Challenging the Perception that Black People Feel Less Pain

Misconceptions about race and pain stemming from slavery and Jim Crow-era fallacies threaten the health and welfare of Black Americans. Historical incidents of race-based fallacies relating to health resulted in brutal and inhumane experimentation, and yet today’s physicians still cling to these myths. A 2016 study by the University of Virginia demonstrated that over 100 out of 222 white medical students believed fallacies about biological differences between Black and white people. Those individuals also perceived that Black patients felt less pain than white patients, even when both individuals suffered the same ailment. Students who believed in biological differences between races also agreed to false statements suggesting that Black people have less sensitive nerve endings, and age slower than whites.

This implicit racial bias comes with consequences. Because physicians may be unable to recognize a Black patient’s pain in the first place, African Americans are routinely undertreated for pain. This partiality carries the potential to adversely impact vulnerable populations. For example, Black children suffering from appendicitis are less likely to be prescribed pain medicine upon their arrival to the emergency room, and Black veterans experiencing moderate to high levels of pain are also less likely to be prescribed opioids than their white counterparts. Experts have also suggested that racial disparities in prescription rates may be due in part to doctor’s suspicions that Black patients will abuse opioid prescriptions.

Though these statistics are nauseating, medical treatment of Black people has improved over the last century. In 1929, only six Mississippi hospitals would treat Black patients and offered limited services. “No white physicians [were] willing to treat a Black child,” W.E.B. Du Bois recalled of his son’s death in The Souls of Black Folks, which was published in 1903.

The idea that Black and white people possess inherent biological differences stems from a dark history. In order to justify the brutal treatment of enslaved Africans, American enslavers perpetuated the idea that Black people couldn’t feel pain. Under this false assumption, James Marion Sims, widely lauded as the father of modern gynecology, experimented on enslaved women without providing pain relief.

Doctors aren’t alone in their race-based biases about pain. Studies show that white people generally believe that Black people feel less pain. When participants were shown videos of Black and white individuals experiencing the same painful stimuli, such as being stuck with a needle, white viewers responded more dramatically to the footage of white people in pain. Researcher Jason Silverstein calls this phenomenon the “racial empathy gap.”

As one of the most universal human experiences, pain spans time and cultural barriers; its expression is nonverbal, and you don’t have to speak someone’s language to recognize that they are in pain. The implications of difficulties relating to and empathizing with Black people in pain extends beyond disparities in prescription pain medication. This false belief chips away at Black humanity itself.

The denial of Black pain paves the way for a faulty justification of white on Black aggression and abuse.

If police officers fall in line with the belief that Black people are less vulnerable to painful stimuli, this fallacy can cause deadly interactions. “This fear of Black men is real,” a North Carolina cop wrote in a 2016 essay.

Given this reality, one can understand how a police officer could be more fearful of someone they perceive to be less vulnerable to the physical sensation of pain. A 2019 report concluded that police “unjustifiably use force against African Americans.” Perpetuating the idea that Black people feel less pain allows for an ignorant and fear-inducing ideology to be passed down to future generations. It allows for officers like Daniel Pantaleo, who choked Eric Garner to death in 2014, to feel justified in their actions. Officers are increasingly likely to get away with these brutal behaviors when majority-white juries and white judges also subconsciously believe that Black people aren’t as vulnerable to pain.

However, police brutality cannot be attributed solely to the presence of false beliefs. Abuse is nearly guaranteed when police are unable to empathize with the people they are sworn to serve and protect. How many American police officers have sought refuge in the infamous “I feared for my life” explanation to protect themselves from legal recourse? The false idea that Black and white people possess inherent biological differences only fuels this fear.

All humans feel pain and deserve to be afforded the same empathy, understanding, and sensitivity associated with the physical sensation of pain. To refuse to recognize a person’s all-too-human vulnerability to pain is to deny him or her social equality. Economic disparities and racism contribute to Black maltreatment, although the mistreatment of minorities in the healthcare and criminal justice-system settings is, in part, an empathy problem.

Silverstein offered some solutions to the pervasive and dangerous racial empathy gap and noted that inducing empathy may cause people to express greater care and concern for others. Evidence shows that when practitioners take on the perspective of another, disparities in pain treatment are reduced. A 2018 article reinforced the importance of nurturing empathy to foster successful restorative justice practices, and called this method a, “timeless philosophy of crime response.”

Genuine awareness of the pain others feel — as opposed to actively discounting Black vulnerability — could have saved the patients of James Marion Sims from needless suffering. The ability and desire to recognize and understand the unique experiences of others is a necessary step (although not the only step) toward achieving a more equitable society.

About the Author

Niara Savage is a Fisk University student and a political correspondent for The Nashville Voice online newspaper. Her debut novel, The Killing of Gregory Noble, was published in 2018 and explores American police brutality. She is passionate about social justice issues relating to education and healthcare, and plans to pursue a PhD in clinical psychology.