A couple of weeks ago, while on my customary Sabbath walk, I had an encounter that left me a quite shaken. I was busy admiring the day and enjoying my walk when a white man on a bike whizzed past me nearly knocking me over. He then looked behind and proceeded to yell at me in the most hateful voice, YOU BLACK MONKEY.
Now, I’m not a stranger to these types of incidences where my humanity is called into question. But despite my extensive experience, I was still left frozen in place. I couldn’t think of a response. Everything in me slowed to that ominous quiet that usually comes before a storm. When the storm did hit, it felt like my chest was too small for my heart; I couldn’t breathe. I felt exposed. The tears collected at the corners of my eyes.
I always forget that I’m black.
Actually, that’s not exactly accurate. The world never lets me forget that I’m black because to be black means something specific. What I do forget is why my blackness is a problem for other people. How I see myself is not how other people see me. When I look in the mirror I see me: a human being, a fully formed woman. I certainly don’t go about thinking of myself as a black monkey, not until I’m reminded that’s what someone else sees when they look at me.
But none of this is surprising, I know this. Historically we’ve always maintained a hierarchy within the human category. For our most recent history we can trace it to the 18th century when white Europeans who sincerely but also strategically internalised the theory, placed themselves at the top of the hierarchy. They were the epitome of all of that was right and good about humanity and if you weren’t white European you were put on a different level. The closer you were to the bottom of the ladder, the closer you were to the apes. For example, Africans and Indigenous peoples were said to occupy the extremity of this hierarchy.
What is this disconnect between how we see ourselves and how others see us?
We have heard of the adage what others think about you is none of your business. Unfortunately, for some groups of people, to not have to worry about what others think about them is a privilege and luxury they can’t afford. It comes at a great cost. History has proven that most kinds of mass violence like genocide begin with this disconnect. A group of people is labeled to be something other than human (i.e. objectified) by the rest of the world, which then justify any atrocity perpetrated against them.
- Jews were called rats.
- Tsutis were called cockroaches.
- Blacks were called monkeys.
Objectification is itself a form of violence. When we objectify people, it becomes possible and even easier to annihilate them, wether literally or metaphorically.
We all know, despite what we see in the movies that it’s very difficult, psychologically, to kill another human being up close and in cold blood, or to inflict atrocities on them. To do it we have to overcome the very deep and natural inhibitions they have against treating other people like game animals or vermin or dangerous predators.
David L. Smith, Less than human – why we demean, enslave and exterminate others.
It’s important to understand that objectification is not simply comparing ourselves with others then concluding that we are better than them. It does include that aspect but is also so much more. It involves conceiving other people as subhuman, creatures, something altogether different from what we ourselves are. This is the first step in the dehumanisation process. It can also be very subtle.
How objectification works
Objectification serves a purpose. It is very much tied to control. Most of us are addicted to control; we want to have power over everything including others, whether we are aware of it or not. But we also know (unless we are psychopaths) that other people do not exist for us to control so we find other ways to soothe the cognitive dissonance either through manipulation or objectification. When people are stripped of their humanity and personhood, it consciously feels okay to degrade them; to control them. It is easier to have awful thoughts about people we don’t consider human because if they are not human who cares? No one can even see our thoughts. It is also easier to say unkind things to people who are objectified as animals because what does it matter? It’s just words to people who are not people anyway. It is easier to hurt people who are dehumanised because they don’t feel pain. How can they, when they are not like US?
And before you claim to not have this kind of bone in your being, I want to draw your attention to the subtle ways many of us participate in the dehumanisation project:
- We deny other people’s experience of the world;
- We think demeaning thoughts about people who are different from us;
- We treat people according to the stereotypes we know about them;
- We deny certain people (e.g. the poor, black people, indigenous peoples), full human experiences like success, failure, redemption, forgiveness, opportunity, joy, pain etc;
- We perpetuate lies, half truths and stereotypes about groups of people by talking with friends, teaching our children and refusing to challenge our perspectives;
- We deny the truth when it is presented to us.
Injustice usually begins where there is a need to control others.
We can also objectify ourselves. In fact people who objectify others tend to objectify themselves first. This pre-foundational objectification consists of making oneself more superior than others – setting oneself up as the measure against which everyone else will be judged. Thus the self becomes the god everyone else has to either aspire to and/or worship.
I remember when it finally sunk in that there was a specific reason I was not considered beautiful, desirable or valuable by mainstream standards (entirely and purely based on white aesthetics). Over the years and after hearing it so many times in many different ways, this idea took hold and hooked into how I viewed myself. The features of black skin, broad nose and kinky hair made beauty inaccessible for me. Again, this is where people advocate a vigilante type of resistance, which includes things like; you make your own beauty. Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder. It doesn’t matter what others think about you. No one can make you feel bad about yourself unless you let them. These are positive thoughts but when they are mobilised as a language of privilege to mask objectification and sanction oppression, they are violent. They make people who are victims of oppression their own perpetrators. If no-one can make anyone feel bad, it doesn’t matter what anybody says anyway. It’s up to the person who is listening to protect themselves. It is the most genius way those in power have invented to keep their privilege.
Thanks to a thorough conditioning, I had already lived a lifetime of second guessing my own worth. This is why when that man called me a monkey; it brought to the fore all the things that people say about my black body that are ingrained in the culture, in people and to a certain degree, in me. I had to stop and ask the obvious question: is this true? Am I a monkey?
Objectification is always based on the lie that you get to define what a human being is. And consequently, what they look like. It’s back to the control we spoke of earlier. Where there is a need to control others is usually where injustice begins. As the Subject, whatever you decide qualifies as “human” will be based on your thoughts, feelings, and your views of the world. If you can decide what people are, you can also decide their fate; whether they get to live or die.
In a hierarchical society where some people are considered more human than others, it makes sense to have masterful propaganda that keeps the hierarchy in place.
So you see, there is nothing innocent about a white man calling me a black monkey when I’m simply taking a stroll in my neighbourhood. He is saying; don’t forget your place. You’re not human like me. Whether he is thinking that or not, is not the point. The point is that he was embodying a well-known and finely tuned cultural narrative about people like me. He was dehumanising me.
It’s important to remember that justice begins with me. Justice begins with you. We cannot be kind or empathetic or loving to the people we think are less than; people we have objectified. Objectification is not a metaphorical concept, it is literal cultural conditioning that trains us to see ourselves as more human than others.
ACTION: Tell the truth about yourself and others every day for 2 weeks. What does that feel like? Repeat.