Pillars of Caste: Dehumanization and Stigma

Isabel Wilkerson rightly described the sixth pillar of caste systems, Dehumanization and Stigma, as a war against the truth, a war against what the eyes can see. It is easy to recognize other members of the human species. Yet human beings have used ethnicity and meaningless physical differences to deprive other fully human beings of the benefits of being fully human.

Dehumanization is the denial of full humanness in others and the cruelty and suffering that accompanies it.

Wikipedia

Dehumanization allows the the perpetrator to avoid the stab of conscience that should come with being cruel to another person. If the marginalized group is seen not as the humans they clearly are but as something less than human, then it becomes easy to justify treating them inhumanely.

David Livingstone Smith says that “thinking of humans as less than human paves the way for atrocity.” Yes, it leads to the horrifying atrocities of slavery and genocide.

The Holocaust epitomized dehumanization. Nazi Germany made Jews their scapegoats, blaming them for the country’s troubles. Their heads were shaved and they were stripped of their clothes, their jewelry, their identities. The bodies of prisoners were tattooed with numbers. They were starved. Their bodies were used for experiments without their consent. They were systematically exterminated, like vermin.

What’s most disturbing about the Nazi phenomenon is not that the Nazis were madmen or monsters. It’s that they were ordinary human beings.

David Livingstone Smith

What’s most disturbing about the enslavement of Africans is that white slave owners were not madmen or monsters. They were ordinary human beings. Slaves were stripped of their given names. Their bodies did not belong to them; they were auctioned off like cattle. Children were taken from their mothers at a young age because they were just another commodity to be sold and put to work. Slaves were not allowed to learn to read. They were not even free to express normal human emotions.

Wilkerson noted that it is difficult to dehumanize an individual but if you dehumanize a group, you dehumanize the individuals in that group. When we dehumanize other people, we deprive them of human qualities like intelligence or personality. When we dehumanize, we deny others their human dignity. When we dehumanize a group of individuals, they become nameless, faceless scapegoats.

When we dehumanize others, we separate ourselves from our own humanity. We stop feeling what humans should feel when another person suffers.

Wilkerson didn’t write about how stigma is used to uphold caste systems. Wikipedia defines social stigma as “the disapproval of, or discrimination against, an individual or group based on perceivable social characteristics that serve to distinguish them from other members of a society.”

Blacks have been freed from the dehumanization of slavery but they have not escaped the stigma of being Black in America. Laura Cathcart Robbins wrote an article, A White Woman Told Me She Doesn’t ‘Think Of’ Me As Black. When a white woman said that to Robbins, she thought to herself: Do you imagine that affluence trumps race out there in the real world? Because honestly, it is the other way around. Despite her success, Robbins has been stigmatized and called nigger because she is black.

Even people who are not of African descent are not free from the stigma of being a person of color in America. Amelia Zachry, an immigrant from Malaysia, wrote about a racist incident she experienced at a restaurant in Kentucky: A Man Spit On My Toddler And Called Her The N-Word. He walked away, “oblivious to the inaccuracy of the insult.” Zachry did not retaliate against the man, saying “I would have been the angry Black woman who doesn’t even self-identify as Black.” Does it matter that she doesn’t even identify as Black? Of course not. People who do identify as Black do not deserve to be treated as subhuman.

It is disturbing to read about the cruelties and atrocities that result when human beings see other human beings as less than human. It disturbs me because I am fully human and have the capacity to empathize. But I think it is important to face the horrific things human beings have done to each other (and continue to do to each other) so we don’t forget our capacity for evil. It starts with treating someone as “other.” It starts with blaming and shaming and stigmatizing.

In this war against the truth of what the eyes can see and what the heart can feel if we let it, be the one who defends the dignity of fellow human beings.