Racial Bias and the Ability to Feel Others’ Pain

Hernan Vera and I have written about the importance of the break down of empathy as part of the creation of racist systems, including discrimination and its racial framing. Discover magazine’s blog has reported recently on research study by the Italian scientist Alessio Avenanti, who

recruited white and black Italian volunteers and asked them to watch videos of a stranger’s hand being poked. When people watch such scenes, it’s actually possible to measure their brain’s empathic tendencies. By simulating how the prick would feel, the brain activates the neurons of the observer’s hand in roughly the same place. These neurons become less excitable in the future. By checking their sensitivity, Avenanti could measure the effect that the video had on his recruits …. most interestingly of all, he found that the recruits (both white and black) only responded empathetically when they saw hands that were the same skin tone as their own. If the hands belonged to a different ethnic group, the volunteers were unmoved by the pain they saw.

Interestingly, like we have argued,

Avenanti actually thinks that empathy is the default state, which only later gets disrupted by racial biases. He repeated his experiment using brightly coloured violet hands, which clearly didn’t belong to any known ethnic group. Despite the hands’ weird hues, when they were poked with needles, the recruits all showed a strong empathic response, reacting as they would to hands of their own skin tone. … strong evidence that the lack of empathy from the first experiment stems not from mere novelty, but from racial biases.

He also gave the recruits the Implicit Association Test

which looks for hidden biases by measuring how easily people make positive or negative connections between different ethnic groups. For example, white Italians are typically quicker to associate positive words with the term “Italian” and negative ones with the term “African”. And the faster they make those connections, the greater the differences in their responses to the stabbed black and white hands. … All in all, Avenanti says when we see pain befall a person from our own racial group, it immediately triggers resonant activity in our own nervous system. When we see the same event happening to someone of a different race, these simulations are weaker and take longer to form.

These anti-empathetic reactions are most serious for those who have the greatest power to oppress others, to cause great, routine, and recurring pain in racialized others, which is typically whites in Europe and the United States.

In the U.S. case whites’ recurring discriminatory actions targeting Americans of color require a breakdown of normal human empathy. Most social theorists have missed the importance of the fact that all human life begins in empathetic networks–the dyad of mother and child. Usually central to these first networks is basic human empathy, a desire and ability to understand the feelings of others. Without empathy on the part of mothers and other relatives, no child would survive. As it develops, racial oppression severely distorts human relationships and desensitizes the minds of those oppressing others.

Oppression requires in oppressors a lack of recognition of the full humanity of racialized others. Psychiatrists use the term alexithymia to people unable to understand the emotions of, and empathize with, others. Hernan Vera and I have suggested going beyond this individualistic interpretation to a concept of social alexithymia. Essential to being an oppressor is a significantly reduced ability to understand or relate to the emotions, such as recurring pain, of those targeted by oppression. Social alexithymia thus seems essential to the creation and maintenance of a racist society.

What needs most to be explained is not the reality of human empathy and solidarity—the problem often stated by western philosophers–but rather how this empathy for others gets destroyed and how human beings develop anti-empathetic inclinations essential to racial oppression.


  1. C. Richard King

    joe, looking forward to the new book. more importantly, i think empathy is an under-appreciated key to addressing racism and dismantling the white racial frame, which works mightily to dehumanize, diminish, and dismiss. indeed, i have found in my white students a deep narcissism that encourages discourages them from recognizing and respecting others. their experience is the center; their “guilt” matters; their feelings supersede all others. it is a closed, self-absorbed place that fosters indulgence, denial, and inertia. thanks as always for the good work.

  2. No1KState

    Alexithymia – Like AZ’s recent laws, or the nonsense from the Supreme Court’s recent ruling on Maranda rights and that whole, “the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” Or, the recent study finding racial discrimination in jury selection.

  3. Joe

    No1 and Richard, thanks for the comments. That self-centeredness does seem to have taken over in the younger white generation, especially. And those court cases and AZ laws do also suggest a judicial/lawmakes’ white-centeredness that accents only white experience and framing. We need massive anti-racist instruction at all levels, and a new large scale human rights movement….indeed.

