A Spectrum of Dehumanizing Other People from jokes to Manzanar and Atlanta

Guest post by Stan Yoshinobu

Violence and harassment against Asian Americans is on the rise, stoked by angry, divisive words used by political leaders. In the past year during the pandemic, 3800 incidents were reported (Link). In January, Vicha Ratanapakdee, 84 years old, was brutally slammed to the ground and died of his injuries (Link). Last month 8 people were killed in the Atlanta area by a gunman, 6 of the victims were Asian women. My first thought is about the families and friends of those who died in such a horrible way. The pain is amplified by how their loved ones were taken in acts of hate. My second thought is on how quickly these deaths have been dehumanized in various ways from innuendo about the sex industry, to saying the perpetrator was having a bad day, to denying that this act can be both racist and sexist.

These vile acts and the attendant downplaying are part of a long history in the United States. The Chinese Exclusion Act (Link, Link) was signed into law in 1882, preventing Chinese immigration and even banning interracial marriage. During World War 2, 120,000 Japanese Americans, mostly US Citizens, were placed in concentration camps, such as the Manzanar Relocation Center. Make no mistake that these were harsh, punishing, and undignified places.

[Caption: No parent brings a child into the world only to bury them behind barbed wire.]

More broadly what has been one of the most concerning issues to me for many years is the “everyday” dehumanization and othering of Asian Americans (and other groups), as “nice” people look the other way.  The danger of “everyday” dehumanization in all its forms, affecting all minoritized groups in unique ways, is that it creates an environment, where more harmful ideas can take root, fester, and later be manipulated. A subset of the population can extend a joke or slight to then view groups of people as less than human. A small handful of examples are shared below that suggest a spectrum of dehumanization, with a focus on Asian Americans as well as two other examples that show why this is a broader problem. (Readers are encouraged to share their own examples.)

Niral Shah writes about the problem with Asian American stereotypes about being good at math with precision (Link).

Take, for example, a scene from an episode of the long-running adult cartoon “Family Guy.”

The main character, Peter, is reminiscing about taking a math exam. As the shot pans over other students, each take out a calculator from their pocket. Peter pulls out a boy with Asian features, prods him with a pencil and says: “Do math!”

This might seem funny at first, but the underlying message is clear: Asian people aren’t seen as human beings; they are calculating machines. Asians are literally objectified, seen as capable of doing things at a speed and scale that “normal” people can’t do. In other words, they are dehumanized.

One way to see through the utter ridiculousness of “Asians are good at math” is basic common sense. When I traveled to Japan to visit relatives, a country with a population of 126 million, I saw people from all walks of life. I met taxi drivers, store clerks, nurses, social workers, musicians, artisans, teachers, people struggling with life, people succeeding.  Japan is like any other society, where people are doing different things and have varied passions and interests. When I mentioned to my grandparents that I was studying to become a mathematician, they viewed it as something I was interested in as an individual. It never occurred to them that it was because I was Asian. The vast majority of people in Japan and of Asian Americans in general are not interested in math or science as a career.

And to be clear, I was born in the US to parents with US citizenship. Yes, I am an American from the day I was born in Los Angeles. My father served in the US Army, and was honorably discharged from his service in the same year President Kennedy uttered the words, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”  As a Japanese American, however, I am regularly confronted with questions about whether I am a real American or not. I am asked to this day, “Where are you really from?”

Dehumanization is also seen in how Asians are grouped in our minds (not on census forms). The group Asian American Pacific Islander Desi represents multiple cultures, languages, traditions, histories, religions, and more from parts of the world with billions of people. All this is flattened into one group. Asians have no individuality, and hence are less than human. Anyone that looks a certain way could be told to “go back to China”’or worse, even if they have no connection to China, when people are encouraged by racist rhetoric such as “Kung Flu” or “China virus.”

