Respectful Culture: Responding to Dehumanizing Comments

By Karetta Hubbard, Lynne Revo-Cohen, Gwen Crider, and Maria Morukian.  Maria is an internationally recognized diversity expert, with sixteen years of experience developing integrated, experiential organizational development initiatives, with a special interest in diversity and inclusion, intercultural competence, and organizational culture transformation. Follows are examples taken from her experiences in the classroom.

In our recent posts, we’ve explored some of the rhetoric that has infiltrated our public discourse and how it can either create connection and remind us of our humanity, or disconnect and dehumanize. This is nothing new, but recently the discourse has reached a fever pitch of vitriol that has a profound impact on how many marginalized people in our country are perceived and treated. 

Human history is filled with examples of dehumanization of the perceived “other” to further political or social agendas, with propaganda that used dehumanizing words to commit atrocities against other humans. The Nazis referred to Jews as “rats;” during the Rwandan genocide Hutu officials referred to Tutsis as “cockroaches;” and U.S. propaganda during Jim Crowe often depicted African Americans as apes. Most recently, the U.S. president has referred to unauthorized immigrants coming to the U.S. as “animals” and accused them of “infesting” our country. These images are dangerous. Studies have shown that the more people are exposed to dehumanizing images or perceptions of others, the more likely they are to justify or even participate in alienation, discrimination, and violence against other human beings. 

On the other hand, humans also have the capacity for vast amounts of compassion and generosity. In the face of crises, people will often go to great lengths and even risk their own lives to come to the aid of strangers. For example, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the earthquake in Haiti, and most recently Hurricane Harvey in Houston, Texas, people traveled great distances, and gave their time, energy, and money to help others in need. They didn’t do this because they were told to, or because the people they were helping were family members or part of their community. They saw themselves reflected in those other humans who were experiencing trauma and needed help. They tapped into their commonality rather than their difference, and in that capacity, were able to feel compassion, empathy, and a sense of duty to help. Often when bystanders are asked why they went to great lengths to help a complete stranger, they experienced a moment where they asked themselves, “what if that were me or someone I care about deeply?”

Knowing that everyone has the capacity for both of these ends of the spectrum of humanization, how do we cultivate humanity? How do we constructively respond when others are engaging in dehumanizing behaviors or comments, whether it’s aimed at us or others? In the moment, when we see or hear someone make such comments, we often find ourselves experiencing the basest level of our brain’s function. Our intuitive “flight-or-fight” mechanism leads us to either react with a counter-attack or avoid saying anything. 

When someone engages in behaviors that dehumanize, how should you respond? 

  1. Detach your emotional energy from theirs. It’s easy to get hijacked by someone’s hateful speech. Try to create some space to respond with a neutral but firm tone. 
  1. Don’t accuse them or label them. Telling someone they’re racist/sexist doesn’t often yield positive change. It tends to make them go further into their corner. 
  1. Ask the person to repeat or explain their statement. People will often realize what they said was inappropriate when you call them on it. Considering asking:

“Could you repeat that?” 

“What did you mean when you said…?”

“What information are you basing that on?”

  1. Make eye contact and hold it; and don’t smile or laugh. Sometimes silence speaks louder than words.  People need some clear nonverbal signal that what they’re doing is unacceptable and unfunny.
  1. Use “I” statements and explain the impact their statement has on you. 

“That comment makes me uncomfortable, because….”

“I think that comment could be offensive to some of our colleagues.”

  1. Make a clear request for a change in behavior and explain consequences if the behavior does not change.

“In the future, please don’t make comments like that in my presence.”

“If you continue to post comments that denigrate others, it will have a lasting impact on our relationship.”

Engaging rather than avoiding or fighting is not always clean and simple. However, if we want to be part of the effort to build bridges rather than walls, it’s important to embrace the conflict that may come. That said, we all have our “I wish I had…” moments, where we wanted to respond to something offensive but clammed up or reacted in anger. Don’t beat yourself up about it if things didn’t go the way you wanted. Seize them as teachable moments and consider how you will respond differently the next time. Also, it’s never too late to give feedback. You can still let the person know the impact of the comments on you and request a behavior change.

We welcome your thoughts and comments. Each contributes to the conversation which is the key to understanding and culture change.

Please send them to and we will publish them. Thanks!

Top photo: Bigstock

About KHubbard LRevo-Cohen GCrider Chris Kilmartin Maria Morukian (34 Articles)
Since 1984, the founders of NewPoint Strategies, Karetta Hubbard and Lynne Revo-Cohen, have built a strong reputation for delivering extremely effective prevention training in high-risk issues such as sexual harassment/assault. Contributing Author and Lead Consultant, Chris Kilmartin, Ph.D, Emeritus Professor of Psychology from the University of Mary Washington, is an expert in Sexual Harassment and Assault Prevention, specifically Male Violence Against Women, Gwen Crider, a diversity and inclusion strategist with over 20 years of leadership experience in non-profit and private sector organizations, and Maria Morukian is an internationally recognized diversity expert