First Contact – Part 2: A lesson in dehumanisation.

First Contact Part 2 – A lesson in dehumanisation.


I watched First Contact after agreeing to explore the anticipated series with the hope it would be a constructive contribution to race discussions within Australia. I shall leave aside Part 1 for the purpose of this article and simple say we were introduced to the six Australians (who I will call cultural ‘voyeurs’) who claimed they had no or little contact with Indigenous people, and they came loaded with commonly held stereotypes.


I will also state that the twitter verse in response to Part 1 seemed to suggest that the stereotypes were as ugly to most other Australians as they continue to be to Indigenous people. The comments were toxic, commonly held and deliberately provocative. ‘Lazy, uneducated, welfare cheats, stupid etc’.


I waited in anticipation for the second episode and what I witnessed was something I wasn’t prepared for. I was witness to the function and form of dehumamisation – a lesson starker than racism alone.


Humanness has two features: “identity” (i.e. a perception of the person “as an individual, independent and distinguishable from others, capable of making choices”) and “community” (i.e., a perception of the person as “part of an interconnected network of individuals who care for each other”).


When a group’s agency and community embeddedness are denied, they no longer elicit compassion or other moral responses, and may suffer violence as a result.


We were treated to scene upon scene where compassion was elicited for the ‘voyeurs’, and not for the Indigenous group or persons and this disturbed me to my core.


Social distance from the out-group target is a necessary condition for dehumanization, and this was interesting because the ‘voyeurs’ seem to be mostly working class, although given the privilege of the working class, they were certainly not like the Indigenous folks, who would be considered working poor. Research on humanization suggests that social separation is not sufficient for dehumanization, psychological research has identified high status, power, and social connection as additional factors that influence whether dehumanization will occur. If being an out-group member was all that was required to be dehumanized, dehumanization would be far more prevalent.


However, only members of high status groups associate humanity more with in-group than the out-group. Members of low status groups exhibit no differences in engaging with other people.

This is of course the beginning of how structural and institutional racism begins to take shape; the use of higher status, power and social connection.


This was also evident in the relational connections and kindness expressed repeatedly from all Indigenous folks, except perhaps the women who raised her voice, which I will leave aside for this article. That is, the Indigenous group did not exhibit any difference in their approach to human-to-human connection.


Having high status makes one more likely to dehumanize others. Low status groups are more associated with human nature traits (warmth, emotionality) than uniquely human traits, implying that they are closer to animals than humans because these traits are typical of humans but can be seen in other species.


This was reflected in the constant need or requirement for Indigenous folks who participated to demonstrate their human worth through sharing of private information, being vulnerable to elicit warmth, response, and connection. What I understand intimately is that this is of itself a strategy for survival, as an oppressed person within a structure so saturated with inhumanity that the route of voice requires a personally brutal expression of vulnerability constantly to elicit warmth, attention or affection.


In as much as dog will pander to an owner and play nice, and be benevolent in order to gain affection from its owner. I am intimately familiar with this tension because I have witnessed those strategies, from myself, and within my own family frames as have many non-white cultures. The soft shoe shuffle, the funny Black, the kindly Black, the comforting big mummy Black, so as not to show your teeth or express anger or rage and the list goes on. This strategy leads most people of color to experience something known as ‘white fatigue’ a feeling of extreme exhaustion for having to reveal yourself, exposure your scars, your ills and pains to elicit human connection.


People in position of power are more likely to objectify their subordinates, treating them as a means to one’s own end rather than focusing on their essentially human qualities. This process I witnessed in the values being placed upon the Indigenous families both in urban and remote areas and the focus upon their ‘production’ use or work and value.


Once a connection of value through a means of ‘production’ was established, vetted and accepted by the ‘voyeurs’ we started to see a shift in value being placed upon members of the Indigenous group, although we never saw any recognition of any value being placed upon community leadership, environmental business initiatives, problem solving, or the capacity to retain a culture while being constantly assaulted, and in isolation to common social supports.


This was painfully evident when in Elcho Island, a women who graciously hosts them offer her prized possession of her washing machine to share with her guests, an extremely high value commodity on such a remote location, not to mention how proud she was to own it, and yet their was little connection with the gesture.


There was no social connection, that in of itself stung my senses, and I wondered did Australia even notice? However, when this women expressed her value as ‘producer’ of artist the ‘voyeurs’ connected through a ‘ a means to one own end’ and in this case value to the ‘voyeurs’ notion of Black value, and in this case as an artist.


Social connection, being in the actual presence of a close ‘other’, enables dehumanization by reducing attribution of human mental states, increasing support for treating groups like animals, and increasing willingness to endorse harsh interrogation tactics.


Neuroimaging studies have discovered that the medial prefrontal cortex—a brain region distinctively involved in attributing mental states to others—shows diminished activation to extremely dehumanized targets (i.e., those rated, according to the stereotype content model, as low-warmth and low-competence, such as drug addicts or homeless people).


Several lines of psychological research relate to the concept of dehumanization. Infra- humanization suggests that individuals think of and treat out-group members as “less human” and more like animals.


Specifically, individuals associate secondary emotions (which are seen as uniquely human) more with the in-group than with the out-group. Primary emotions (those that are experienced by all sentient beings, both humans and other animals) and are found to be more associated with the out-group.


This we witnessed when all of Australia was apparently in conflict, and feeling more empathy for a turtle or for the crying ‘voyeurs’ who were being feed by a guest community traditional foods, even though the food was identified as culturally significant, sustainable and not for ‘production’ but for sustenance. We witnessed a focus on the ‘voyeurs; pain, than they were for the community that was feeding them.


