A neologism for which I have no theory that is mine

February 27, 2021 • 11:00 am

Maybe this isn’t a neologism, but it’s a usage that seems to have become quite frequent in recent discussions about race. I encountered it repeatedly the last week as I was reading Ibram X. Kendi’s bestseller How to be an Antiracist. (If I’m to engage in the discussions of the day, I have to know the literature, and this is one of the two most important books.)

The term is “Black body”—not the Planckian object of physics, but a term that refers to black people as a group. (I haven’t seen “white body” used nearly so often.) Here’s one example from Kendi, but there are hundreds in his book and other in antiracist literature. This one’s a quote from a Guardian article on the book, as I don’t have Kendi’s book here):

“Racist ideas piled up before me like trash at a landfill. . . Tens of thousands of pages of Black people being trashed as natural or nurtured beasts, devils, animals, rapists, slaves. . . More than five hundred years of toxic ideas on the Black body.”

What he means, of course, is “toxic ideas about black people.” One can see this usage throughout antiracist literature, always referring to “black people”, and I’m baffled. For changing “Black people” to “Black body” seems to me a dehumanization of people, reducing them to a protoplasmic vessel of a certain hue. And, as far as I can see, that’s not the intent of using it this way, for of course Kendi is an African-American who is not trying to dehumanize black people. And I don’t think he’s using the term to refer to how racists see African-Americans.

Given that the term “slave” has now passed out of usage in this literature, becoming “enslaved people” for obvious and laudable reasons (a slave is a person, and we should remember that), why should “black people” become “black bodies”? It’s the reverse kind of change.

I really have no idea why this seemingly dehumanizing usage, which always bothers me, is the term of choice these days. Can anyone explain?

52 thoughts on “A neologism for which I have no theory that is mine

    1. It is certainly derived from Foucault…. and we are continually punished (pun intended) by this lazy dehumanizing overuse among woke academics and their followers.

      “But the body is also directly involved in a political field; power relations have an immediate hold upon it; they invest it, mark it, train it, torture it, force it to carry out tasks, to perform ceremonies, to emit signs. The political investment of the body is bound up, in accordance with complex reciprocal relations, with its economic use; it is largely as a force of production that the body is invested with relations of power and domination; but, on the other hand, its constitution as labour power is possible only if it is caught up in a system of subjection (in which need is also a political instrument meticulously prepared, calculated and used); the body becomes a useful force only if it is both a productive body and a subjected body. This subjection is not only obtained by the instruments of violence or ideology; it can also be direct, physical, pitting force against force, bearing on material elements, and yet without involving violence; it may be calculated, organized, technically thought out; it may be subtle, make use neither of weapons nor of terror and yet remain of a physical order.”
      ― Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison

      1. This makes a lot of sense to me. The intellectual subculture to which Foucault belongs lacks epistemological standards or even clear aims. That means that within that subculture, ideas and their usage evolve chiefly in line the vicissitudes of human taste–a form of cultural drift, as it were, depending on far we want to push the evolutionary analogy. All it takes is one influential person to use a term–regardless of how useful, accurate, or illuminating it actually is–to lock it into the pseudointellectual vernacular forever.

    2. That seems right – see Doug’s link at #11 – but who knows who’s read Foucault, or how seriously. The actual usage of the phrase seems to imply that bodily integrity is widely respected for some people’s bodies, and not for others. And maybe also, that some bodies and not others are considered to meet standards of beauty.

    3. Completely Foucault. Especially from History of Sexuality, La Naissance de la Clinique, and Surveiller et Punir. (The last, translated as Discipline and Punishment, is probably his masterpiece.)

      But Foucault was a master of the French language and rhetoric. Read in French, the writing is as beautiful as Proust.

      Kinda loses it in the translation.

      BTW, Foucault was into S and M…..and part of the reason he so wanted an appointment at Berkeley was to be near San Franciso.

  1. Could it be a way of referring to the commodification of black people under slavery? After all, they had no agency under such a system and could have been considered to be simply “bodies”.

    1. I agree with you. Blacks were, and still are, objectified, dehumanized, and considered disposable commodities. The phrase purposefully signifies that blacks were and are still considered things, not fully human beings.

