Body Language: Racism According to Ta-nehisi Coates
Ta-Nehisi Coates insists on talking about bodies. Black bodies. It is one of the distinct rhetorical features of his newest book, Between the World and Me, the headline-grabbing, mini-treatise on race and racism in America.
Writing in the form of a letter to his son, Coates offers insightful commentary on a number of dimensions of race: fear as endemic to black life in America; race and class as overlapping but not equivalent categories; “whiteness” as social status indicator rather than ethnic identity per se; and the “American Dream” as having been built on the backs of African slaves and their descendants with near-religious zeal, to name a few.
The substance of these themes is worthy of rigorous examination. And so is the manner in which Coates, the gifted wordsmith, has chosen to communicate.
Racism is a violation of “the black body.” Conversations about racism entail questions about “the condition of my body.” Racialized exercises of power involve “the authority to destroy your body.” The dominant question of his life, and by suggestion all black lives, is, “How do I live free in this black body?”
Children growing up under the heavy hand of racial oppression have an unarticulated but persistent “fear for their bodies.” The fight for racial justice is the fight “to secure and govern our own bodies.” The word appears around eighteen times in the first eight pages alone. Far from being an incidental literary quirk, this relentless focus on the corporeality of racism frames Coates’ entire narrative of racial injustice in America.
The use of the language of black “bodies” is striking and immensely helpful. It also finds critical resonance with Christian theology. Here are two ways.
Racism as Violence
First, racism is violence. Describing racism as an intrusive force applied to “black bodies” vividly reminds us that this is so. As Neil Plantinga has articulated helpfully, all sin (including the sin of racism) is a “rupture” of relationships both divine and human; sin is the “vandalism” of shalom. Indeed.
What are racial slurs? Verbal aggravated assault on the Imago Dei. What is implicit bias? The subconscious disfigurement of the “other.” Racism — whether in interpersonal or institutional form, whether instigated by the oppressor or internalized by the oppressed — violently shreds the human soul, beheads the Church, dismembers Christ’s body. Mercy.
If racism is violence, perhaps this is why the Apostle Paul employs such raw — dare we say, violent — terms in Ephesians 2: “by blood,” “broken down in his flesh,” “the cross,” “dividing wall of hostility.” To achieve reconciliation, the violence of redemption mirrored the violence of division. The carnality of the cross (“his flesh”!) served as divine counterpoint to the corporeality of racial hostility (a “wall”!). Here is one critical lesson of the cross of Christ: Racism is always bloody.
Do we view racism simply as an irksome offense of the unvirtuous mind, a “white collar” moral misdemeanor? Or do we see it for what it is: violence?
Of course, rightly understood, and in accordance with the way Coates intended work to be read, racism also entails literal, physical violence. This brings us to the next observation.
Racism as Viscerality
Second, Coates’ “body” language poignantly reminds us racism is a visceral experience; it is physical reality. It terrorizes minds and hearts, yes. But it also touches human bodies. Always has and always does.
Nevertheless, racial oppression’s viscerality is all too often forgotten, obscured, or denied. In a recent interview, when asked to explain his rhetorical choice to center his discussion around the black body, Coates responded as follows:
“There is tendency in academia and in (some) social justice circles to make that which is oppressive distant and abstract. We use a language, which at times obscures what’s going on—racial discrimination, racial segregation, racial justice, etc.
This sort of language eliminates the actual actions of actual people. It was deeply important to me to situate racism as a done thing: as a thing you actually feel.
There is a tendency to adopt euphemisms when confronted with the very real violence that comes with having a foot on your neck.”
This etherealizing tendency is also characteristic of Christians, evangelical and Reformed Christians in particular, who by and large have never been personally “confronted with the very real violence that comes with having a foot on your neck.”
Far too often in the Church, racism is viewed and explained in disembodied terms. It is an abstract concept, a “social ill,” even a theology. It is “sin,” a reprehensible expression of our “depravity,” a part of our “fallen condition.” Which is not to say this take on racism is inaccurate; it is simply incomplete.
Paul’s epistles, by contrast, point to human bodies as the stage upon which the drama of redemption is enacted (Rom. 12:1; Gal. 2:20). Our fallen condition finds physical expression in “mortal bodies,” whether the fist of the sinner or the face of the sinned against (Rom 6:12; 8:11).
Don’t miss it: Sin always shows up in bodies and on bodies. The sin of racism has real, physical consequences. An authentically Pauline worldview should prompt Christians (evangelical and Reformed Christians in particular) to anticipate discovering the pernicious effects of racial sins on physical bodies.
Physical Racial Injustice
One with eyes to see does not need to look far to find these effects. Throughout history, racism has expressed itself in “the flaying of backs; the chaining of limbs; the strangling of dissidents; the destruction of families; the rape of mothers.” In the present day, racism “dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth.”
It manifests itself in the cold floor of a jail cell; in sore backs strained from underpaying jobs; in the itch of a bed bug infestation in a substandard apartment; in the manipulation of one’s God-given hair; in the perspiration of palms clutching the steering wheel amidst flashing lights. Indeed, in bodies, because racial injustice is a ruthlessly physical, embodied reality.
Our Words Matter
So then, what language do we use when speaking about racism, even in casual conversation? Do we convey its violence, its terror? Do we communicate its viscerality? Our words matter. They reflect our view of reality; they put flesh on our convictions.
An emphasis on the bodily impact of racial sins is consistent with the testimony of Scripture, and it is consistent with the experience of black Americans throughout history. When talking about racism toward African Americans, Ta-Nehisi Coates insists on talking about “black bodies.” And so should we.