December 2017
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Findings Friday: increased experience as a racial minority increases empathy for majority race


icon: "analytical (a close-up photo of my eye in bright sunlight, showing the green and grey and roots-looking patterns)"

Zuo and Han (2013) measured relative empathy responses for Chinese people who had lived in the US most of their lives using a series of 48 video clips of white and Chinese people (gender and race numerically balanced) being poked in the cheek with a cotton swab or a needle while wearing a neutral expression. Participants had to press one button to say that the person was feeling pain or a different button to say that they were not feeling pain. This happened very quickly to try to measure the subconscious response.

They found no significant difference in response times, nor in the fMRI signal intensity, despite the overall trend of own-race bias found in many adults. They conclude that living in the US has increased the subjects' ability to empathize with the majority race. I further imagine that as the subjects have the perspective of the majority pressed on them at every turn, they are forced to perform the cognitive empathy task of perspective-taking, and over time this builds up their emotional empathy responses as well.

Cao, Contreras-Huerta, McFadyen, and Cunnington (2015) built on this by measuring relative empathy responses via fMRI for Chinese students living in Australia using videos of white and Chinese faces being touched with a cotton swab or a needle. They found that increased levels of contact are related to increased levels of empathy. Further, the kind of contact that is most predictive is incidental contact -- just seeing white faces around you.

Consider this in the inverse: empathy is decreased when you are never forced to take the perspective of someone else, and when you never see them around you in large numbers. When you do not consume any media by and about people of color, you automatically have less empathy for people of color. When you do not ever experience being in a majority-female space, you automatically have less empathy for women. If you want to be empathetic to people who experience oppression you do not, you have to change what you see and where you go.

[references]Zuo, X. and S. Han. 2013. "Cultural experiences reduce racial bias in neural responses to others’ suffering." Culture and Brain 1, 34-46. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s40167-013-0002-4

Cao, Y.; L. S. Contreras-Huerta; J. McFadyen; and R. Cunnington. 2015. "Racial bias in neural response to others' pain is reduced with other-race contact." Cortex: A Journal Devoted To The Study Of The Nervous System And Behavior 70, 68-78. PsycINFO, EBSCOhost.

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Comments
raidingparty ══╣╠══
Great reading!

Starts leaning towards one of those cases of unintentional classism - if a group is so small that one can't experience a group of them (or any, for that matter), there's no good way to expose oneself. Although there might be a mitigation of generalized "empathy with not-like-me" to un-explored groups.
belenen ══╣analytical╠══
Oh, there are good ways! Reading autobiographies, blogs, and other source materials is one, watching media by and about other groups also works. Going to meetups about differences is another. It gets more difficult as the group gets smaller, but it's possible. And it does in fact generalize: so, learning about even one group that is different from you increases empathy with all other groups (I read a study on that one too).

Of course, when you have little time and no money, these things become more difficult across the board. But usually people with little time and no money have many other ways they learn empathy.
raidingparty ══╣╠══
Oh, all kinds of possibilities. Thank you!
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Expect to find curse words, nudity, (occasionally explicit) talk of sex, and angry ranting, but NEVER slurs or sexually violent language. I use TW when I am aware of the need and on request.