      1. Blacks were, indeed, objectified, dehumanized, and considered disposable commodities. Not any more, not in most Anglphone countries, anyway (they vary a bit).

        A more interesting phenomenon is the contrasting fates of ‘black bodied’ immigrants from Nigeria and the Caribbean. The Nigerian ones do brilliantly at school, right up there with Brahmins from India; those from the Caribbean, whose culture is similar to Black People in the US, do poorly. Violence, drugs and everything

        The difference, probably, is down to fact that one population were slaves; the other slave suppliers, supplying the slave ships.

        1. “Not any more”?

          Thank you for your expert opinion and all the fascinating information and facile justifications thereof, about black bodies, I mean black people. But you’d aver that you’re not rendering an opinion, you’re giving us facts. I’ll stop before I violate Da Roolz.

        2. Jamaican-Americans (both first generation and their offspring) tend to be upwardly mobile, and to do very well, both academically and financially, in the US. (See Colin Powell, Susan Rice, and Kamala Harris, for example.)

          This has earned Jamaicans the sobriquet “Jews of the Caribbean.”

          1. Yes. That’s an interesting caveat. That may indeed be the case in the USA. In the UK, it isn’t. There will be SOME immigrants from the Carribean who do well, but in general it is the Nigerians who do far better.

              1. Yes, it seem to be a bit different everywhere. Do you have Nigerians–West Africans, generally?

                UK’s Carribean Immigration began with Windrush in the early 1950s. Decent family people coming over and filling in Post-World War II labour shortages. Gradually over the past 50 years family discipline has broken down, fractured families, drugs and gangsterism.

                This happened in the US following Civil Rights. And Moynihan warned about it.

      2. I contemplate how capitalism/capitalist “theory” views flesh-and-blood human beings, what with the use of “human resource” and “human capital.”

  2. It’s only a guess but the use “black body” strikes me as a subtle hint that the author wants his audience to assume that all black people have the same problems, outlook on life, desires, etc. The fact that this isn’t at all the case is often used against their racism theories.

    1. No, that’s not it at all, for Kendi’s main point is that there are no differences of any sort: cultural, genetic, and so on, between races. Any notion that all black people have similar outlooks would be repugnant to him, and he’d call that view racist.

      1. That is interesting because my first thought was the same as Paul’s—“the body” denotes a highly conforming population, like a religious body. Perhaps then it refers to the corporeal body of black people.

  3. Just guessing, but could it derive from the African American Churches? The Church is the body of Christ, in the New Testament and in Church doctrine. Perhaps the African American community uses a term like “black body” derived from that context? Like I say, this is just a wild guess.

  4. I think antiracist and now black body are words that sound scientific, so they would impress people as new scientific terms to solve racial problems. I think this is deliberate.

    1. Related to that is, I think, it is fashionable in modern times to sound scientific to a general audience, and at least to have hip, edgy language that distinguishes one author’s sound from another. Consider the contrived language of amedicine (I couldn’t resist that – meaning homeopathy, alternative medicine), or the inimitable writings of Deepak Chopra. We can say what we will about it, but Chopra has possibly invented a new sound. And I do mean sound as in the musical affect that prosaic writing can have, a higher order poetry.

  5. The term “black community” has lost it’s power.

    Many of us who oppose collectivist thought (group-think) despise “black community.” There is no such thing as a black community — that is a racist term on its face. Likewise, there is no such thing as the “black body.”

    So after “black community” has become so overplayed and therefore invisible, these groupies pride themselves on inventing a new term — indeed, a neologism — for it, hoping it will renew the impact.


    “Given that the term “slave” has now passed out of usage in this literature, becoming “enslaved people” for obvious and laudable reasons (a slave is a person, and we should remember that) …”

    I disagree. “Slave” has much more impact for the very fact it jolts you into realization that the root of slavery is: human beings conceptualized — and legalized — as property. Not persons.

    “Enslaved people” feels like a neologism. Reminds me of “people with wombs.” Etc.

