”Racism is man’s gravest threat to man – the maximum of hatred for a minimum of reason.”
Abraham Joshua Heschel
Racism is the belief that characteristics and abilities can be attributed to people simply on the basis of their race and that some racial groups are superior to others. Racism and discrimination have been used as powerful weapons encouraging fear or hatred of others in times of conflict and war, and even during economic downturns.
Racism,Dehumanisation and “Super-Humanization”
Dehumanisation and “super-humanization” are two sides of the same coin serving a racist agenda. Dehumanisation is the process by which conscious and unconscious bias leads people to see a racial minority as less human – less worthy of respect, dignity, love, peace, and protection. Super-humanisation is on the other end of the dehumanization continuum. It is when majority groups harbor latent ideas that minorities have special qualities or powers that make them less deserving of bodily consideration and pain relief.
What, if any, connections should I make between race, racism, and dehumanization?
Racism and dehumanization are very intimately connected. To explain the connection, I need to say a little bit about what race and dehumanization really are.
Let’s start with race. Races are supposed to be real, objective divisions of the human family—analogous, perhaps, to breeds of dog. To be a member of a certain race is to be a certain kind of human being. Racial identity is supposed to be innate and unalterable (you don’t have any choice about what race you belong to) and transmitted from one generation to the next.
There are many systems of racial classification and these vary from one historical era to the next as well as from culture to culture.
The idea that races are invented will probably sound crazy to a lot of people. They’ll think of it as a silly idea that only an academic who’s out of touch with the real world could come up with. Surely, there are visible features such as skin color, hair texture, facial morphology, and body build that set the races apart from one another!
It would be foolish to pretend that there aren’t obvious biological differences between human beings and that these differences are tied to certain geographical regions. If you’re a light-skinned person with blue eyes you very probably had lots of ancestors from northern Europe, and if you’re a dark-skinned person with tightly curled dark hair you very probably had lots of ancestors from sub-Saharan Africa. Nobody worth listening to denies these facts about human diversity, but there’s a big difference between race and diversity.
Phenotypic diversity is a fact, but a race is a theory. It’s what we call a folk-theory. It’s a way of trying to explain human diversity by positing that there are a small number of “pure” types (races) of human beings—black, white, etc. According to the folk-theory, everyone is either a member of one of these pure types or a mixture of them. This theory of race is false, for all sorts of reasons. One reason is the fact that the biological traits that are conventionally associated with race—like skin color—vary continuously across geographical regions. Imagine taking a slow train from equatorial Africa to Scandinavia. As you travel north, the skin color of the people that you see lightens gradually. So any line that you choose to draw between so-called white people and so-called black people is bound to be arbitrary. The very same consideration applies to all the other “racialized” traits as well.
Now, there’s one more key point about race that I need to discuss before moving on to talk about dehumanization. According to the folk-theory, a person’s appearance is an indicator of their race, but it isn’t what makes them a member of that race. Perhaps an analogy will make this a little clearer. Sneezing, a stuffy nose and a sore throat are all symptoms of having a cold, but they aren’t what makes it the case that one has a cold (being infected with a cold virus). If a person’s race were purely a matter of how they look, it would be possible to change one’s race by changing one’s appearance. But this doesn’t fit with the way that we ordinarily think about race. Also, consider the notion of “passing.” A person is said to “pass” as a member of a race if they misleadingly present themselves as belonging to that race on the basis of their appearance (for obvious reasons, it is most often members of oppressed groups that pass themselves off as members of the dominant group, although there are some interesting exceptions). If race were really determined by appearance, then the notion of passing would make no sense at all.
The fact that the way that a person is racially categorized can come apart from their appearance forces us to look more deeply into what’s really going on when we racially classify people. We seem to assume that every member of a race shares some deep characteristic or “essence” that is unique to that race—something “in the blood” or in the genes that’s innate, unchangeable, and inherited biologically from one’s parents.
The notion that there are racial essences doesn’t have a shred of scientific support. In fact, it’s totally incompatible with what science tells us about human variability. It’s pure fiction, but it’s a fiction that’s stubbornly rooted in our ordinary ways of thinking.
Now we’re positioned to move on to the topic of dehumanization. I need to start by clarifying what I mean by “dehumanization.” The word “dehumanization” is used in all sorts of ways in both the scholarly and popular literature. Some people see any kind of demeaning, disrespectful, or degrading treatment of others as dehumanizing. Others think of objectification—for example, the sexual objectification of women in pornography—as dehumanizing. And there are many, many more notions of dehumanization in circulation. When I use the term “dehumanization,” I have something very specific in mind: when we dehumanize others, we think of them as subhuman creatures.
A lot of my work on dehumanization has been focused on explaining why this happens and explicating the psychological processes that underpin it. Briefly, I think that we dehumanize others to disable inhibitions against harming them. All social animals have built-in inhibitions against harming members of their communities. If these inhibitions weren’t in place, their social groups would disintegrate. Human beings are far more social than any other mammal. We live in very large, highly cooperative groups in which lethal violence is relatively uncommon. However, we’re also highly intelligent primates, and our great big brains enable us to recognize that it’s sometimes advantageous for us to do violence to our fellow human beings. Dehumanization is a way of overcoming our inhibitions against performing acts of violence for our own advantage. Conceiving of other people as rats, snakes, lice, dangerous predators, or beasts of burden, makes it much easier to treat them inhumanely.
Racism is often a precursor to dehumanization. In circumstances where one group of people wants to exterminate, harm, or enslave another group of people, the first step is to form the belief that the target group is racially alien. But this isn’t yet dehumanization, because members of the target group are seen as inferior human beings, but human beings nonetheless. However, racism very easily transforms into dehumanization. When this happens, members of the oppressed group are no longer seen as inferior human beings, but rather as counterfeit human beings—beings that look like humans, but which aren’t really human at all.