This in of itself relegated this community to a position of

delegitimisation which is the “categorization of groups into extreme negative social categories which are excluded from human groups that are considered as acting within the limits of acceptable norms and/or values.”


Moral exclusion occurs when out-groups are subject to a different set of moral values, rules, and fairness than are used in social relations with in-group members.  The relationship with the ‘voyeurs’ eating traditional foods although juxtaposed with urban diets was still peppered throughout Part 1 to affirm moral exclusion and not to elicit inclusion.


When individuals dehumanize others, they no longer experience distress when they treat them poorly. Moral exclusion is used to explain extreme behaviors like genocide, harsh immigration policies, and eugenics, but can also happen on a more regular, everyday discriminatory level.  I witnessed no reflection from any of the ‘voyeurs’ of how moral exclusion exists or even if they understood they were participating in it, in any way.


People who are portrayed as lacking human qualities, or who are thought to be low competence have been found to be treated in a particularly harsh and violent manner.


When I heard from the Indigenous participants language such as Indigenous folks not having jobs because of lack of skills, and training, what we are witnessing there is a narrow language being used to describe a response to being oppressed and all its complexity.


This did not serve the ‘voyeurs’, nor did it serve those expressing those views; as it plays into an individualist response to systematic conditions which are deliberately structured i.e education is lacking, and therefore that is all you need to find a job, and given their were less than 50 jobs in community of 600 that rationale is fraught with a disingenuous argument of job opportunity, employment and ‘production’.


The rub of course is that some of those Indigenous folks represented on the show pay heed to suggest an individualist narrative, which promotes a ‘Black exception to the rule’. We heard from ‘voyeurs’ and in particular how ashamed the communities including some of their host families should feel about the conditions in which they live.


We then use shame to attack the individual, close your legs, get a job, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, make better choices, or chose the right town, don’t live there, ‘produce’ and contribute. If you don’t do this you should be ashamed or feel shame. This of itself is a crippling emotion to have attached to both ‘production’ and self-value. I will make no comment on Aboriginal suicide although you start to begin to see the dynamics at play, if value is ascribed through this process.


Even though the host of Elcho Island began to comment on unseen issues, this reality was not given voice nor was a clear connection made the these connections for the ‘voyeurs’ let alone and audience to understand.


If we continue to assign individual responsibility both in the positive and the perceived negative we then excuse our responsibility to organize better outcomes for all as a society.


This episode did not connect or develop understanding between two cultural living experiences, nor did it enrich the ‘voyeurs’ concept of the issues. What it did do is demonstrate how both the in-group group passively gaze at the out-group, and how the out-group have developed strategies for survival within this structure, and I would argue at the expense of self care and well being.


It left me with a feeling of vacuous pain, in the exploitation of the human spirit which was not met with any genuine attempt or explanation of how this operates and how we may move beyond this.


I noticed the twitter verse began to raise issues of lack of education and more information; however this is not what is required to address a lack of humanity.


What is required is an interrogation of the construct of White culture and how it operates in an attempt to move it from the ‘normative’ and place it where is belong as a cultural construct that advances and promotes some and does so at the exclusion of others.


It is only when we dismantle these notions and gain an appreciation of that, that we will find the next phase for race relations in Australia where we don’t espouse individualist argument, but actually work in cooperation to grow from our outmoded racist thinking and actions.


The structure is created, self imagined, and acted upon. We have the ability to dismantle it, if we can locate it, disrupt and consider ourselves an active player within the frame. As a Black woman I should not have to instruct White Australia in the basics of humanness, nor reveal myself emotinaly to elicit an emotion.


I would humbly ask White Australia to start to consider how they are active in structure, passively or not and how they will take a stand on laying down the privilege that they enjoy.


* White and Black are deliberately capitalized as cultural destinations.


I am a sovereign woman, a Minyungbal, Mananjali woman, the great great granddaughter of James and Ellen Currie traditional owners of the Bundjalung, Yugambeh country. (NSW/QLD).





  1. Helen Gray (herd) says

    While this is well written and is like an academic paper I can understand the underlying arguments about the in and out groups
    Also the value systems of the voyeurs
    While I think that SBS were trying to show ‘Middle Australia” what is happening throughout the country I feel that it did fall short
    somewhat while at least it did get the dialogue happening
    Thanks for your words and thoughtsHelen :)

  2. Anthony Beaton says

    So we need to interrogate the ‘White Culture’ in order to remove the normative tag and place it where it belongs as a social construct that promotes some but not others.

    No doubt the Black Culture is also then merely a social construct which should suffer the same fate.

    I think your concept of White Culture is a very simplistic one that represents a generalisation which in reality doesn’t exist, today. It may have in the past. I am white. I feel I have an Australian Culture, not a White Australian Culture. Certainly not a White Australia culture that you describe and imply all white Australians are beholden to. I am not racist, however I know numerous people who are racist, both black and white people.

    You also misuse the in-group out-group concept by suggesting that all Aboriginals belong in the out-group. This is incorrect as these terms are defined in a relative sense. Hence, in Aboriginal communities the Black Culture is the in-group.

    Reconciliation can only really progress when grievances over treatment meted out by past generations are forgiven, not used to browbeat current generations who genuinely want to see people getting along and treated equally.

    Many minority groups do themselves a disservice in my opinion when in their quest for equality they espouse inequality and ill-treatment of the majority in their favour to ‘balance the ledger’ for past wrongdoings.

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