Study: White college women are less likely to to help a black woman at risk of rape

A new study has found that white college women are less likely to to help a black women at risk of sexual assault than a non-black woman.

In the study, 160 white female undergraduates read a story about a sober man taking a clearly intoxicated woman into a private bedroom at a party. In some versions of the story, the potential victim had a distinctively black name (LaToya or Tanisha) while in others the woman had a non-racially distinct name (Laura or Teresa). The study found that the participants felt less personally responsible to intervene and said they would be less likely to intervene in the situation when the woman was described with a black-sounding name.

The findings were published in the journal Psychology of Women Quarterly. PsyPost interviewed the study’s corresponding authors, Jennifer Katz and Christine Merrilees of SUNY Geneseo. Read their responses below:

PsyPost: Why were you interested in this topic?

Katz and Merrilees: Basic research on bystander intervention can help educators to more effectively encourage students to promote campus safety when they identify problem situations. Because many colleges rely on bystander education as a primary method for preventing sexual assault, in order to encourage more prosocial inclinations, we need to know when and why students aren’t inclined to intervene. Many college campuses in the U.S. enroll mostly White students. As such, it’s important to identify whether White students are less willing to intervene on behalf of vulnerable students of color because, in these settings, a majority of bystanders with the potential to intervene will be White.

Within U.S. 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. Other researchers specifically have shown that negative stereotypes about women of color affect perceptions of Black women who were sexually or physically assaulted. If these types of negative judgments of actual victims also apply to potential victims, then bystanders may be less likely to intervene to prevent the victimization of Black women.

What should the average person take away from your study?

Our findings suggest that racial/ethnic differences between a White bystander and a potential victim interfere with White bystanders’ prosocial behavior. 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. In broader terms, it seems like bystanders need to psychologically identify with the potential victim in order to feel like they have an obligation to be involved, and racial/ethnic differences impede this identification. 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.

Are there any major caveats? What questions still need to be addressed?

Our study raises many different questions. A clear caveat is that participants were responding to scenarios rather than actual events in which they witnessed risk for sexual assault. On our campus, there are very few students of color, and it’s unclear whether and to what degree the findings from our campus generalize to other campus communities. Many different questions still need to be addressed. For example, we studied responses to a Black woman at risk for sexual assault, but many different types of women, including trans women, are at risk for sexual and other types of assault that might be prevented by bystanders. Studies of responses to women and men from different racial and ethnic groups who are at risk for harm also are needed. In addition, our study didn’t investigate college men’s willingness to intervene to help a Black woman at risk.

Although past research consistently shows that college women are more likely than college men to intervene to prevent a potential sexual assault, it is unclear whether that general pattern remains true when the potential victim is a woman of color. One next step for future research is to identify the characteristics of White college students related to a willingness to intervene to help a student of color. We hypothesize that individual differences in frequency and quality of contact with people of color, biases about racial/ethnic group members, and beliefs about the value of racial/ethnic diversity may be factors that promote prosocial intervention behavior among White college students who witness students of color at risk or in need. Factors that affect feelings of personal responsibility to intervene also warrant additional study. Our past research shows that both men and women feel more personally responsible to intervene when a friend is at risk for victimization than when a stranger is at risk. Accordingly, we speculate that White people who have more close friendships with people of color would feel more responsible to intervene to help a student of color in need.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

We know that it is often challenging for White people (like ourselves) to think deeply about issues related to race and campus climate. Such thoughts and conversations often elicit negative emotions such as guilt, defensiveness, or anger. We hope that that studies such as ours will help encourage awareness in a way that elicits positive intentions to overcome potentially unconscious biases. We believe that to the degree that White students are more mindful about how race/ethnicity may affect their perceptions and behavior, they are more likely to behave in a genuinely inclusive way.

The study, “White Female Bystanders’ Responses to a Black Woman at Risk for Incapacitated Sexual Assault“, was also co-authored by Christine Merrilees, Jill C. Hoxmeier, and Marisa Motisi.