Dehumanization Is a Legacy We Can Stop

“We are all raised on different stories and different narratives about ourselves, about people in the world, about who is safe, who is worthy of protection, who is worthy of being humanized. None of us are exempt from that and it is our responsibility to start to investigate the narratives we’ve been told.”

These words are from Palestinian American writer and clinical psychologist Hala Alyan, speaking with NPR’s Leila Fadel, December 12, 2023, as the conflict in Gaza raged. Alyan is deeply concerned about the dangers of dehumanization.

The Harriet Beecher Stowe Center shares Alyan’s concern. The Stowe Center is committed to rejecting dehumanization as we encourage social justice by exploring the legacy of Harriet Beecher Stowe.

In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Stowe exposed the injustices of slavery, pushing back against dominant cultural beliefs that the physical and emotional capacities of Black people made them less than white people.

Stowe became a leading voice in the anti-slavery movement, and yet, her ideas about race were complicated. In letters to friends and family members, Stowe demonstrated that she did not believe in racial equality; she suggested, for example, that emancipated slaves should be sent to Africa, and she used derogatory language when describing black servants. Even in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Stowe drew on popular and deeply offensive racial stereotypes when describing some of her characters. Though these beliefs seem to contradict Stowe’s commitment to anti-slavery, many white abolitionists believed that slavery was unjust while also believing that white people were intellectually, physically, and spiritually superior to Black people.

The Stowe Center is absolutely in agreement with Alyan when she asserts that it is essential for us to recognize when dehumanization is happening not only in the world, but in our own thoughts: “It is our responsibility to pay attention,” Alyan says. “Perhaps the most powerful thing, is to notice that [dehumanization] is happening.”


Notice that dehumanization is happening.


Throughout history, throughout the world, and throughout this country—a country in which we like to believe that all people are created equal—dehumanization plagues our humanity.

In 2017 Brian Resnik, in Vox about the science of dehumanization, states that dehumanization is “the darkest, most ancient, and most disturbing mental programs encoded into our minds.” Resnik cites Nour Kteily, a psychologist at Northwestern University, who said:

“We have this incredible capacity for cooperation; it’s what makes us human in many ways. And yet we have this capacity for othering. Dehumanization doesn’t only occur in wartime. It’s happening right here, right now. And every day, good people who don’t see themselves as being prejudiced bigots are nevertheless falling prey to it.”

How often do we inadvertently succumb to “the norm,” thinking preconceived notions about a group of people or an individual who we perceive as part of a group we have stereotyped? How often do we judge consciously, thinking we know a person because of what they look like or where they are from? We Americans have been conditioned by a long line of terrible disruptions, erasures, and violence.

Poet and author Heather ‘Byrd’ Roberts, in her essay “Dehumanization: An American Ingredient Examined,” shared this litany:

When we dehumanize others, we dehumanize ourselves, and this country is constructed on the basis of dehumanization: American chattel enslavement of African and African Americans between 1776 to 1865, the Indigenous genocide that’s estimated to have taken 13 million lives since 1492, the World War II Japanese American internment camps from 1942-45 of 120,000 people on U.S. soil, the 1932-1972 Tuskegee Airmen experiments on 600 Black men who were not advised on the real nature of the research study, the forced sterilization of 60,000 poor women across 32 states by Eugenics boards from 1932-1966 with the majority of those sterilized being Black women, the 69,550 migrant children held in 2019 in U.S. detention centers and in more recent history, the ongoing fight for marriage equality and transgender rights. 

The fallout from dehumanization is erasure and silencing.

Alyan said: “The real problem of dehumanization, the real sneaky thing that dehumanization does is it delegitimizes the dehumanized from being able to speak on their own experience. . . . It puts people in a position to be silenced.”

When Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin, she intended to humanize enslaved people and expose the realities of slavery for those people who needed to know better—white people. She was compelled as a fellow human to “speak for the oppressed — who cannot speak for themselves.”

Although six thousand freedom narratives by enslaved and self-emancipated people were in circulation, including those by Venture Smith (1796), Omar ibn Said (1860s), Frederick Douglass (1845), Josiah Henson (1849), Harriet Jacobs (1861), and others, none sold like Stowe’s sentimental novel.


And what does any of this have to do with Hala Alyan?

Alyan exposes the root to the evil that perpetuates division: The willingness of one group of people—any group of people—to see themselves as superior to another. The evil is one group believing they are human while another group is not.

In that December interview with NPR, Alyan asserted that humanization is not a zero sum. The humanity of Palestinians does not take away the humanity of anyone else, she said.

Each and all of us embracing the inherent worth and humanity of all people is key to our path forward.

The psychologist Kteily said: “We have this incredible capacity for cooperation; it’s what makes us human in many ways.”

Poet Roberts wrote:

We need to re-examine how to talk to each other, reclaim the importance of showcasing all narratives, and say all our names. By making the commitment to educate ourselves, we awaken critical awareness of the world, which is a humanizing action. The worst thing we can do is pretend dehumanization does not exist. We have to make the commitment to dismantle the machine if we want real change.

We do want real change.

Help us dismantle this machine together. Let us do the work to better understand each other—read, listen, talk, make space to notice. Please notice—and then take action to stop othering by nurturing understanding.

Recommended Reading:

Hala Alyan: Salt Houses.

Isabel Wilkerson: Caste: The Origins of our Discontent (This link will take you to an interview on YouTube of Wilkerson by Stowe Prize for Literary Activism winner Bryan Stevenson)

Karen Fisk is the Executive Director of the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center. The Stowe Center is committed to exploring Stowe’s legacy by amplifying the voices of the constellation of freedom seekers from whom she learned and sharing their stories of agency, strength, and purpose.