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Being Human, What Does that Even Mean?

Updated: Jul 30, 2020

Zainabu Jallo

As an evolving Anthropologist, I am fully aware of the historical shortcomings of my discipline, illustrated through its alignment with power, essentialist ideologies like biological determinism and radical Othering. How could a human be defined without falling into the trappings of exclusion or totalisation? Do we really understand what it means to be human?

It is becoming more palpable that the human is not an even-handed designation; neither is there a universal consensus to its meaning. With a bit of “mining” (not too deep), it reveals itself as a term that symbolises access to rights. It connotes entitlement and power.

© Zainabu Jallo, HYPNOPOMPIA. New York, 2016.

As a species, paleoanthropologists identify the human as Homo sapiens, associated with the genus Homo. Some characteristics of Homo Sapiens according to the paleoanthropologists at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History include walking on two legs, one step at a time, the ability to express themselves through language and symbols, and the possession of “bigger brains for a complex world, [as the] modern human brain is the largest and most complex of any living primate.”[1]

Within social settings, who is the human?

When the idea of the human was first conceptualised, it was definition by negation. This negation indicates that not everyone was qualified to be in the category of the Anthropos.

Anthropos did not strictly refer to men. However, women and children were considered less superior to men. It was a highly privileged title. For instance, women could not partake in any formal education. Men had the privilege to learn from philosophers or scribes. Over time, when women could eventually get access to education, it was for the smooth running of their families and certainly not to engage in any intellectually stimulating philosophical debates. The barbarians were not considered humans; neither were the gods, so let’s not even look onto the vibrant female mythological characters of Hera, Aphrodite, Persophone, Athena, Demeter. Slaves and non-human animals fell into the non-human category. In a nutshell, you had to be a Greek male, cultivated through the Paideia system of refinement.

This archetypal human has been reconstructed through Millennia in a way that has been naturalised, and has allowed for the most barbarous forms of eradication and the exclusion of others the worst cases of ills against humanity; slavery, genocide, epistemic injustices.

A quick look towards Ancient Rome from where the word “human” is derived. From the Latin word homo; man, human being to Latin word humanus, based the idea of the Greek Anthropos. It is from this word that Humanism as a scholarly pursuit was born, derived from the Latin word humanitas, which conveys the idea of the topmost human aptitudes and the model of intellectual ethos. It targeted at educating men-not women-to be well-positioned within civil society.

According to Philosopher Rosi Braidotti, the humanist ideal has been an exclusive and very biased character in the ideology of European supremacy, “it is a delusional self-portrait about Europe that does not do justice to the mistakes as well as the greatness of cultures.”[2]

How have these ideas of exclusion been reinforced scientifically? A few examples:

Let’s move to the year of the scientific invention of race, 1735, with the publication of Systema Naturae (other revisions followed) wherein the Naturalist Carl Linnaeus proposed categorisation of humankind into four distinct races. His four geographical and racial divisions were: Europaeus albus - white Europeans, Americanus rubescens -red Americans (native Americans), Asiaticus fuscus - yellow Asians, Africanus niger - black Africans. Then came, Anthropometry, biological determinism as enforced by modern Anthropologists. There is no doubt that the Linnaean system of taxonomy has been advantageous to biologists in the study of the organic world. It came with its good, it’s bad and its harmful essentialism. Racial classifications went on a spin and have been the main contraption for generating and sustaining supremacy and oppression. In the article “Reestablishing “Race” in Anthropological Discourse”, Carol Mukhopadhyay asserts that, “modern anthropology’s roots lie in 19th-century European natural history traditions, with their focus on the classification and comparison of human populations and their search for indicators of mental capacity.” (Mukhopadhyay 517)

Following the Second World war, which was imbued with the Nazist agenda of racially restructuring the world order, UNESCO released its first statement concerning race on July 18, 1950. The document was received with unsympathetic criticism from biologists, geneticists, and physical anthropologists, who pointed out what they understood was a series of discrepancies regarding the scientific construct of race. The statement did not mince words; already by the third line, it indicated that “mankind will not soon forget the injustices and crimes which give such tragic overtones to the word “race” … the great and terrible war which has now ended was a war made possible by the denial of the democratic principles of the dignity, equality and mutual respect of men, and by the propagation, in their place, through ignorance and prejudice, of the doctrine of the inequality of men and races”[3]

There was the second world war, before that, the transatlantic slave trade, Imperialism/Colonialism, massacres such as the Congo Free State Massacres under king Leopold and the inhumane mutilation of Congo peoples, (my goodness this was diabolic!) and the Herero genocide. Outside of the black world, other excluded populations were exposed to such viciousness; the Hamidian and Wounded Knee Massacres to name a few.

The scientific application of the concept of race as an acceptable tool in gauging the intellectual competence and ordering of the human species was criticised in the early twentieth century by Anthropologist Franz Boas, in “Race and Democratic Society” where he writes: “The existence of any pure race with special endowments is a myth, as is the belief that there are races all of whose members are foredoomed to eternal inferiority”.

As it relates to Anthropological inquiry of the cultures we study, Tim Ingold puts it succinctly by saying, “[t]hey are not subjects at all, nor objects, nor are they hybrid subject- objects. They are verbs. This is as true of humans as of beings of any other kind. Indeed, humans are not really beings at all but becomings.” ( Ingold 329)

The idea that race has a natural referent has been rejected by critical race theorists. Instead, it is a product of social processes of power. According to Professor of Law, Kendall Thomas, People are “race-d”, no one belongs to a race. Fast forward to recent events and the energetic resurgence of the Black Lives Matter in the United States that reverberates around the world. How could there be such a buoyant continuity of such cruelty and epistemic injustice? Repressive state apparatuses in the United States particularly have been interminably coercive towards its black population.

