Dehumanisation, Superhumanisation and Racism

Dehumanisation, Superhumanisation and Racism
Dehumanisation, Superhumanisation and Racism

Dehumanisation and “super-humanisation” 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. Psychology research finds that White police officers and young White students are more likely to see Black children as young as 10 years of age as being less worthy of protection and inviting violence in comparison to White children. Super-humanisation is on the other end of the dehumanisation continuum. It is when majority groups harbour latent ideas that minorities have special qualities or powers that make them less deserving of bodily consideration and pain relief. Research finds that White people have a tendency to see Black people as being stronger and therefore more able to withstand pain. These two twin processes, that place Black people outside of humanity, are steeped in colonial practices and they contribute to excessive policing and violence aimed at Black bodies. There are implications of dehumanisation and super-humanisation on the ongoing events in Ferguson. This social science research speaks to the issues raised by the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

Dehumanisation of Black Youth

In the USA Image by  Mary Engelbreit
Image by Mary Engelbreit

A psychology study from 2014 finds that White police officers as well as White students overwhelmingly perceive Black children as young as 10 years of age to be older, less innocent and culpable, even though they have done nothing wrong.  The study by Dr Phillip Atiba Goff and colleagues is published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. It included 176 police officers, who were mostly White males (average age of 37), and 264 mostly White women undergraduate students. The participants over-estimated Black and Latino boys’ age by an average of 4.5 years. The participants also held an unconscious bias that led them to associate boys of colour, especially Black boys, with animals. Experiments show that the police officers were more willing to use violence to control Black youth.

Bringing together a wealth of social science literature as well as their own data from experiments, the researchers argue that White people are more likely to dehumanise Black boys, not showing the same empathy and willingness to protect their innocence in comparison to images of White children. In other words, Black children are presumed to be guilty and inviting violence by simply doing nothing.

The researchers write:

“Again, the implicit dehumanisation of Black children predicted the extent to which police officers overestimate the age of Black suspects, how culpable those Black suspects are perceived to be, and the extent to which officers were more likely to use force on Black suspects than suspects of other races throughout their career, controlling for how much suspects resist arrest or  are located in high-crime areas.”

Dehumanisation denigrates Black people by subtracting from their humanity. Super-humanisation does the opposite, but to the same effect of making Black people seem less worthy of support.

“Super-Humanisation” of Black People

Psychology research explains how racial bias in pain perception might also apply to the latest series of non-indictments of police officers over the wrongful killing of Black Americans, including Michael Brown and Eric Garner.

Psychology student Kelly Hoffman finds that the history of “super-humanisation” of Black people still informs how White people see Black people. This history has its origins in justifications for slavery: White people thought that Black people were sub-human on the one hand, yet capable of back-breaking labour on the other hand. This view also informed medical procedures in the late 1800s, where Black salves were subjected to torturous surgeries without aesthetic. Most infamously is J. Marion Sims’s gynaecology experiments on Black women slaves who were operated on multiple times.

Hoffman has conducted a series of experiments showing that White people still think that Black people are exceptionally stronger and able to withstand more pain than White people. Officer Darren Wilson, who fatally shot Michael Brown, said in his indictment hearing that Brown appeared “like a demon” and that he was like “Hulk Hogan.” This is despite the fact that both men have similar body types: Michael Brown was 6’5″, and weighed 289 pounds; Wilson is 6’4″ and weighs “210-ish” pounds to “213” pounds by his own admission.

Brown was unarmed, standing outside on the street. Wilson was armed and inside his vehicle when he shot Brown as he ran away form the car. Regardless, plenty of tall White men are arrested without being killed, and the onus is on police to use their training to avoid using  lethal force.

Darren Wilson's Indictment Hearing Statement on Michael Brown Hulk Hogan
Darren Wilson’s Indictment Hearing Statement on Michael Brown Hulk Hogan. Via uproxx

Hoffman notes that doctors are less likely to prescribe pain medication to Black patients when the same conditions lead to different treatment for White patients. Hoffman says:

“this super-humanisation might suggest that one reason that they’re undertreated for pain is because people perceive them as having more strength and being less susceptible to pain. And the finding that Whites are more likely to tolerate police brutality against Blacks – and again, that might be because they think of them as super-human.”

These findings on super-humanisation and dehumanisation can help to put police brutality into context.

