Dehumanization’s Presence in America and Humanitarianism

By: Julianna Sterling ’23, an International Studies and Economics major, French minor.

The following work was created for FYS 101: Ethics of Humanitarianism.

Brief description: This literature is a call to action for increased recognition of dehumanization’s role in societal trends in order to prevent its negative, long-term effects which manifest in the forms of racial bias, exploitation, and misrepresentation. It also explores the parallels in this phenomenon between the United States and developing nations, specifically those low-developed countries which receive humanitarian aid.

Within today’s societies, the identities of individual people are often overlooked for the sake of efficiency. This is specifically seen in humanitarian aid organizations and national cultures, where individuals are used to represent ideologies or needs. This ignorance of identity aspects such as background, future goals, and personal preferences in treatment can be referred to as dehumanization. In the case of humanitarianism, victims of disasters are often reduced to their injuries or needs, being used for advertising, symbolism,[i] and are represented by mere numbers in need-based information systems.[ii] While the humanitarian organizations observed for the purposes of this paper are international, similar dehumanization can be seen within individual countries, such as the United States, through the maintaining of racist mindsets. By diminishing or reducing someone’s identity to a single aspect, whether their needs or skin color, they are actively being dehumanized for the sake of an organization’s success or to continue traditions. Without recognition of this phenomena, especially by the United States, it will continue to manifest as a negative force in both developing and industrialized societies as the former attempts to assist the latter in increasing human rights, economic development, and living conditions through humanitarian aid. Therefore, as a society, we must recognize the malpractice of dehumanization and actively attempt to decrease it as impoverished countries grow their economies under our guidance, so they do not face the same racial prejudice issues once they reach industrialized status.

Humanitarian Advertising Dehumanization

For humanitarian aid organizations, donations from civilians of Western nations is one of the main sources of income. However, people do not randomly choose organizations to support. When deciding which organization will best serve their interests while making the most efficient use of their money, people are exposed to advertisements which use images of those who are trapped in humanitarian crises. Often malnourished, injured, or visibly suffering, these images reduce people to their needs for medical attention, consistent and nourishing food, and/or a politically stable environment. This framing diminishes the viewers’ ability to perceive the people photographed as “human,” because their identities are overlooked for their needs, a process called dehumanization.

In advertising, distance is a key challenge in selling a product to consumers. If someone is viewing a new product, they have no association with the product, and thus, they have no need to own it unless the ad itself creates one. For humanitarian organizations, dehumanization is used as a tool for advertising as advertisers attempt to overcome this distance in order to increase the likelihood of people to donate money.[iii] Viewing the extreme injuries or health problems of victims creates shock in possible donors, grabbing their attention and creating a sense of urgency.[iv] The distance is reduced by prompting these feelings of shock and making those who are unaffected by the issue emotionally connect with the event, increasing certainty that the event is a cause to which they must provide monetary assistance. Throughout the process of this emotional production, the individual identities of those photographed are ignored for how much income their suffering will produce for organizations helping them.

While producing advertisements to decrease the aforementioned distance, organizations use a variety of universal symbols in photography that invoke empathy in viewers. In the case of humanitarianism, these symbols are often images of women and children combined with suffering and destruction,[v] representing those who need help. In Western society, the “damsel in distress” trope is often used to minimize women’s capabilities to help themselves. The “women and children first” narrative, which was made famous by the film Titanic, also produces urgency to assist those demographics. These trends carry over into humanitarian advertising, which is more likely to depict images of women and children than of grown men. This aesthetic is created because Western culture grooms individuals to more willingly help women and children. Another universal symbol is visible poor health conditions, including “starvation” and wounds such as “broken skin.”[vi] Although many Westerners with the means to donate money to aid organizations have never experienced starvation or had external wounds without access to medical attention, they can rudimentarily imagine what it would be like to experience them. Their imagination is provoked by images of people who do experience these conditions throughout their daily lives. However, by only emphasizing their bodily conditions, these advertisements abandon other aspects of their livelihood, such as values and background. By using individuals’ physical characteristics (injury, gender, age, health) to represent need for donation, their abilities and desire to speak for themselves are omitted.