    1. Perhaps ‘enslaved people’ is intended to remind us that slavery is a mostly involuntary condition imposed on our fellow human beings, in case we didn’t know but, IMO, using two words for one impairs any extra semantic force.

      Edit: I see GCM has made a similar point in more detail @#14.

  6. I have seen “black bodies” used in recent discourse. I haven’t noticed the singular (nor marked capitalization).

  7. I have no idea. However in the beginning of this country the system(slavery) was often left unspoken or not discussed directly. Referred to as the institution but you know what they were talking about. The word is never stated in the Constitution although it is very specifically an important part of the Constitution. 3/5 ths of a person counted for representation in the congress and because it was, it gave the south the ability to basically run this country for many years and right up to the civil war. By the 1830s in congress it was nearly the only subject that was discussed and what to do about it was on the minds of nearly all politicians. It prevented progress like nothing else for many years. A special gag order was created by the congress in attempt to shut up John Quincy Adams who spent much of his time in the House reading petitions from people attempting to remove slavery in one way or another.

      1. Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons. (Art. 1, Sect. 2)

  8. For the obvious reason that individuals do not matter in this cosmology. Only groups of people do, and individuals stand in for the groups they (purportedly) belong to.

    It’s lazy, prejudiced, racist thinking, but thus the academy anymore.

  9. I first saw the term “Black Body” in the writing of Ta Nehisi Coates. It struck me as an awkward term to use for “person”.

  10. RE: “Given that the term ‘slave” has now passed out of usage in this literature, becoming ‘enslaved people’ for obvious and laudable reasons (a slave is a person, and we should remember that)”

    Are we going to also get rid of, say, lawyer, blogger, journalist, etc.? In favor of a person who works as a lawyer, a blogging person, a person who writes newspaper or magazine articles?
    Jerry A. Coyne = the person named Jerry A. Coyne?

    I have nothing against using “enslaved person”. What I do mind is people telling me that using “slave” is wrong, or worse.

    1. [Note: this is from Greg, not Jerry.] “Enslaved” and “being a slave” mean two different things, and thus it is useful to have the distinction. “Enslave” means “to make a slave” (transitive), or “to be made a slave” (intransitive), and thus refers to the acts by which a person becomes a slave (e.g., being seized in battle and sold). An “enslaved person” has undergone some such acts. In a legal system (such as chattel slavery in most of the Americas) in which the offspring of slaves are slaves from birth, it is some ancestor who has been enslaved. All “enslaved persons” are slaves, but not all slaves are enslaved persons. To give American examples, Frederick Douglass was a slave who escaped to freedom; Solomon Northup was an enslaved person, having been kidnapped and sold into slavery, who was freed by legal action. Both were, for part of their lives, slaves; but only Northup was an enslaved person.

      I don’t know why inaccurate usage of “enslaved person” has become more frequent of late, but I would suspect an intentional attempt to change the meaning of the words by those using it.


  11. Professor Kendi has held academic positions at a variety of universities. In those departments that specialize in either grievance studies or post-modernism or both,
    “scholarship” consists mostly of the invention of new words, usages, or acronyms for things that either are already named or, conversely, are essentially fictional. The new usages then filter out of academia through imitative behavior to become clichés.

  12. There is a constant need for these neologisms. Once a term is widely accepted it no longer distinguishes the people who use it from everyone else and then you need a new one to serve that purpose. It doesn’t have to have any more reason to exist than that. It pretends to be about clarifying or adding meaning, but it isn’t really. You use the term and that tells people something about you.

    I predict that right around the time I fold and start capitalizing black a new word will start being demanded.

    1. As an explanation for how we go from “slave” to “enslaved people” that makes a lot more sense than the reason given by PCC(E), namely that “enslaved person” is to be preferred because otherwise we may forget that slaves are persons.

  13. The first I recall seeing “black bodies” used in this way was in the writings of Ta-Nehisi Coates, particularly in the essay that was later expanded into his National Book Award-winning non-fiction tome, Between the World and Me, though it may have appeared earlier elsewhere. Coates claims as his primary literary influences Richard Wright (whose poem supplied that book’s title) and James Baldwin. (Indeed, Between the World and Me is written in the form of a letter to his son — in homage, I believe, to the letter to his nephew that appeared as the first part of Baldwin’s two-essay collection, The Fire Next Time.)

