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White Women Less Likely to Help Sexual Assault Victim If She's Black

Bystander intervention is seen as one of the most powerful tools in preventing on-campus sexual assaults—but a new study shows that white students feel "less personal responsibility" to help their black peers.
Photo by Eddie Pearson

You're at a house party off-campus—perhaps you're coming out of the bathroom after finally breaking the seal or you're walking out of the kitchen, drink in hand—and you notice a black woman who looks much more wasted than you do, being led into a bedroom by a relatively sober guy. Being the good feminist you are, you register that the situation looks suspect. What do you do?

According to a new study, white women aren't likely to intervene and help. The study, published in The Psychology Of Women Quarterly, posed a similar scenario to 160 white female undergraduates. The students were randomly assigned whether the intoxicated woman in the story had a "distinctively black name"—LaToya—or an ambiguous name—Laura, as a control.


Read more: Undeniably Massive Study Confirms Campus Rape Is an Undeniable, Massive Problem

When asked to report on their intent to intervene and how they viewed the situation and the potential victim, the white undergrads said they would be less likely to help when they perceived the woman who was at risk of being sexually assaulted was black, because they felt "less personal responsibility." Secondarily, they also "perceived that [the black victim] experienced more pleasure in the pre-assault situation" at a slightly higher rate than the control group. (The control group given the scenario with the non-racialized name uniformly perceived the victim to be white.)

"We found that although white students correctly perceived that black women were at risk in a pre-assault situation, they tended not to feel as personally involved in the situation," the researchers at SUNY Geneseo, Jennifer Katz and Christine Merrilees, said in an interview with PsyPost. In other words, "despite their shared status as women, white female bystanders in the current study may have felt that a Black woman's plight was not as personally relevant because race has a more powerful effect than gender on intent to intervene and feelings of responsibility to intervene," they write in the study.

Previous research has found that white people, in general, are less likely to help black victims. A 2008 study on racial bias in helping behavior troublingly found that "as [a situation's] level of emergency increased, the speed and quality of help white participants offered to black victims relative to white victims decreased." When the victim was black, the white participants also viewed the situation as less severe.

Some types of people are perceived as more vulnerable and deserving of protection than others.

"Within US society generally, we have long debated whether people of different racial and ethnic identities who are in vulnerable situations deserve protection and support. Within the social science literature, some types of people are perceived as more vulnerable and deserving of protection than others," the researchers told PsyPost.

Katz and Merrilees said they wanted to conduct a study on racial bias in bystander intervention because college campuses teach it as the primary method of rape and sexual assault prevention. At schools where the majority of the student body is white, the results of their study could indicate that this tactic doesn't account for the safety of women of color. "Our main conclusion is that it is vital for educators to explicitly address the role of race and ethnicity in bystander intervention because a failure to do so disadvantages students of color on predominantly white campuses," they said.

Photo by Eddie Pearson