Dehumanization: An American ingredient examined

As an alumna of color, I remember the extra burden of making sense of myself, by myself, without the language to describe my experience at a predominately white institution. There was a constant balance between being a full-time student and having to educate about my existence. The exhaustion alone is enough to reconsider my belonging. 

Dehumanization affects the oppressed and the oppressor. In order to actively dismantle it, we need to transform the world by acknowledging and denouncing the process of dehumanization. We need to examine the ways we are dehumanizing others on the Hilltop and beyond, evaluate it, and find ways to revitalize our humanness. If we reevaluate our relationship to violence and power, we can dream of a newer and inclusive society.

We all watched with eyes peeled and mouth agape when the gates parted and the walls were scaled at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. We observed the contrast between that insurrection and the protest eruption on May 30, 2020, surrounding George Floyd’s death. The unfortunate responses to obvious pain in 2020 were met with force. The contrast was stark and sadly familiar. The words I needed were untraceable. While checking in on friends, we sat in silence, with a few periodic scuffs and bursts of inaudible disbelief. 

Only a few seconds passed before I remembered the forces at work and why contrasting images in May of 2020 swept across my television. 

According to Merriam-Webster, dehumanization is “to deprive someone of human qualities, personality, or dignity; to demean that person’s humanity or individuality.” In addition, when we dehumanize others, we dehumanize ourselves, and this country is constructed on the basis of dehumanization: American chattel enslavement of African and African Americans between 1776 to 1865, the Indigenous genocide that’s estimated to have taken 13 million lives since 1492, the World War II Japanese American internment camps from 1942-45 of 120,000 people on U.S. soil, the 1932-1972 Tuskegee Airmen experiments on 600 Black men who were not advised on the real nature of the research study, the forced sterilization of 60,000 poor women across 32 states by Eugenics boards from 1932-1966 with the majority of those sterilized being Black women, the 69,550 migrant children held in 2019 in U.S. detention centers and in more recent history, the ongoing fight for marriage equality and transgender rights. 

We move through this world with a violent, revolving history rooted in dehumanization. Our ingredients include power, prejudice, bias, irrational fears, and cognitive dissonance. This is our devastating recipe for the United States of America’s land of the “free.” 

Each ingredient is unconscious, ingrained behavior and unchecked can be detrimental to the safety of others. We need to slow down, examine, and listen to the things we do not always want to acknowledge. However, humans do not enjoy discomfort. We end up falling into one of three categories: the need to save people by fixing their problems without the proper acknowledgment, admitting harm and addressing it collaboratively, or justifying the act by removing humanity by saying things like “they deserved it.”

In many cases, we default to the latter option by presenting individuals as subhuman, allowing cognitive dissonance to take root. The way in which our minds disassociate from someone’s humanity to justify behavior leads to dehumanization. Dehumanized actions such as neglecting the school-to-prison pipeline, the denial of a person’s pronouns, and the discrimination continuing in Black women’s health is a new little hurt every day.  

At times, living in this body is like being an invisible entity in a warm body. The isolation alone is detrimental. I live in this skin, and the world needs to acknowledge the work we need to do in order to transform centuries of dehumanization and societal oppression. We need to re-examine how to talk to each other, reclaim the importance of showcasing all narratives, and say all our names. By making the commitment to educate ourselves, we awaken critical awareness of the world, which is a humanizing action. The worst thing we can do is pretend dehumanization does not exist. We have to make the commitment to dismantle the machine if we want real change.

Heather ‘Byrd’ Roberts ’09 talks about the process of writing and editing this article.