    1. Coates’s original essay, which makes extensive use of the term — which is, at least in part, an apologia regarding the term’s use — can be accessed here, in The Atlantic.

      As linguist John McWhorter said in the latest chapter of his book, the one our host posted about recently on this site, Coates’s essay is beautifully written.

  14. Yes, it refers to the dehumanization of Blacks, that racists are unable to see them as people with full humanity and culture. Instead they are merely bodies that are black.

    So the quote above, “Racist ideas piled up before me like trash at a landfill…More than five hundred years of toxic ideas on the Black body” is understood to mean, “Racist ideas piled up before me like trash at a landfill…More than five hundred years of toxic ideas, not on our history, culture, ideas, or experience, but merely on the only reductionist view they all hold in common: that our bodies are black.”

  15. Interpreter needed:
    ‘Black Body
    Women, Colonialism, and Space
    1999 • Author: Radhika Mohanram
    Asserts the centrality of space to racial identity.

    The true significance of the female black body can be understood only through the concept of space. A “black body” is understood as “black” only outside of its context, its “place”—and a female black body is doubly out of place. Yet for all its importance to racial identity, Radhika Mohanram argues, space has been submerged and overlooked in postcolonial theory. Accordingly, she develops in Black Body a theory of identity situated within space and place rather than the more familiar models of identity formation that emphasize time.
    …. Mohanram’s Black Body is a complex theoretical consideration fo the politics of narrative and her interpretation of the meaning of story is well told. This work impacts how black women’s stories are told and interpreted. Black Body broadens the analysis of black women’s narratives and re-establishes geographical setting as the center of postcolonial theory.

    — Journal of International Women’s Studies’

    p.s. please see James Lindsay: https://newdiscourses.com/tftw-bodies/ I can neither read nor post all of that.

  16. My bent on this is that it reduces individuals to a block with the emphasis on colour, not on the individuals, a person with history, a human being.
    It is an opaque term masking all individuals with personal stories and lumping them collectively behind a “Black body”,
    We are asked to accept colour and reject it at the same time.
    We know via science how skin colour is influenced . It is a very interesting and a vivid story of human evolution, skin colour is only a part of the individual and not a description label of what and who they are.
    Again as I see it, racism needs stamping out by bringing the individuals forward not by relegating them to a block of colour.

  17. A related point – one thing that gets my goat is the concept of collective justice and collective revenge. *I* have never owned a slave, nor has anybody in my ancestry to my knowledge. Yet I am somehow responsible b/c of my skin?

    Inter-generational grievances leave us in a terrible place. I visited Germany, a place that extinguished distant relatives of mine but the PEOPLE I MET were lovely. And why would I hold them responsible?

    Current inequalities (cash bail, the war on drugs, education financing, voter disenfranchisement) are much more important issues, and correctable, to pursue. Not hundreds of years old grudges.

    ((D.A.)), J.D.

    1. I see your point, and basically agree, but one could make the point that, due to segregation in the past, Whites have, on average, had some advantages over Blacks, and that those, to some extent, still exist today, even though no individual guilt is involved. This is something different than the woke claim that Whites are, genetically or whatever, somehow worse than Blacks. I think that the idea of historically disadvantaged groups is behind the idea of the type of affirmative action which Jerry supports.

      The problem with addressing that with reparations or whatever is that there are people who have benefitted from being Black, there are disadvantaged White people, and then there are people who have had a hard time because of illness, handicapped children, or whatever, disadvantages which have a much larger effect on their daily lives.

      The only proper solution is to make equal opportunity the most important goal of civilization.

    2. “And why would I hold them responsible?”

      It takes grievance to do that. If someone looks around where they live and that makes them angry, if someone sees people more successful than themselves – despite their misery – and start sifting through the differences to explain it, I can understand how a grievance would grow.

      That is complicated stuff.

  18. To John Moriarty@3:26 am

    You have a distinct knack for dehumanizing people of African descent, even as you use AAE grammar. I’ve read that similar things were said about the Irish in America. Undoubtedly, some still do.

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