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White People Complain About POC Casting Because of the Empathy Gap

So, apparently people are complaining that Halle Bailey is cast in The Little Mermaid in the live action movie, and it’s a thing because in the old Disney cartoon, the mermaid was white, and Bailey is Black. I’m going to keep this kind of short, because my apartment is a *disaster* (even for me, and I’m usually a mess) and I desperately need to clean, but few thoughts:

  1. There is an acknowledged empathy gap between people who have power over others. This means, you probably have more empathy for your boss’ emotional state than he or she has for yours, and gaining power can actually cause people to lose empathy.
  2. This empathy gap holds for people who have structural or privilege power over others — so men have less empathy for women than women do for men, white people have less empathy for POC than POC have for white people, etc. With respect to things like gender, we may culturally believe this to be innate, but this lack of empathy may actually an expression of power. For instance, gay men tend to demonstrate more empathy than straight men which doesn’t really make sense if men “lack empathy” for hormonal reasons or something, but does make sense if the amount of empathy you have is impacted by the power balances of your interpersonal relationships.
  3. This empathy gap is an actual, measurable phenomenon. Mirror neurons are a type of neuron that activates when you see another person going through something you relate to — so, if you watch someone get punched in the face, your mirror neurons activate, and you feel an echo of the pain they felt. White people’s mirror neurons light up less when they are watching POC than when they are watching other white people. Similarly, men’s mirror neurons light up less for women than they do for other men, and I would guess this is the same for basically any privileged group.
  4. The reason white people start complaining when they start casting POC in traditionally white roles (or, men start complaining when they start casting women traditionally male) is that the privileged group is less able to empathize with oppressed characters. White people watching a Black little mermaid will literally feel fewer emotions during the movie than white people watching a white little mermaid. Now, they’ll make up a bunch of reasons to “rationally” justify why they don’t think the little mermaid should be Black, but I believe the heart of this is deeply emotional; on some level, complaining white people expect their emotional response to be dampened, and believe this dampened response will decrease their pleasure in watching the movie, and so they start kicking up a stink.

So ok; I know this is all very depressing, but unless we face the emotional heart of what’s going on, we can’t find a solution. And, in society, there is far more at stake than movie enjoyment when it comes to the empathy gap; privileged people’s difficulty empathizing with less privileged reduces inhibition around violence; if causing pain to someone else also causes you pain, you will be less likely to do it. If you lack empathy for another person, this inhibition against causing them pain goes away.

So, how can we increase empathy for other people in our society? Well, one is to give people more power; I can attest that, as I’ve moved up in my career, men who perceive me as having power over them tend to have more empathy for my emotional state than men who think they have power over me. So, equalizing structural power imbalances is very important, and were — say — Black people and white people equals in society, probably many of these complaints wouldn’t even cross people’s minds. But you know, racism is still a thing, so what should we do in the mean time?

Well, ironically, making movies with POC, female, etc. main characters will probably help a lot. I can’t find the source for this, but I think I remember reading once about how white people back in the day ended up having less racist attitudes during the Olympics, because there were many black athletes and just being exposed to more Black people (even just a little bit on TV) helped reduce their racism a measurable amount. And, if so, that’s kind of cool, right? It implies that, the potential for empathy building may actually happen quite quickly (which, I’d believe given how much people’s empathy fluctuates based on their power status.) But of course, we now have the problem that many of the people who would benefit the most from seeing POC main characters will boycott movies where POC are cast. So, that sucks.

Personally, I don’t believe lecturing or shaming people will help. You may be able to get people to be less vocally racist, but you won’t be able to change their underlying empathetic response using these tactics — and so, you’ll still end up with anonymous troll armies on the internet who keep acting out.

Other than that… I mean, this sucks, but I don’t actually know how to solve this. If you’re among a privileged axis (say white) and you want to increase your empathy, engaging in fiction (movies, books, etc.) featuring people on an oppressed axis (say, POC) can help, but I don’t know what to do about the people who will refuse to even give the movie a chance because of the casting. I would say though, if you’re a white person who is sort of on the fence about this, you should go see the movie. And you shouldn’t go to be PC, but because you are reducing the richness of your own lived experience if you allow the racist structures of Western society to limit your empathetic connection to other humans. Or, you know, watch a movie about adults if you’ve aged out of The Little Mermaid. But, for anyone having a bit of (possibly secret) internal resistance about watching less privileged characters on screen, this resistance will probably go away as you get into the story, just like it did for the white people watching Black athletes during the olympics.

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