Regulation, Commodification, and the Enclosure of the Body

This essay is part of a series entitled “From the Schoolhouse to the Field: Abolition Toward an Education for Liberation“.

If capitalism, white supremacy, and heteropatriarchy are the prevailing logics of USAmerican society, then they necessarily inform all interactions between people, the state and its institutions, including schools. Since the founding of the first British colonies on Turtle Island, which would eventually become the United States, the collective human body has been enclosed along lines of race, gender, and class, while individual human bodies have been internally enclosed with respect to their relation to capital. In other words, value is assigned to people not only by where they are situated within the sociopolitical hierarchy, but to individual body parts, independent of the human being as a whole. 

From the slave ship to the auction block, Black bodies have been commodified for their capacity for labor, while at the same time regarded as the excess of production. Where the value of enslaved people was assigned based on their capacity for labor, the parts of the body not strictly necessary for work were deemed expendable.  Indigenous bodies have not only been regarded as expendable, but their annihilation was critical to the settler colonial project, equivalent to the clear-cutting of forest to make space for industrial production. Physical mutilation was a common practice during slavery, as a tool of punishment and terror, to coerce the individual body of the victim to produce more and to abandon any concept of personal agency. In the same way, the very life of an enslaved person became expendable if its destruction disabused the collective body of any thoughts of resistance. 

This is like the butcher slicing up an animal and pricing different cuts in accordance with supply and demand. This comparison may seem extreme until we consider how enclosures of the body have been situated within a continuity of violence, from genocide and slavery to their legacies in state violence and carceral control. Or when we consider the relatively modern practice of taking the smallest parts of people’s bodies without consent — cells, blood, DNA — and using them either for profit or toward “advances” in science.[1]Skloot, R. (2010). The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Crown.[2]Dickenson, D. (2004). Consent, Commodification, and Benefit‐Sharing in Genetic Research. Developing World Bioethics, 4(2), 109-124.

Within schools, the bodies of Black, Brown, and Indigenous students are enclosed in various ways, with different body parts objectified and subjected to mechanisms of control and domination. Feet are expected to stay planted against the floor, or to move slowly and orderly through the hallways. The legs should remain vertical, their elevation above a certain height representing a threat of violence or escape. The torso should remain rigid, vertical, never hunched or reclined, lest it indicate laziness or a lack of discipline. The movement of the arms is contextualized within allowable states of work or expression, but seldom both simultaneously. The head is allowed at most 180 degrees of motion — half as much within the classroom — lest it indicate distraction, non-productivity, or conspiracy. 

The eyes should track the teacher or the flow of text across a whiteboard or page. The mouth should remain closed, unless speech is solicited, and should certainly never be chewing, unless in the allotted time and place. The hair should be groomed in compliance with white supremacist standards for beauty or hygiene, or subject to removal. The genitals and secondary sex organs are never directly invoked or considered save for situations of abuse, yet hold the power to determine where students can go, for how long, and dictate their gender expression. The needs of the body, at any of these loci, are secondary to the productive activity, and may only be addressed in the proper designated locations — cafeterias, bathrooms, nurses offices — at times determined by school policy or individual authority.

The Raced and Gendered Body

The construction of race serves as an enclosure in that it ideologically separates the skin and other features — noses, lips, hair — from the whole of the body in order to justify subordination, control, or death. Blood, as a racial metaphor, mediates and reinforces relations of domination in two distinct ways. For indigenous people it has signified their ”rights” to land, though this is rife with fallacies and contradictions, the very proportion — blood quantum — determining the strength of their claim. 

For the implicit power vested in indigenous blood, settler logics dictated that it was better ”out” than ”in”, spilled through genocidal campaigns of dispossession, and then encouraged its “dilution”, through physical assimilation. Inversely, for Black people, blood was regarded as tainted, only “one drop” marking us as non-human, as chattel. Where assimilation through miscegenation was part of the larger strategy of indigenous genocide, it was forbidden territory for Black people, our blood quarantined and directed through eugenics and controlled reproduction.

Black people’s enslavement produced an inclusive taxonomy that automatically enslaved the offspring of a slave and any other parent. In the wake of slavery, this taxonomy became fully racialized in the “one-drop rule, ”whereby any amount of African ancestry, no matter how remote, and regardless of phenotypical appearance, makes a person Black. For Indians, in stark contrast, non-Indian ancestry compromised their indigeneity, producing “half-breeds,” a regime that persists in the form of blood quantum regulations.[3]Wolfe, P. (2006). Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native. Journal of genocide research, 8(4), 387-409.

