Being Seen: Valuing Humanity Amid Social Unrest

Why it is essential to see the humanity in others.

Posted Nov 05, 2020

Over the last decade, I watched the horror of black bodies being destroyed and their humanity being dismissed each time a Black person was brutalized by law enforcement. And each time, I suppressed my feelings in response—despite the irony that I’m an affective neuroscientist. Yet, part of me became a neuroscientist precisely so that I could distance myself from the ugly realities of racism and sexism. I knew humans were complex, but I thought I could effectively study them by investigating the “biological underpinnings” of their experiences. It seemed straightforward (ha) and allowed me to avoid issues like race.

See, I am also a black woman. Unlike my Black contemporaries who study issues of race, for me reading the scholarly work reasserting over and over that we are uneducated, living in poverty, unemployed, dealing with high rates of infant mortality, unhealthy, highly incarcerated—and the list goes on—was just too much. We (all) are so much more than a list of statistical frequencies.

Yet, as the frequency in awareness of police brutality grew, it became impossible for me to continue to avoid the way racism was affecting the human experience. So, I challenged myself to look directly at the many layers of our human experience.

I worked collaboratively with a group of police officers and community members to address police brutality using Virtual Reality technology. In the process, I heard many personal stories.  What became clear to me is this: The fullness of our humanity requires that we are seen.

Being seen is more than being acknowledged. It is being understood. All social animals have mechanisms for understanding their kind. Arguably, this is why emotions are woven into the fabric of our DNA. The Intergroup Emotion Theory extends this thinking to suggest that the way individuals feel about those outside their identity group dictates behavior toward those individuals. Hence, it isn’t what you think about someone outside your group it is every experience that fosters negative feelings towards them.

Those experiences can even come from indirect sources like the media. Since nearly every kind of media outlet dehumanizes Black people, the brain can become wired for negative feelings towards them. Don’t misunderstand. Dehumanization is not only portraying the “other” as savage. It is also denying them complex emotions (e.g. hope, pain). In turn, it allows people to minimize, or worse enact, indignity and violence against them. This is only possible when we feel and believe that someone else is not like, and more to the point less than, us. How else can we understand a country turning its eyes away from the atrocities done to Black people?

Black Americans have been demanding for decades to be seen not just as equal, but as humans. Just as when Soujourner Truth questioned, “Ain’t I a Woman?” Black men in the 1960s asserted their humanity by wearing sandwich boards with the phrase “I am a man.” What they knew is that the fullness of their humanity was not being seen. Everyone wants to be seen for their worth as a human. Not necessarily in the vein of being part of the human family, but simply being seen as a unique individual with hopes and dreams. That they have worth. As a neuroscientist, I missed the mark by not honoring the complexity of the human experience. As humans we miss the mark if we don’t see the humanity in others.

References

Mackie, D. M., Devos, T., & Smith, E. R. (2000). Intergroup emotions: explaining offensive action tendencies in an intergroup context. J Pers Soc Psychol, 79(4), 602-616. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.79.4.602

  Leidner, B., Castano, E., Zaiser, E., & Giner-Sorolla, R. (2010). Ingroup Glorification, Moral Disengagement, and Justice in the Context of Collective Violence. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36(8), 1115–1129. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167210376391