Well, it turns out that empathy across group boundaries is a complicated matter. Although part of the glue holding society together is a desire to reduce the suffering of others, and though we’re quick to empathize with and help members of our own groups, this dynamic can go haywire when it must extend to members of different groups (Cikara, Bruneau, & Saxe, 2011).
When we witness a member of our own ethnic group suffering (like Katniss, if you’re European-American), our brain activates the same experience for ourselves, leading us to feel the same pain as she does.
But when we witness a member of a different ethnic group suffering (like Rue, if you’re not African American), this response short-circuits – our brains do not activate a shared experience. This is especially true of people high in implicit racism (that is, people who harbor biases toward other groups, even if they won’t admit that bias to themselves or others).
Instead of empathy, when competition abounds (and it is undeniably encouraged in The Hunger Games) we may respond to the suffering of people from different groups with Schadenfreude, taking pleasure in their pain. That is, reward regions of the brain light up when viewing someone from another, competing group receive a painful electric shock.
So although she was clearly Katniss’s ally in the book, when Rue’s race was made salient to viewers (by actually seeing her onscreen) in a savagely competitive context, it’s possible that many viewers felt they could no longer relate to Rue or empathize with her suffering. Feeling robbed of an emotional relationship with a beloved character (yes, we do build one-sided “parasocial” relationships with characters), and perhaps having to face a sick feeling of relief or joy at her death, it appears some viewers coped with these aversive feelings in a very public way: by posting racist things – some subtle, some not – on the Internet.
This topic has inspired an intense public dialogue about modern expressions of racism, and multitudes of fascinating essays and blog posts – here’s a good one.
So what should we take away from this? Rather than writing it off as “Well, some people are just racist,” or adopting a “colorblind” stance that ignores group differences and strips Rue and Thresh of their cultural identity, it’s essential that we celebrate group differences and carefully examine our own assumptions and biases. This latter task can be extremely difficult. Best of all, by cultivating friendships with members of different groups (according to the work of Elizabeth Page-Gould), we can build bridges between our own identity and that of the other group, and in turn become more comfortable when interacting with people of ethnicities different than our own.
Were you among those who had imagined Rue to be European-American? Why do you think that was? How did you react when you saw her in the movie?
Cikara, M., Bruneau, E., & Saxe, R. (2011). Us and Them: Intergroup Failures of Empathy Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20 (3), 149-153 DOI: 10.1177/0963721411408713