Humanitarian Statistics Dehumanization

Outside of advertising practices, dehumanization is also used in the accumulation of statistics in humanitarian crises. In the case of Katherine Dettwyler, who observed pregnancy practices as well as children’s malnutrition in Mali, she routinely measures her subjects’ weight, height, circumferences of their arms and heads, and number of teeth.[vii] Through these measurements, the identities of the children and their parents are forgotten, and although she does record names, individual circumstances are also omitted. If a child is malnourished, a mother my want to explain their reasoning or use the platform of an international aid group to get help. However, because recorded information is limited to the statistics related with a child’s health, this is incredibly difficult. Another example of this dehumanization is Dettwyler’s recording of breastfeeding practices, weaning practices, and the introduction of solid foods into toddlers’ diets.[viii] By simply recording what is important to her, the testimonies of mothers and their families are simplified into numbers on Western terms.

However, some argue that these methods of gathering statistics and creating advertisements are not dehumanization. Heather Curtis, who researched the history of dehumanization in humanitarianism, cites Clark’s “The Sacred Rights of the Weak,” explaining that gory images of enslaved people were used to evoke compassion and promote the view of them as human beings.[ix] Later, this same concept is applied to criminals and the mentally disabled,[x] and it can also be applied to those living in poverty. When following Curtis’ argument, it is true that images of people suffering create a relationship between viewers and those photographed. However, Curtis fails to acknowledge that the use of images abandons the backgrounds of the subjects. Viewers see them as able to experience pain and suffering, but not as members of families or societies.

In the case of gathering statistics, Dettwyler attempts to decrease the presence of dehumanization by intertwining them with individual testimonies in her book, Dancing Skeletons. She recounts the stories of many suffering women and children living in poverty in West Africa, and by doing so adds personalization to her book. However, this is solely for the purpose of improving her literature and engaging readers. Meanwhile, the core of her time spent in Africa was for the purpose of recording statistics. Therefore, when this research is sent to aid organizations, it becomes too costly and inefficient to read millions of people’s stories; so, they are left behind in the transfer of information, prioritizing simpler numbers. In doing so, aid agencies which provide direct assistance to the people interviewed by Dettwyler are never given the chance to customize their aid to better fit the specific needs of people as individual beings.

The United States and Dehumanization

In the United States, citizens often experience dehumanization, especially when they are of a minority race. Throughout the United States, cases of police brutality and discrimination plague the media, despite the Civil Rights Act of 1964 banning them over fifty years ago.[xi] In addition to this, racism is also present in ordinary circumstances, as discussed by Kimetta R. Hairston. In her study on the dehumanization of black, female students and teachers in Hawaii, she discovered widespread use of racial slurs[xii] and classification as “other.”[xiii] Through this, black girls are forced to identify with less-than-human qualities, like race, that do not define a person as a whole.[xiv] Additionally, as they adopt this identity, they tend to socialize more with their “group” than with those labelling them as others (white Americans). According to Hairston quoting Christian, this association continues the stereotyping and dehumanization of these groups.[xv] By separating themselves, their opinions, values, and cultures are confined to their societal groupings, excluding them from voicing their needs in educational experiences and policymaking.

A similar phenomenon in American culture is observed in Charlottesville, Virginia, the site of a white supremacist riot in 2017. Dayna Bowen Matthew discusses this phenomenon, stating that dehumanization in Charlottesville historically creates a relationship “in which a more powerful group of people treat a less powerful group as objects that are valuable only to the extent that they are useful in pursuit of the powerful group’s goals, rather than for the value of their human qualities.”[xvi] This is similar to the Hawaii case study  which showed that “other” groups are created within American culture based on race,[xvii] and also that the use of dehumanized people is an advantage in humanitarian advertising. In the case of Charlottesville, those of African descent were dehumanized for the purpose of cheap labor,[xviii] inexpensive government projects,[xix] and the “preservation of their dominant social position.”[xx]

All of this dehumanization, whether present nationally or in international aid, is ingrained in tradition. In humanitarian organizations, the use of images in advertising was started with the first Kodak camera in the 1890s and carries into today,[xxi] as acknowledged by the Oxfam “Listening to the Displaced” program, which attempts to decrease the presence of dehumanization.[xxii] It can be argued that this disregard for human qualities stems from national histories of slavery, racial discrimination, and seeing people only for their potential contributions to society. This is dangerous because humanitarian organizations are often stationed to aid those in developing countries who would be detrimentally injured by additional societal problems. If we continue this dehumanization present in industrialized societies, we are contributing to turbulence already present in budding nations and perpetuating a cycle of seeing people as numbers and needs. However, in order to prevent this, we must first become aware of its presence.

