Mind the Gap – The Subjectivity of Our Empathy in Understanding Racial Differences
Lani Bond- Writer
Empathising with others has been strongly linked to prosocial attitudes and increasing understanding between diverse groups. The most recent successful continuation of the Black Lives Matter movement, sparking from the viral news of American policemen’s brutal murder of George Floyd, has revealed divided discourse and mixed reactions across the world. This discussion is interested in addressing the psychology of empathy in understanding racial biases – whether you’ve been burying your head in the sand, consistently sharing resources or actively developing yourself as an anti-racist, the ‘Empathy Gap’ suggests we can all do better to acknowledge our biases.
“I understand that I will never understand. However, I stand.”
This quote has been re-posted around social media, showing solidarity and acknowledgement by white people and other POC of the complexity of black peoples’ experiences. Displaying solidarity with the message is possibly only the first step in an individual and social anti-racist direction, however what can prevent people from realising it is important for them to also ‘stand’? And furthermore, how can false empathy be damaging?
The Empathy Gap
The term ‘Empathy Gap’ labels the disparity between people feeling more towards those they identify with (their ‘ingroup’) compared to those they see as outsiders (their ‘outgroup’). Whilst this can be relevant to any societal divide, from football supporters to debates on veganism, the application of these studies to racism indicates that the white defence of achieving equality through simply ‘not seeing colour’ is highly unlikely.
Experiments such as this (click here) explore what happens when a sample of white and black women are told to listen to an audio recording of an emotive personal story from another woman. Some participants are shown a picture of a young black woman as the speaker, and some are shown an image of a young white woman.
The results showed that when a participant believed the speaker was of their same skin colour, they listened to her story for an average of 3 minutes more, and said they connected emotionally. When they believed she was a different skin colour, they were more likely to fast forward the story and miss details. This is not a comment on the conscious moral characters of these women however does reflect the tendency for humans to more instinctively empathise and connect more with people who they find more similarities in.
Being Empathetic Isn’t Enough
When addressing racism, thinking we’re empathetic people therefore isn’t enough – studies show that people do not realise the extent to which their own emotional experiences will bias their perceptions of the experiences that other people have. Even those who believe they are professionally empathetic, such as social workers, are found to continue to exhibit racial bias that can impact the quality of services that POC receive.
Empathy is therefore an imperfect tool that does not always occur naturally, with researchers such as Gutsell and Inzlicht (2012) arguing that the ability to take objective perspective may instead be a stronger skill for reducing prejudice. However, whilst empathy may follow with perspective, both are unreachable without engaged listening and self-reflexivity.
The consequences of a lack of empathy is highlighted in Renni-Eddo Lodge’s book “Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race”: Lodge identifies the ‘emotional disconnect’ demonstrated by white people when she has spoken to them about POC experiences – she states that talking to some white people about race is like “something happens to the words as they leave our mouths and reach their ears. The words hit a barrier of denial and they don’t get any further.”
“I can no longer have this conversation, because we’re often coming at it from completely different places. I can’t have a conversation with them about the details of a problem if they don’t even recognise that the problem exists.”
Stating that we can never understand, but we will stand, is therefore the least we can do. Stephan and Finlay (1999) state that “Empathy that is not accompanied by respect for the group is problematic”: real, open-minded listening and awareness of either conscious or subconscious bias is therefore necessary for an understanding that goes beyond personal projections and shallow sympathy.
Although it may therefore be human instinct to connect faster with people that we find the most similarities with, this is no excuse to further polarise society. Instead, these theories give even more weight to arguments for dismantling racial biases within institutions. Workplaces, for example, should be encouraging more BAME minority representation and leadership, thus amplifying minority voices and presence. This contributes to a better understanding of the experiences of all workers, but also continues the cultural exposure needed to help bridge the empathy gap and create a better understanding of people’s everyday experiences.
Renni-Eddo Lodge also states: “Worse still is the white person who might be willing to entertain the possibility of said racism, but who thinks we enter this conversation as equals. We don’t.”
The next step is therefore understanding why discrimination happens, and the power imbalances that have been created. That’s a big, crucial step; maybe it’s easier to push that to the side if you believe that your political beliefs exempt you from the realities of racism, as seen in divisions between right-wing and left-wing attitudes towards talks of systemic racism. In my next article, I will address the possible dangers of political polarisation in blocking empathetic understanding and social progress.