Fighting Dehumanization in Physical Education

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In his recent book, On Inhumanity,” David Livingstone Smith discusses the reasons why people participate in acts of dehumanization. At the outset, he explains that humans have a propensity to think in terms of hierarchies, which leads to behaviors that would be unthinkable under normal circumstances.

Recent research on dehumanization has indicated that students at all levels of schooling are being subjected to negative climates for participation. And over the past few years, there have been several incidents in the news pertaining to physical education and related activities, including:

  • Dozens of swastikas and anti-Semitic messages were drawn in chalk on the playground of a public school in New York City. Up until that point, 36 other reports of anti-Semitic crimes were reported.
  • The U.S. Department of Education threatened to withhold millions of dollars in federal aid from Connecticut schools that wouldn’t withdraw from an athletic conference that allows transgender athletes to compete on sports teams that correspond with their gender identity.
  • A physical education class in Virginia included an exercise that asked students to act as runaway slaves for Black History Month. The pupils — in roles of either a slave, sharecropper or landowner — were instructed to advance through an obstacle course that represented the Underground Railroad.
  • A physical education teacher in Ohio was terminated after tossing a 4-year-old boy with moderate-to-severe autism spectrum disorder into the school’s swimming pool.
  • In a soccer playoff match in Minnesota, a group of fans specifically taunted Asian athletes of the opposing soccer team, telling the girls to “go back to where they came from” and giving them the names of Asian foods.

Unfortunately, as research from the Pew Research Center shows, it appears that people have become less trusting than in past decades, less connected to their communities, and more isolated, leading to a wide range of dissociations.

As Herbert C. Kelman explained in the Journal of Social Issues, dehumanization is a violation of two qualities (identity and community) that we accord to an individual. His concept of community envisioned humanity as an interconnected network of individuals who care for each other while recognizing each other’s individuality and rights.

With this understood, some ways that dehumanization can occur include:

  • Treating persons as part of an “out-group” as compared to an “in-group”;
  • Shaming individuals based on their spiritual and cultural practices (e.g., music, hairstyles, clothing, language);
  • Marginalizing individuals based on where they are from or their community history;
  • Showing a lack of empathy or indifference for the adverse situations of students;
  • Failing to provide emotional safety in a classroom or school;
  • Allowing for thoughts, feelings, actions and stereotypes to exist that places students at risk (e.g., portraying Black youth as superhuman).

Students who are dehumanized in schools are more likely to develop a negative attitude toward themselves, hide emotions, and over time disassociate with learning. This often leads to students “acting out,” being misinterpreted by teachers and administrators, and ultimately being labeled as difficult.

Humanizing Strategies in Physical Education

The COVID-19 pandemic and other events of 2020 have made it even more critical for teachers to learn and implement humanizing strategies in their classrooms.

In my article “Everyone Matters: Eliminating Dehumanizing Practices in Physical Education,” which appears in the January 2021 issue of JOPERD, I provide some ideas on how to rehumanize connections in physical education, such as:

  • Foster appropriate language: Model inclusive language, give students opportunities to demonstrate respect toward one another, address demeaning language, reinforce positive language.
  • Create a culture of “somebodiness”: Model resilience and the behaviors you want to see in students, provide high expectations with students and emphasize “best effort,” design experiences that build confidence, implement more reflexive teaching.
  • Give students voice: Provide students with opportunities to co-construct curriculum and design and teach lessons, emphasize role sharing, reduce power dynamics by changing group roles.
  • Learn about others: Apply social justice frameworks to the curriculum and routines of the physical education program, examining boundaries that exist between students’ home and school lives, networking in the community.

Building Inclusive Communities

If you have not by now, take a look at the phenomenal November/December 2020 feature issue of JOPERD edited by Jennifer Walton-Fisette and Douglas Ellison on preparing health and physical education teachers to become trauma invested. This resource is invaluable given our current challenges in education.

As we enter a new year, I leave you with a quote from Paulo Freire. In speaking on dehumanization in “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” he says, “Although dehumanization is a concrete historical fact, it is not a given destiny but the result of an unjust order that engenders violence in the oppressors, which in turn dehumanizes the oppressed.” Indeed, because dehumanization is not a “given destiny,” we can empower youth through building inclusive communities where all are valued.

Additional Resources


Brian Culp
Brian Culp

Brian Culp is a professor at Kennesaw State University who teaches courses in PETE. He has been a recipient of several awards from SHAPE America for his scholarship and program work on issues related to diversity and inclusion. Brian has held licenses as a K-12 physical educator in Georgia and Indiana. For more information visit www.culturenmotion.com.