Are You a Person?

I’m writing this post primarily for US citizens who think of themselves as white. In the past several weeks I’ve learned a lot of white citizens are excited for a political climate which is no longer controlled by “political correctness.” In these conversations, my understanding is that this means they feel safe to say what’s on their minds without worrying about unwanted consequences.

To some extent I think I understand the problem. These days it seems like a lot of folks get “called out” and “corrected” as though the only problem with saying certain words and concepts is that you’re not supposed to say them, or you have to use the correct language. What I want to write about today is about some of the underlying premises that get lost in Internet arguments.

Let’s start with a classic text, Huckleberry Finn. I was a precocious reader and read this novel a few times in my late childhood before being required to read it in high school. On my third reading, I believe I was about fifteen, I finally noticed a strange and unsettling subtext in this excerpt in a conversation between Huckleberry Finn and Aunt Sally (I censored a racial slur that refers to Black folk. The slur matters but still not one I feel like having on my site.):

“It warn’t the grounding—that didn’t keep us back but a little. We blowed out a cylinder-head.”

“Good gracious! anybody hurt?”

“No’m. Killed a n*****.”

“Well, it’s lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt.”

Did you notice? The text doesn’t dwell on this point at all, it moves into a comical and unrelated speech by Aunt Sally. If you didn’t notice, go back and think about Sally’s question and Huck’s response. Who counts as a “person”?

Dr. Joy DeGruy, author of the excellent Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome, provides an in-depth analysis in her talks about how cognitive dissonance was necessary for the United States to keep up the abominable practice of chattel slavery, and how the long-running practice of repairing cognitive dissonance continues to this day.

I think that excerpted dialogue illustrates it well: Aunt Sally is asking if any person got hurt. Huck knows that she means “white people” and says no, but he goes on to acknowledge the killing of a black person in the same breath. His mind appears to recognize both are actually people, but he has to deny it inwardly and out loud to perpetuate the systems of white supremacy and slavery that are in place. He and Aunt Sally collude on who they consider human, whose suffering counts, whose death matters.

A white-skinned humanoid body with a leaf covering its face. Photo by Sandis Helvigs
A white-skinned humanoid body with a leaf covering its face. Photo by Sandis Helvigs

Dehumanization is necessary for any form of oppression, violence, and human rights abuse. If the oppressing group did not make the victims inhuman then they would risk feeling empathy for them, would risk recognizing that their treatment is unfair and unjust (dare I say inhuman), and would become uncomfortably aware of how personal comfort and success hinges upon this maltreatment. When that conflict arises, as Dr. DeGruy notes, the oppressors learn to mask it, ignore it, justify it, but we can’t completely annihilate it.

Some years ago, I was working at a coffee bar downtown while also finishing my Master’s degree. I did a practicum working with homeless youth, many of whom would hang out near my coffee bar either asking for money or socializing because those were the few places available to them during the day. One day, I was taking my lunch and noticed that some of the youth I’d gotten to know were asking for money outside the window. They had a dog with them. Another person who worked in the store sat next to me and bemoaned, “I hate it when homeless people have dogs. I feel so bad for the dogs having to live like that. I wish I could adopt [the dogs].”

Did you notice? Who is a person to that coworker? Whose suffering matters? Not the human beings whose parents had thrown them out of the house, who had to ask for money on the street. In this case, it was the perceived suffering of the dog—an animal who is better suited for outdoor living due to having fur, an affinity for packs, and a scavenger palate that can survive on lots of different kinds of food. Perhaps this teaches us another dimension of cognitive dissonance—this person might have recognized and had momentary empathy for these humans, but instead directed it at the safer target of the dog. She could make the homeless people villainous by blaming them for making the dog live on the street, and not wonder about a society that does not protect and house all of its people.

My coworker was not a horrible person, just as Aunt Sally is not depicted as an evil shrew. Repairing cognitive dissonance actually makes people seem much happier and easier to hang around with. As long as you don’t challenge them and make them risk rethinking their dissonance, they seem quite lovely, generous, giving people. Instead it’s the people who call this out, who point to the dissonance and note that what we’re rationalizing is really awful—they bring up things we don’t want to face, so we don’t like them as much.

What gets excoriated as “being too politically correct” is the effort to make everyone a person and root out these dehumanizing tendencies in our culture. When we call people slurs, describe them as animals, dismiss their needs and pains, or justify their suffering, we make them less than human and thus easier for our society to continue oppressing. When the people we think of as our protectors kill unarmed Black teenagers, we look for ways to make that teenager a “thug”, less than human, and thus okay to kill.

The “exceptional minority” is no less rooted in this same tendency, by the way. If you assume everyone in a particular class is sub-human, but you point out and elevate one in particular as being “a credit” to their group, that remains complicit in the dehumanization and continues to prove it. “If only you acted like this one particular person we like, then we’d take your feelings seriously.”

If you’re wondering why I’m writing about this in my therapy blog—I do not believe we can separate out larger patterns of dehumanization from inner patterns of shame and worthlessness. I see, moreover, how dehumanization adds stress and emotional trauma to the lives of people of color, queer people, disabled people, and poor people. We need other people as mirrors, and if those mirrors constantly treat us as subhuman, then the effort it takes to keep up my sense of self is tremendous.

When I’m the one dehumanizing others, I add tremendous stress to my ability to comprehend and deal with reality. I make it harder to give and receive support, and limit those potential sources of support. I learn how to deny and repress toxicity in my world, which means I’m doing it in me as well. I become less strong, less resilient, more fearful and guarded. I contribute to a world in which everyone’s personhood is in question, which means on some level I know mine to be as well, and those questions are only definitively answered by whomever is in power at any given time.

What makes you a person? If you were applying for a job, and the interviewer asked you that question, and you knew that your answer determined whether you were even a candidate for the job, how would you answer?

Continued Work

  1. Identify a group or category of people about whom you feel fear, disgust, or anger. Think about what behaviors or qualities arouse these feelings in you.
    1. Imagine yourself as a person who is behaving in that way. What would be necessary to get you to that point? Under what circumstances would that behavior or those qualities seem necessary, useful, or the only options available to you?
    2. Do some reading about the group, particularly journalism or writing that is sympathetic to the group. Note what qualities or justifications these works highlight, whether they contradict or are simply different from your familiar associations. Notice what questions and conflicts arise in you. Notice when you want to make one group all good and one all bad—even if you attempt to switch categories.
  2. For the next month, notice when you observe dehumanizing language or discussions about groups of people—any people. At least once a week, think about one particular group and the dehumanizing stories and images associated with them.
    1. Ask yourself, “What gets hidden or dismissed when I view these people as not human?”
    2. Ask yourself, “Who benefits from me seeing these people as not human?”