Police Violence

The social science research on how Black bodies are perceived help to explain why police violence against Black people continues unabated. It can also explain why White people’s confidence in police has increased since the non-indictment of police officers who murdered unarmed Black people including Aiyana Jones (age 7), Michael Brown (age 18), Eric Garner (age 43), Tamir Rice (age 12) and several other high-profile cases, as well as various other lesser known cases involving women of colour and transgender women. Dehumanisation and super-humanisation of Black bodies is a colonial practice that reinforces racist hierarchies in the present day.

Writing in August 2014, Ta-Nehisi Coates argues:

“This summer in Ferguson and Staten Island we have seen that dominion [the police] employed to the maximum ends—destruction of the body. This is neither new nor extraordinary. It does not matter if the destruction of your body was an overreaction. It does not matter if the destruction of your body resulted from a misunderstanding. It does not matter if the destruction of your body springs from foolish policy. …The destroyers of your body will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions.

It will not do to point out the rarity of the destruction of your body by the people whom you pay to protect it. As Gene Demby has noted, destruction is merely the superlative form of a dominion whose prerogatives include friskings, detainings, beatings, and humiliations. All of this is common to Black people. All of this is old for Black people. No one is held accountable. The body of Michael Brown was left in the middle of the street for four hours. It can not be expected that anyone will be held accountable…

the body count that led us to our present tenuous democratic moment does not elevate us above the community of nations, but installs us uncomfortably within its ranks.”

Police brutality against Black people and the dehumanisation/super-humanisation of Black people by the public is reinforced by social institutions. When Black people can be murdered with impunity, with the protection of the criminal justice system, the logic of racism is sustained. The logic goes thusly: Why are Black people killed? Because they are scary; because they are guilty even when they’ve done nothing; because they are sub-human. This institutional process of violence is maintained through social interactions at the everyday level. On a general level, White people do not have enough close contact with Black people to accept their full humanity. This is clear from their social networks.

Social Networks

While the average Black American has eight White friends, White Americans only have one Black friend. Research by the Public Religion Research Institute finds that 75% of White people have “entirely white social networks without any minority presence.”

In sociology, we use the concept of homophily to explain the structure of social networks. This word literally means “love of the same.” In sociology, this concept measures how little people mix outside their groups, and the consequences of this lack of intermingling. On the outside, friendship groups seem diverse because we tend to think of relationships in reference to individuals. For example: I have a friend who is outgoing and likes horror films and manga comics; I have another friend who’s quiet and likes 70s rock music; another friend likes going to the art gallery and reading Margaret Atwood books; and so on. The fact is, that most people tend to know people similar to themselves where it really counts: along racial and socio-economic lines.

Research shows that lack of diversity in White people’s friendship circles has a societal impact, in that it stagnates social change. White people share the balance of social power, whether they like to admit to it or not. People of colour find ways to connect with White people, but the reverse is not true of the majority of White people. Friendships don’t just “naturally” happen; they aren’t even the strict outcome of personalities or personal preferences. Social relationships are one clear way that power and the status quo are maintained.

Researcher Robert Jones argues the lack of diversity amongst White social networks has a negative impact on civil society. White people lack a personal connection to Black history and culture because they don’t receive adequate formal education on these issues, and because they do not know many Black people. As a result, they are not forced to see and recognise the marginalisation that Black people go through. As such, Jones argues, White people are not “socially positioned” to understand the significance of events at Ferguson and other civil disputes.

These data are backed up by a recent Pew Research study which finds that only 37% of White Americans think Michael Brown’s death and subsequent events in Ferguson raise important issues about race, in contrast to 80% of Black people who do see the connection to racism.

Want to help break down the dehumanisation and super-humanisation of Black people? Start with understanding the history of colonialism and its impact. Know that racism is a system of domination reproduced through social institutions, social relationships and unexamined bias. The knee-jerk reaction from some White people is to deny that they are part of the system, or to make excuses for racism. This only feeds the cycle designed to take away from the humanity of Black people.

Learn More

You can read more of my writing on sociological responses to Ferguson, and a summary of my live tweets of racist media coverage of the Black Lives Matter protests and other events in the USA and Australia. Below, you can learn about gender dynamics of the Black Lives Matter movement, and how to be a better ally.


Top image by artist Mary Engelbreit, who donates all proceeds from this painting to the Michael Brown Jr Memorial Fund.

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