I find it quizzical when institutions, feign to disremember history or perhaps for the reputation of giving a voice to the “downtrodden”, are suddenly calling on black people to share their experiences of racism or of being black in the world. To what end with this manner of rhetoric? What message is there that has not been conveyed? For centuries, the narrative has remained the same. How cogent has the act of sharing one’s experience been? And how effective has the strategy of listening been?

Evidential documents, books audio-video materials of unlawful aggression and killings, photographs, songs; the wailings have all been, and are still echoing to this day, it is a kind of history that has refused to be history. These outcries, these pursuits to be regarded as “humans”, with rights to all kinds of freedom, have been as relevant as on that Sunday in January of 1835 in Bahia with the Malê revolts; as on August 21, 1791, in San-Domingue.

Perhaps this “sharing” of points of view would be a more meaningful exercise if the tables were turned.

Racism and acts of dehumanisation thereof have been woven into the fabric of many institutions, sturdily rooted as their foundations. Nothing could possibly change without the active dismantling of these faulted constructions that have become “the way” of going about things.

Institutions founded upon dehumanising practices embedded in racism such as Colonialism cannot afford to be neutral because there is simply no middle point in these matters, there has never been. In A Black Theology of Liberation, James H. Cone writes, “It is impossible to confront a racist society, with the meaning of human existence grounded in commitment to the divine, without at the same time challenging the very existence of the national structure and all of its institutions.” (58)

It is one thing to sit at conferences theorising about what needs to be done; the challenge lies in implementing critical thought. My current research on material culture has allowed me to work closely with a number of Museums of Anthropology. Hence, my antennae are always up when a humanitarian crisis arises. What do these museums, who claim to be so deeply involved in the human condition, have to say? The politics of standpoints need to be unambiguous. Being apolitical is unavailing. This positionality is also reflected in how world populations are represented within Museum collections. Even though we all claim to reject classifications of humans and even the use of the term race (at least in European academia), we cannot merely sweep such grave essentialisms under the carpet. The channels through which racism have been constructed need to be the very same ones used for its pulverisation.

The champs are those institutions that turn the searchlight on themselves.

Last year, the Musée cantonal d’archéologie et d ‘histoire de Lausanne exhibited, Derrière les cases de la Mission which took a very critical look at the activities of Swiss-French Missionaries in South Africa. Curated by museum Directors Lionel Pernet and Grègoire Mayor, a section of the exhibition, “The End of Innocence”, highlighted James Baldwin’s account of the racism he experienced in Leukabad, Switzerland in “Stranger in the Village.” The exhibition explicitly disapproved of the continuity of racism through mixed-media installations, performances by contemporary artists and the museum`s accompanying statement. At the Linden Museum, Stuttgart, Sandra Ferracuti’s Wo ist Afrika permanent exhibition challenges flawed patterns of Colonialism by producing self-critical, potentially remedial dialogues.

As stated in my opening lines, institutions such as Anthropological museums have historically contributed to the essentialism of populations and therefore, need to make radical moves towards annihilating the ideals upon which they were founded. Carine Ayélé Durand, Chief Curator and Head of Collections, at the Musée d’ethnographie de Genève underlines the importance of ethical documentation and the erasure of crude, geographical and functionalist categorisations in her museum.

Tarsila do Amaral. Operários, 1933. Oil on canvas,150 x 205 cm. Collection of the Government of the State of São Paulo

So, in the 21st century, who then qualifies to be human? Those who fit into Virtruvius` ideal bodily proportions? People with the ability to walk on two legs? Le Corbusier`s Modulor Man? Linneaus`Europaeus albus? Those on the right side of the binary?

Humanism, even with its fascination with reason, seems to have overlooked historical, cultural features and has allowed some of the evils that we still contend with. How is it that difference still translates as a debased Other? I have gone octopudian with my tentacles flailing all over, but what I am trying to say here is, for racism and other forms of prejudices to be combated, institutional ideologies based on centuries-old essentialist thought also need to be obliterated.


Boas, Franz. Race and Democratic Society. Biblo and Tannen, 1969.

Braidotti, Rosi. “Posthuman, All Too Human? A Cultural Political Cartography.” Inhuman Symposium, Fridericianum, August 10 2015.

Cone, James H. A Black Theology of Liberation. Orbis Books, 2010.

Ingold, Tim. Biosocial Becomings: Integrating Social and Biological Anthropology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2013

Ingold, Tim. That’s enough about ethnography!”. HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 4 (1): 2014. pp383–395.

Mukhopadhyay, Carol C., and Yolanda T. Moses. “Reestablishing ‘Race’ in Anthropological Discourse.” American Anthropologist, vol. 99, no. 3, 1997, pp. 517–533

UNESCO. “The Race Question.”, 1950,

[1]See, [2] Rosi Braidotti, from the lecture, “Posthuman, All Too Human? A Cultural Political Cartography.” Inhuman Symposium, Fridericianum, August 10, 2015. See, [3] For the eleven-page statement, see, UNESCO. “The Race Question.”, 1950,

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