One everyday consequence of all this in higher education is characterized by the next example. Last fall, Cal Poly SLO was granted minority serving institution status from the Department of Education, because the student population meets the threshold for students who identify as Asian American, Native American, or Pacific Islander (Link). Right after this was announced, one of my colleagues emailed me, and the gist of the person’s message was that nearly every institution of higher education could qualify as minority serving, apparently (and falsely) because there are so many Asians in college everywhere. Hence, MSI designation for these groups is pointless. This is an invalidation of the Asian American, Native American, and Pacific Islander experiences; moreover race and class intersect, where some Asian Americans, such as the Laotian and Vietnamese communities, have poverty rates similar to Latinx and African Americans (Link) and are also educationally disadvantaged. This episode shows how the dehumanization of groups is connected to lower levels of empathy and kindness. A moment worth celebrating is framed and talked about in a negative way, and my own opinions and feelings or those of the thousands of students, faculty, and staff on the campus, who are in the category are not earnestly considered.

“Everyday” dehumanizing is a broad issue and takes on different forms, tailored to each specific group. One recent example is when Zlatan Ibrahimonvic told Lebron James to stay quiet about social justice and “do what you’re good at doing” (Link), which gets rationalized as someone just stating their opinion, all the while ignoring a deeply tragic history and current context, given recent social unrest. This is an old play from an old playbook about staying in your lane and not making a fuss.

Another seemingly innocent example from pop culture earlier this month is when Taylor Swift was the object of a sexist joke on the show, Ginny and Georgia (Link).  Women are put down in a specifically gendered way that is 100% asymmetrical. Men get to be “studs” and play the field before settling down, and women are judged. In math, women still only account for 25-30% of the PhDs, and we are still far from gender equity (Link) (with a first derivative equal to zero). These things are connected. We didn’t get here without a culture of devaluing, dismissing, and dehumanizing women, as expressed by the continued use of student evaluations of teaching and the lack of maternity leave at many institutions of higher education, just to name two things. It’s not just a joke.

The connection between all the violence, the jokes, the slights, the racism, the sexist workplaces… is dehumanization, which allows people to do unjust things to others. While the different acts vary in detail and amount of horribleness, at the core they are in the same category of behavior. They differ by degree, not type. Therefore, we all have a role in creating the environments we live and work in.  We all have a choice about whether we crack these jokes, laugh along, downplay, sit silent while others suffer or do something to stop it.  There does not exist a safe or “nice” level of dehumanizing behavior, because any amount creates space for less empathy and kindness, which allows hate to endure and grow.

Where do we go from here? I don’t have good answers. It’s a highly complex situation, and it’s also simple. It’s complex because it’s part of the system that’s been around for a long time. It’s simple, because it boils down to a society based on empathy in community. The human condition.

Here’s one step I’d like to highlight, because people can act now and it’s free.  More than four years ago, my colleagues and I started the Love, Empathy, Respect campaign, as a way to express our universal values in a positive way. For educators (and non-educators), we use the Love, Empathy, Respect message on buttons, stickers, handouts, slides and more as part of a visible inclusivity movement, appealing to universalism, kindness, community, and benevolence. One thing we can do is to express the values that we stand for.

Lastly, the image below is about acknowledgment and hope. In the foreground is the soul consoling tower, which was constructed in the graveyard at Manzanar to pay respects to the 135 people who died during their incarceration. The tower still stands today acknowledging the tragedy, the pain, and suffering, and in the background is Mt. Williamson, illuminated by a winter sunrise hinting at the high ideals we could strive for.

Some resources:


Note: All photos in this post are copyright Stan Yoshinobu, 2014.

This entry was posted in minorities in math, racism, sexism, social justice. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to A Spectrum of Dehumanizing Other People from jokes to Manzanar and Atlanta

  1. Ken Millett says:

    Thank you Stan for writing and sharing this. Having had a colleague, and dear friend, who was a child at Manzanar and having witnessed only a bit of what he faced, my heart still aches at the tragedy back then and to be seeing much of the same today. As a nation, we have so far to go.

Comments are closed.