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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.

(Image courtesy of Don Addis)

Therefore, one could conclude that society’s portrayal of different races influences our emotional quotient. For example, the misrepresentation of black people in the media as generally poor, uneducated and violent can lead one to believe such stereotypes subconsciously. This was exemplified by a study which examined 474 stories about poverty published in Time, Newsweek and U.S News and World Report between 1992 and 2010. The images that went along with these stories saw black people being over-represented, appearing in more than 50% of the images even though only 25% of the people living below the poverty line at that time were black. This portrayal by the media mirrored the results of a survey carried out in 2001, where 41% of participants in a pool overestimated the percentage of the country’s poor people being black by at least two fold, and that of another poll in 2008 which found that only 37.6% of Americans thought black people were hardworking, compared to that of 58.6% for white people. This correlation between the media’s portrayal of race and the public’s thoughts on race shows the power of society’s portrayal of race on people’s ability to reason and think objectively.

Does racial bias lead to unscientific findings?

The physician Samuel Cartwright’s pamphlet Diseases and Peculiarities of the Negro Race came up with the belief that black slaves who wanted to escape suffered from a mental illness called Drapetomania, and believed that Africans were unfit for self-determination. This pamphlet was popular amongst slave-owners as it allowed them to justify their ownership of slaves.

Another example is Bell Curve, a book published in 1994 by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murphy which claimed that blacks were not as intelligent as whites. There have been studies that show a strong correlation between economic success and high IQ; therefore they came to the conclusion that this IQ difference between these races was one of the main reasons for racial differences. However, this data they used did not take into account the political inequalities and history of African-Americans in the US as the cause for this inequality.

These examples have been debunked and prove the claim as it can be argued that racial bias prevents scientists to reason as the racial bias clouds their objectivity, a quality that is needed to conduct good experiments. This lack of objectivity can lead to false conclusions.

Although racist scientific experiments such as the Tuskegee Experiment (1932 -1972) and theories undoubtedly disgusting, cruel and unnecessary; some have led to scientific discoveries. For example, the father of gynaecology - Dr J Marion - found the surgical cure of vesico-veginal fistula, by performing a number of painful trial and error procedures on slave women from 1845-1849 without anaesthesia. This is an example in which progress in science was made through bypassing ethical laws, based on racist claims such as the notion that black people do not feel pain, which was what Dr Sims used to justify his unethical and monstrous practices. By no means can the suffering that the slave women endured during this period be justified by such findings; however it is an example of how racial bias has led to scientific progress.

Illustration of Dr. J. Marion Sims with Anarcha by Robert Thom. Anarcha was subjected to 30 experimental surgeries
(Illustration of Dr. J. Marion Sims with Anarcha by Robert Thom. Anarcha was subjected to 30 experimental surgeries.)


From the points above, I believe that race does affect people’s thoughts. However, I think this is mainly due to a combination of the media’s portrayal of race, and people’s lack of knowledge and awareness about racial bias, which leads to a lack of empathy. This links back to the discussion I had about the N-word, and the student's justification of its use being that it happened over 200 years ago. I believe and hope that her remark was down to innocent ignorance rather than the racist disregard of the black people’s plight. To combat this, governments and schools should speak and teach about the post-slavery years and colonial past of different empires, as such racial biases did not end with the abolition of slavery or self-determination of colonies.



  • When I refer to the different races I mean some not all

  • I will define race as each of the major divisions of humankind, having distinct physical characteristics. I acknowledge that this is a great simplification, but that would require a whole other essay, so I will leave it here.


This article was adapted from Kehinde's IB TOK presentation question: 'To what extent does race affect our ability to acquire knowledge?'

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