A reading list on resisting dehumanization

We are living in violent and dangerous times. Landlords are doubling rents and evicting tenants, underfunded hospitals are turning away patients, and migrants are dying trying to cross borders for refuge. The reality is that this violence is not new; many marginalized people – particularly poor Black, Indigenous, trans, disabled, addicted, and queer communities – have been subjected to gratuitous structural violence for generations. 

The state and police rationalize the harm, social control, and dehumanization they inflict on marginalized communities by classifying them as non-human or less human than others. Take Sylvia Wynter’s 1992 essay responding to the acquittal of four police officers for beating Rodney King. Wynter deconstructs how police and public officials used the acronym NHI (no humans involved) to describe calls involving young Black men, like King — a term that police have also used for sex workers, street-involved people, and people who use drugs — to justify brutalizing them. 

This reading list includes the stories of Black women, queer and trans people, people who use drugs, sex workers, and migrants resisting their dehumanization by the state, the police, and the public. As they fight to be recognized as valuable members of our communities, I hope their stories inform our organizing against all systems that treat us as non-human or less than. 

 Black Women Under State (2022) 

Ontario Works (OW) is a social assistance program that disproportionately surveils and criminalizes Black women, as Idil Abdillahi uncovers in Black Women Under State. Operating from a Black feminist and critical race standpoint, Abdillahi draws from interviews with Black women who share their experiences navigating social services and assistance. She expertly interrogates how state and non-profit agencies subject Black women to high levels of monitoring and intrusion. This is achieved through surveillance technologies and moral regulation that demarcate Black women as “welfare cheats” and “welfare frauds.” Her ability to weave in reflections on her own identities, as well as her familiarity with the experiences of the women she interviews, adds layers of depth to her study. Not only does she shed light on the oppression and marginalization that render these women both hyper-visible and invisible, Abdillahi compellingly argues for why we must create “spaces in and around which Black women can build critical consciousness, organize, and engage in resistance work.”

 Living Out Islam (2013)

Scott Siraj al-Haqq Kugle’s Living Out Islam presents in-depth biographical accounts of 15 gay, lesbian, and trans Muslim activists from around the world. The book is structured around six forms of activism shared by Kugle’s interviewees: engaging with religious tradition, challenging family and community, adapting religious and secular politics, forging alliances with other minority groups, and embarking on individual journeys of self-discovery. 

Kugle’s presentation of these activists’ experiences reveal how they reconcile their religious identity with their sexual orientation and gender identity. Often this struggle is marked by tension, pain, and isolation as they face family and community rejection, but there are just as many stories of how activists restore and celebrate themselves and each other. Drawing from Islamic liberation theology, one activist describes how an interpretation of fitra (innate nature) guides gay, lesbian, and trans Muslims in understanding spiritual growth as a process of shedding the “false self” imposed by society to reveal a “true self” that enables sincere devotion to God. At a time when queer and trans Muslims are facing escalating violence through forced de-transitioning and genocidal legislation, this book is a crucial affirmation of the multiplicity of their lives and identities. 

Love in the Time of Fentanyl (2022) 

With compassion at its core, Colin Askey’s documentary Love in the Time of Fentanyl chronicles the critical efforts of the Overdose Prevention Society (OPS), a group of people who, in 2016, established a safe injection site in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES) in response to the devastating drug-poisoning crisis in B.C. Askey’s access to the inner workings of this community stems from the relationships he forged during his 10 years of experience working in the DTES. His ethical practice and respect for the community is reflected in how he prioritized obtaining informed consent from those on camera. Askey humanizes and portrays people as complex individuals with rich interior lives who joke around, have dance parties, and create art together, a refreshing depiction in comparison to the many studies, documentaries, and books that describe street-involved people who use drugs as merely victims existing in close proximity to death. 

Despite the ongoing tragedy surrounding them, the film depicts both the mundane and intense day-to-day realities of OPS’s operations that keep the site running. The film has received multiple awards and is still touring the festival circuit; however, interested individuals can contact the producers through their website to request access to the documentary and to organize screenings in their communities.

Sex Work Activism in Canada (2019)

Despite constantly being relegated to the margins of history books, sex workers are (and always have been) at the forefront of activism to challenge systems and policies that exclude them from human rights protection – like the Expungement Act, which excludes people charged with prostitution-related offenses from expunging their criminal records. Driven by a desire to resist this erasure, Sex Work Activism in Canada, edited by Amy Lebovitch and Shawna Ferris, documents the knowledge and collective practices of sex worker activists. The result is a nuanced, heartfelt, and powerful snapshot of sex work in Canada, as told by sex workers. Their histories, personal narratives, testimonials, and analyses illustrate the crucial role sex workers and sex work organizations play in advancing sex worker rights and offer a record that current and future generations of activists and supporters can look back on to learn from and celebrate.

 Harvesting Freedom (2023)

“I often think about how even though slavery and indentured labour are in our past, the echoes of these institutions can still be heard, loud and clear, in our modern world,” writes Gabriel Allahdua in his memoir Harvesting Freedom, a first-hand account of navigating and resisting the structures of Canada’s agricultural industry as a migrant worker. Allahdua traces his journey from his childhood in St. Lucia to his work in Canada’s Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program and subsequently as a migrant justice activist after leaving the program and settling in Canada. 

Written with Edward Dunsworth, a historian of labour and migration and professor at McGill University, Allahdua’s work is the first published account of the life of a migrant farm worker in a Canadian temporary foreign worker program. The author’s well-crafted personal stories, coupled with insights from his current work as an organizer with Justicia for Migrant Workers and as an outreach worker with The Neighbourhood Organization, humanize the complex lives of migrant workers, who are often made to feel invisible and isolated, while grounding their personal stories within the enduring global legacies of racial capitalism, colonialism, and displacement. Of particular note for activists and educators is Allahdua’s “Twenty Injustices of Canada,” a framework he developed that deftly outlines the dehumanizing and exploitative conditions migrant workers face. This engaging read serves as a rallying cry for anyone seeking to deepen their understanding of Canada’s cruel and coercive “legal” migrant labour system and the promising future the migrant justice movement envisions.

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