavery, as it is also associated with the other prejudices that we have endured, such as redlining and the atrocities of the rubber industry in Congo.

A Congolese man looking at the severed hand and foot of his five-year-old daughter who was killed, and allegedly cannibalized, by the members of Anglo-Belgian India Rubber Company militia.

(A Congolese man looking at the severed hand and foot of his five-year-old daughter who was killed, and allegedly cannibalised, by the members of Anglo-Belgian India Rubber Company militia.)

Another example is the debate between Black Lives Matter (BLM), a movement that aims to tackle the systemic racism and violence that black people face, and Blue Lives Matter (a pro-police movement in the US that was formed in retaliation to BLM). To me, the latter seemed particularly popular amongst Caucasians. I was confused by this movement as police brutality against blacks was an obvious example of the institutionalised racism that had been around for many years.

These scenarios led me to the conclusion that people’s opinions about certain topics are dependent on their race; therefore, I want to examine how race affects our acquisition of knowledge. I believe it is important to address the impact racial bias has on our acquisition of knowledge in order to form a solid foundation for an honest and open debate about race relations in society. I will attempt to answer my question by exploring the roles race plays in science and our emotional quotient.

Does race affect our ability to empathise?

A study carried out by the University of Toronto Scarborough found that people' motor cortex region fires very little, if at all, when they observed people outside their own race carrying out a single task. All the participants of this study were white and watched videos of men of different races (e.g. Black and South Asian) picking up a glass of water and drinking from it. The human motor cortex region typically fires similarly when one watched another do a task as if they were doing it themselves. However, the study showed that the motor cortex regions of the participants fired less or as little as if they were watching a blank screen when non-white men did this task. This study proves that claim that race affects your ability to empathise; as to empathise, you have to be able to put yourself in the other person's shoes, reacting to their situation from their circumstance or perspective.

Back to the debate between Black Lives Matter vs. Blue Lives Matter - this study could explain why some white Americans condone police brutality against blacks because they assume they feel less pain and see the act as less injurious to the black person. For example, a GenForward Survey in 2015 found that 85% of African Americans who participated in their survey supported BLM compared to 41% whites. However, it could be that some whites and non-whites condone harm against black men in general.

On the other hand, it could be argued that it is not race itself which affects our ability to empathise. A 2012 study found that people (including medical professionals) assumed that black people feel less pain than white people do. The researchers asked participants to rate how another person would feel in situations such as stubbing a toe on a four-point scale, with four being extremely painful. The person was randomly assigned a photo of an experimental target who were either white or black. The researchers found that white participants, medical professionals and black participators assumed that black targets would feel less pain than the white ones. It is important to note that in the mentioned study black participants overall also assumed that black targets felt less pain than white targets. The study shows that the race of the participants (the empathiser) is not significant, and that it is the race of the subject that is far more important.