Thoughts on the Dehumanization of Asian Americans

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5 mins read
Crowd holding American flags

How do we make sense of the seemingly senseless murders of six Asian women and the spate of anti-Asian violence amid the pandemic? By learning about dehumanization and its role in the infliction of atrocities against a dehumanized class of people.

Dehumanization is the process of treating humans as less than human, as sub-human or even non-human. Dehumanization is an insidious process that literally kills people. It is, in the words of philosopher David Livingstone Smith, “racism on steroids.”

Historically, dehumanization has gone hand in hand with genocide and slavery. It is easy to enslave people when you dehumanize them as beast-like creatures. The logic is impeccable. If you’re not human, then you’re not entitled to human rights.

Dehumanization leads inexorably to the infliction of harm by lifting moral constraints that typically prevent people from doing so. Since moral principles like “love thy neighbor” only apply to other humans, dehumanization renders those principles irrelevant when it comes to a dehumanized group. So, when you dehumanize people by, say, calling them a disease, moral constraints are lifted and the worst aspects of humanity come out.

Dehumanization played a central role in the Holocaust. The Nazis and Adolph Hitler thought of Jews as vermin, rats and maggots, as pests needing extermination.

Dehumanization plays a central role in systemic racism experienced by Black Americans, especially when it comes to racist policing. One way that Black Americans are dehumanized is by being likened to apes or monkeys.

Relentlessly calling COVID-19 the “China virus,” the “Chinese virus” or “kung flu” has systematically and thoroughly dehumanized Asians. For over a year, “China virus” has been repeated over and over again by powerful people like the former president of the United States, inculcating people to believe that Asians are not just like a virus, but are in fact an actual virus.

The term “Chinese virus” implies that there is a Chinese essence to the coronavirus. From there it’s but a small leap to think a Chinese person carries that same essence with her. And it’s another small leap to think that a Chinese person fully embodies the virus — or is the virus itself. A few weeks ago, basketball player Jeremy Lin was called coronavirus by another player.

It’s the belief that Asians are a virus that leads to violence against Asians. Think about it this way — if you actually think that Asians are a virus, an infectious disease, what’s the logical thing to do about Asians? Eradicate them, eliminate them, destroy them. 

Asian women are also dehumanized as sexualized objects, and that specific kind of dehumanization may have played a role in the Georgia murders. A neurological study conducted demonstrated that when men viewed women in a sexualized way, the parts of the brain that recognize the agency of another human being are turned off. A person stripped of agency is not someone being viewed as a full human being. 

In the context of dehumanization, the violent acts against Asians that we’ve seen in the past year were all but inevitable. The violence isn’t random, it isn’t just “hate.” It’s the worst of humanity unleashed through dehumanization and the consequent lifting of moral constraints.

So what can we do about it? First, stop saying “China virus” or “kung flu.” Then, start the process of what I call rehumanization. Rehumanization means treating a dehumanized group as people once again. Asians need to be seen as humans. Simple, yes. But, the rehumanization process is made difficult because of the long cultural history of Asian dehumanization as a dangerous horde of unassimilable subhumans.

We need to work hard at rehumanization. That means learning about the victims and searching for their core humanity. It means listening to their stories. Rehumanization also means using the language of humanity in talking about Asians. Calling Asians brothers and sisters may be simple, but it’s powerful. The language of humanity and empathy needs to drown out the language of dehumanization. In this process of rehumanization, words do, in fact, matter. Words can heal. Words can re-engage people’s morality. So call out dehumanization when you see it, then work diligently to rehumanize Asians. Let this process begin now.


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Reginald Oh is Associate Director of The Loyal Opposition. His primary focus is on issues relating to constitutional law, the protection of vulnerable communities, and the reduction of political polarization in America. A law professor at the Cleveland Marshall College of Law who teaches constitutional law and legal ethics, Reggie’s scholarship is focused on the meaning of equality under the Fourteenth Amendment Equal Protection Clause. His current research focuses on the central role that dehumanization plays in fostering inequality and discrimination, and the possibility for law to counter it.
Reginald is on the Board of Directors for DemCast.

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