  4. Kristen

    Great study. I appreciate that they threw in the purple hand too, to show that it is truly a racial thing and not a simple “difference” or “other” phenomenon.

    Joe, I like that you pointed out that, because whites hold so much power, it is crucial we address them when thinking about the implications of this research. Because people can glance at this study and go, “see, we all do it.” And we should also go back in time a bit and acknowledge that white Europeans created these racial distinctions and imposed them across the globe in the first place.

    I love the discussion of empathy too. When we can feel it and express it and act on it across race, we will have come a long way towards the manifestation of our full humanity.

  5. Joe

    Will, I agree that the self-centeredness is critical. That would be worth a post of its own.

    And Kristen, you are right that these studies themselves, and the Discover write-up, are basically white-framed, that is, they in effect suggest ‘we are all racially biased’ —without even acknowledging whites invented ALL the major racial terminology and categories (white, black, racial, race — all white-created terms) that frame these research studies. Like goldfish do not see the water?

  6. No1KState

    @ Richard – Yeah! That’s it! Narcissism! That’s why whenever their discussion on race, we have to ameliorate the feelings and ego of whites.

    To Kristen’s point, I find it so, so ingratiating that whenever whites can’t deny their racism, they run scurrying to, “Everybody else is doing it!”

    So if everybody else were jumping off a bridge, without a bungee cord, would you do that, too?

    Please, don’t answer. You might say, “Yeah!”

    As though that simple fact mitigates the wildly unbalanced impact of pro-white bias. And from where I sit, my own lack of empathy is due to aggravation with anti-black racism. It’s almost a sense of vindication. Like, “How does the shoe feel on the other foot?” So I think it’s important to acknowledge that white Europeans created race; white Europeans benefit the most from race; and minority aleximythia is in response to anti-minority racism, not an aspect of independently occurring anti-white racism.

  7. Kristen

    No1, your last point about how the lack of empathy may look like the same phenomenon on the surface but actually arises from different places – that’s exactly what I was thinking! I share your angst, too, over how whites want so badly for the fingers to point in all directions if fingers dare be pointed at them.

    On the narcissism issue, I think that’s got to be something all dominant groups do. The question for me for a while now has been how do we help facilitate people moving through that denial and finger pointing to a place of understanding and action. I vaguely remember doing a bit of that narcissistic stuff in my undergrad sociology classes, but not a lot, and I can’t recall how I got from there to here. My best guess is a complex process of cross-racial relationships, feminist empowerment, plenty of sociology, and a high level of natural empathy.

    I think we white antiracists need to do a better, more public job of framing the journey towards antiracism as deeply meaningful and worthwhile. Someone should write a book compiling white “redemption stories.” That reminds me of Mirrors of Privilege: Making Whiteness Visible, a great documentary that frames the issue well in this way – showing how damaged whites become from being socialized in a racist society, and how deeply they need to heal from it, not to “help” people of color, but to help themselves.

    • No1KState

      I think narcissism would exist in any group that had the luxury of being so narcisistic. People of color in the US don’t have that luxury. Oddly enough, it seems that white women do have such a luxury.

      That said, I agree with your sentiments 100%.

      The desire to shift blame, I think, is human. As is being egocentric. There’re four problems I can point out right off, two secular and two religious.

      1 – Sorry, but aren’t these primarily the same people promoting “personal responsibility?” They vote against welfare, especially for “those” people, because to them, it would enable shirking “personal responsibility.” White Americans need to take responsibility for this. They’re not as far along as they think. Every study proves this and indicates that the problem isn’t black culture but white racism.

      2 – Toddlers go through a stage of egocentrism where the only perspective they can see is their own, and they think everyone else sees what they see. It’s why they will sit in front of the TV, not realizing they’re in everyone else’s way. And they’re unable to lie/deceive people cause they think everybody sees only what they see. This tells me a few things about white America: it’s immature, in the way, and can’t hide it (it being their racism).

      The next two are religious and aren’t aimed at everybody, but mostly the Fundamentalists and Evangelicals. So, I’ll just stick those in my pocket for a later day.


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