Social Justice Usage
DuBois asks, “How does it feel to be a problem?” The question I will ask and answer in this chapter is, “How did Black bodies become a problem in the first place?” The social assignment of Black bodies to an underclass is a historical conundrum that has multiple origins, two of which are the institutions of slavery and the mass media. This chapter will explain how a set of racial projections became concretized in the American landscape via the development of meanings that were eventually fortified in many aspects of American life. In other words, Black bodies were inscribed with a set of meanings, which helped to perpetuate the scripter’s racial ideology. Through these scripts, race gradually became its own corporeal politics. Essentially, this book is an unmuting of DuBois’s reply to the question, “How does it feel to be a problem?” Also, it inevitably offers a discussion of West’s assertion that Black people’s humanity is a fairly new discovery.
New Discourses Commentary
Many people have observed the peculiar habit of advocates of and activists within Critical Social Justice to use the word “bodies” in place of “people.” This rather unsettling term appears most commonly in phrases such as “black bodies,” “brown bodies,” “black and brown bodies,” “gendered bodies,” “sexed bodies,” “abled” and “disabled bodies” (society is believed to do the abling and disabling), “fat bodies,” and “queer bodies.” The etymology of the term, used in this way, seems to derive primarily from a rhetorical flourish of the postmodern philosopher Michel Foucault, who claimed that his concept of “biopower” referred to a political strategy reliant upon science to produce “an explosion of numerous and diverse techniques for achieving the subjugations of bodies and the control of populations” (History of Sexuality, Vol. 1).
The connection to Foucault would certainly explain the peculiar “Woke” use of the term “bodies” in the cases of usages in gender studies, queer Theory, fat studies, and disability studies, which were heavily and directly influenced by postmodern thought, not least by Judith Butler, who seems to have adopted the habit, as in, for example, her 1993 book Bodies That Matter. Butler criticized Foucault’s understanding of the body viciously because his thoughts on the matter indicate that the body is mostly but not merely socially constructed, which she needed to advance her ideas in queer Theory that both sex and gender are social constructs. (That is, she didn’t think Foucault’s ideas about social constructivism were radical and complete enough because he, on some level, thought bodies are real things that might come before the social constructions of bodies that she believes society enforces upon people.) Nevertheless, she clearly appreciated his use of the idea and advanced it in her own peculiar direction that divorced it even further from reality and into social constructivism.
This concept, then, is what lies at the heart of the Critical Social Justice use of the term “bodies” in place of “people,” from a Theoretical perspective (as opposed merely to a rhetorical one). The view must be, at bottom, that what’s relevant about the body is how it is socially constructed so that (sociocultural and political) power might act upon it. Thus, where systemic power is believed to be relevant to the “control” of bodies, including by naming them as they are, the body as a social construct becomes the most relevant object about a person who is being controlled through it. In this sense, when social power is exerted on some physical capacity of a person (especially by violence), Theory would refer to the people as “bodies,” and when it refers to their status as an agent or dealing with their psychology (see also, harm and trauma), it might instead refer to them as “people” or, more often, “folks” (in order to indicate that they are members of social identity groups—see also, folx).
Foucault’s influence is also likely to explain how the term was incorporated into the language of critical race Theory, although it doesn’t on its own adequately explain the greater popularity and frequency of use in that capacity, which is possibly due to the frequent use by author Ta-Nehisi Coates in his bestselling book Between the World and Me. There, Coates mostly talks about the ways that “black bodies” are controlled by the state and a systemically racist society, especially by police but also through other means, all of which come down to racism.
The racial use of the term “bodies” is somewhat more complicated than the queer use. Where the latter has the aim of divorcing the physical body itself from the idea that it has anything meaningful to do with one’s sex, gender, or sexual identity (or ability or fat status), the former is very much concerned with how black and brown people are reduced by systemic power to mere bodies to be controlled. Ultimately, these are the same idea, as Butler would have been profoundly concerned about the “violence of categorization” inherent in “sexing” a body, which is done through power (both medical and social), and critical race Theory is concerned with the way that features like the “white gaze” (allegedly how white people look at black people in a way that sees them as inherently subhuman) and a history of slavery define black (and brown) people as bodies to be controlled (or sold) and not people.
That little or none of this has had any significant relevance in our societies in decades, if not well over a century, is irrelevant to the view in Theory that the system of power (in the Foucauldian sense) in which those features were true has not been genuinely overthrown and replaced (see also, revolution). The claim within Theory is that certain sociopolitical meanings have been “scripted” onto the black body, i.e., black people’s humanity is systematically removed by the applications of (putatively “white supremacist”) power that is produced and maintained by putting certain meanings (like “athletic,” perhaps) onto their bodies and then seeing them only in those terms. For example, critical race Theory might argue that white society sees black people as athletes who carry the football down the field for its entertainment and thus fail to see black people as people instead of, say, as “workhorses” or some other similar term that can be unfairly linked to historical slavery.
The logic behind the use of “bodies” in this capacity seems to be to imply that the system dehumanizes those it controls through various applications of power (including institutional power, like criminal justice and law enforcement, and more subtle forms of social and cultural power, including socialization into the system itself). This line of thought is a common one in Critical Social Justice, which alleges that one of the functions of systemic power is the processes by which the dominant in society grant themselves but not others the status of being fully human (see also, exclusion, marginalization, and subaltern). Using the term “bodies” in place of “people” when they are subject to (and subjugated by) the power dynamics in the system is a potent rhetorical tool for giving this impression.
Biopower; Critical; Critical race Theory; Disability studies; Dominance; Exclusion; Fat studies; Folks; Folx; Foucauldian; Gender; Gender (v.); Gender studies; Harm; Identity; Marginalization; Postmodernism; Power (systemic); Queer; Queer Theory; Racism (systemic); Radical; Reality; Revolution; Science; Sex; Social construction; Social constructivism; Social Justice; Socialization; Subaltern; System, the; Theory; Trauma; Violence; Violence of categorization; White supremacy; Woke/Wokeness
Revision date: 9/17/20