In the United States, racial dehumanization is an unshakable presence with roots that run as deep as the history of the nation itself. Despite legal and societal movements to get rid of dehumanization, it remains. As humanitarian organizations promote development worldwide, they need to be conscious that they are not ingraining a similar dehumanization into other societies and dooming them to the same future as we experience today. However, in order to prevent this, we must first recognize the presence of it and its negative impacts on society, such as exploitation, misrepresentation, and silencing of minority voices.


 “Civil Rights Act of 1964.” National Park Services. March 22, 2016.

Curtis, Heather D. “Picturing Pain.” Humanitarian Photography: A History, ed. Heide Fehrenbach and Davide Rodogno. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. 22-46. doi:10.1017/CBO9781107587694.002.

Dettwyler, Katherine A. Dancing Skeletons. Long Grove, Illinois: Waveland Press, Inc., 2014.

Hairston, Kimetta R. “Dehumanization of the Black American Female: An American/Hawaiian Experience.” Spaces for Difference: An Interdisciplinary Journal vol. 1, no. 1 (2008): 65-85.

Kennedy, Denis. “Selling the Distant Other: Humanitarianism and Imagery—Ethical Dilemmas of Humanitarian Action.” Journal of Humanitarian Assistance. (2009)

Matthew, Dayna Bowen. “On Charlottesville.” Virginia Law Review vol. 105, no. 2 (April 2019): 270–341. Rajaram, Prem Kumar. “Humanitarianism and Representations of the Refugee.” Journal of Refugee Studies vol. 15, no. 3 (2002): 247–64


[i] Denis Kennedy, “Selling the Distant Other: Humanitarianism and Imagery-Ethical Dilemmas of Humanitarian Action,” Journal of Humanitarian Assistance (2009),

[ii] Katherine A. Dettwyler, Dancing Skeletons, (Long Grove, Illinois: Waveland Press, Inc.), 2014.

[iii] Kennedy, “Selling the Distant Other: Humanitarianism and Imagery-Ethical Dilemmas of Humanitarian Action.”

[iv] Kennedy, “Selling the Distant Other: Humanitarianism and Imagery-Ethical Dilemmas of Humanitarian Action.”

[v] Kennedy, “Selling the Distant Other: Humanitarianism and Imagery-Ethical Dilemmas of Humanitarian Action.”

[vi] Kennedy, “Selling the Distant Other: Humanitarianism and Imagery-Ethical Dilemmas of Humanitarian Action.”

[vii] Dettwyler, Dancing Skeletons, 76.

[viii] Dettwyler, Dancing Skeletons, 85.

[ix] Heather D, Curtis, “Picturing Pain,” Humanitarian Photography: A History, ed. Heide Fehrenbach and Davide Rodogno, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 2015, 25.

[xi] “Civil Rights Act of 1964,” National Park Service, March 22, 2016,

[xii] Kimetta R. Hairston, “Dehumanization of the Black American Female: An American/Hawaiian Experience,” Spaces for Difference: An Interdisciplinary Journal, vol. 1, no. 1 (2008): 75, .

[xiii] Hairston, “Dehumanization of the Black America Female: An American/Hawaiian Experience,” 69.

[xiv] Hairston, “Dehumanization of the Black America Female: An American/Hawaiian Experience,” 80.

[xv] Hairston, “Dehumanization of the Black America Female: An American/Hawaiian Experience,” 70.

[xvi] Dayna Bowen Matthew, “On Charlottesville,” Virginia Law Review, vol.105, no. 2 (April 2019): p. 289,

[xvii] Hairston, “Dehumanization of the Black America Female: An American/Hawaiian Experience,” 69.

[xviii] Matthew, “On Charlottesville,” 300.

[xix] Matthew, “On Charlottesville,” 300.

[xx] Matthew, “On Charlottesville,” 289.

[xxi] Curtis, “Picturing Pain,” 24.

[xxii] Prem Kumar Rajaram, “Humanitarianism and Representations of the Refugee,” Journal of Refugee Studies vol. 15, no. 3 (2002): 254,

Julianna Sterling is a double major in Economics and International Studies with a minor in French. She thanks the professors in all three departments for introducing her to her academic passions of economic development and cultural studies, and she plans on attending graduate school to further explore these disciplines. On campus, she is involved with the Student Government Association, is an Academic Skills and French tutor, a member of the Omicron Delta Epsilon, Cater, and NSLS honor societies, and participates as a varsity athlete with women’s field hockey team. In her future career, she hopes to help others, learn as much as possible, and make her parents proud.

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