A new study shows that when whites look at blacks and Asians doing something ordinary they feel almost nothing as compared to looking at whites doing the very same thing.
Jennifer N. Gutsell and Michael Inzlicht of the University of Toronto took 30 White Canadian students and showed them videos of people drinking water. The twist is that the people were of different races and while they watched their brain waves were being recorded by an EEG machine.
When they watched white people drinking a cup of water their brain waves increased from the part of the brain that controls drinking. Not as much as when they drank water for themselves (also measured) but noticeably. But when they watched blacks and Asians drink it was almost as if they were watching a blank screen!!!
When you watch someone do something mirror neurons are fired in your brain. They are right near the neurons you would use if you did the same thing for yourself. It is why, for example, when you watch someone dive your muscles kind of stiffen and you kind of hold your breath – even though you are not the one diving into the water.
Your brain mirrors what you are seeing; it helps you to imagine yourself in their shoes. But for white people this only works when they are watching other white people – not when they watch people of colour!
The actors in the videos were all men of university age: three whites, three blacks, three East Asians and three South Asians. They made sure to use actors whom whites regard as equally good-looking and likeable.
East Asians, considered a model minority in Canada, produced the most brain output from whites but it was still close to zero. Blacks came second and South Asians third. Studies have shown that White Canadians dislike South Asians even more than blacks.
Gutsell and Inzlicht also measured the white students on the Symbolic Racism Scale. The more racist a student the less he reacted to what he saw people of colour do – though it did not affect how he reacted to whites.
Gutsell and Inzlicht think that mirror neurons are part of what empathy is built on. Meaning that whites are cold-hearted when they look at people of colour. Not as something wired into their brains from birth but as something learned.
Are whites that cold-hearted when it comes to people of colour? There are plenty of other studies that show it. It also helps to make sense of things like police brutality, the Missing White Woman Syndrome and how blacks receive worse health care than whites regardless of wealth. Katrina also springs to mind – among other things.
But there is another possible reason besides cold-heartedness which has yet to be ruled out: white people simply pay less attention to people of colour – not out of heartlessness but simply because they regard them as less important.
- Gutsell & Inzlicht: Empathy constrained: Prejudice predicts reduced mental simulation of actions during observation of outgroups [PDF]
- Other blog posts on this study:
- Our Stories (My Sisters & Brothers!) and Theirs (White People)
- The hearts of white people – wherein I argue they are born with the same hearts as blacks but they are turned to stone by the power they have
- white gaze
- The police
- The Missing White Woman Syndrome
- the eight stages of genocide – one of the stages is not seeing the pariahs as being truly human anymore