The ironic thing about the use of blood as a symbolic qualifier of human value, and a delineator of difference between races, is that on a strictly biological level, human similarities correspond to blood type more than skin color, such that “an African is physically closer to a European with the same blood group than he is to another African of a different blood type”[4]Rodney, W. (2019). The Groundings with My Brothers. Verso Trade.. This speaks to the arbitrary, non-scientific construction of race, purely for political purposes. It also highlights the gaps in the materialist conception of history, for the fact that cultural and political ideas projected onto the physical world dictate movement, positioning, and power as much as the physical reality. 

Gender, as an ideological construct superimposed upon the body, alienates a person’s genitals or secondary sex characteristics, which under heteropatriarchy determines bodily sovereignty, agency, and access to power or the means of life. The politicization of gender further situates the bodies of women and nonbinary people as sites of inordinate violence. 

Under white supremacist heteropatriarchy, race and gender intersect across long historical trajectories, enclosing Black women’s bodies into “instrument[s] for the reproduction of labor and the expansion of the work-force, treated as a natural breeding machine.[5]Federici, S. (2004). Caliban and the Witch. Autonomedia. Shoulders and backs used for transport, hands for precision tasks or care, the vagina for sexual pleasure, the womb to reproduce the labor force, and breasts for nursing children, whether or not they were her own.[6]Omolade, B. (1995). Hearts of darkness. In Guy-Sheftall, B. (Ed). Words of fire: An anthology of African-American feminist thought. New Press. Indigenous women, too, have been regarded as sites for the  reproduction, even explicitly trained to become “future wives for the Indian missionaries”[7]Criales, J. L. (2017). “My Obligation to the Doctor for his Paternal Care”: Eleazar Wheelock and the Female Students at Moor’s Indian Charity School, 1761–1769. Social Sciences and Missions, … Continue reading, “forced to procreate against their will”, and experiencing “an alienation from their bodies”.[8]Federici, S. (2004). Caliban and the Witch. Autonomedia. 

These complications of race and gender manifest in various ways within the modern school system. While the creation of the child as a separate class of people transformed younger humans from producers to sites of reproduction, the delineations of childhood and adulthood fluctuate and shift with respect to race and gender. The “immoveable veil of black”[9]Jefferson, T. (1801). Notes on the State of Virginia: With an Appendix. M.L. & W.A. Davis. — that is, the utter lack of empathy for Black people inherent to white supremacy —  exempts Black children from the “protections” provided to white children under the pretext of “innocence”.[10]Bernstein, R. (2011). Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood and Race from Slavery to Civil Rights. NYU Press. Black children have been and continue to be subordinated to labor, surveilled for the slightest indication of resistance, and subjected to the same violence as Black adults. 

Black children are “aged up”, which plays out differently across gender. Black boys are coded as a threat, while Black girls are hyper-sexualized, their bodies and expression tightly policed.[11]Blake, J. J., & Epstein, R. (2019). Listening to Black women and girls: Lived experiences of adultification bias. Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality, Initiative on Gender Justice … Continue reading  Indigenous youth have been subjected to a relentless process of erasure, whether through physical dislocation or cultural assimilation in boarding schools[12]Lomawaima, K. T. (1995). They called it prairie light: The story of Chilocco Indian school. U of Nebraska Press.[13]Adams, D. W. (1995). Education for extinction: American Indians and the boarding school experience, 1875-1928. University Press of Kansas.. Even hair is racialized, literally enclosed — cut — from the rest of the body as a tactic of personal degradation[14]Joseph-Salisbury, R., & Connelly, L. (2018). ‘If your hair Is relaxed, white people are relaxed. If your hair is nappy, they’re not happy’: Black hair as a site of ‘post-racial’social … Continue reading[15]Schwartz, M. S. (2020, July 22). Texas school board keeps grooming code that led to suspension of black students. NPR. and cultural annihilation for Black and Indigenous youth.[16]Jacobs, M. D. (2006). Indian boarding schools in comparative perspective: The removal of Indigenous children in the United States and Australia, 1880-1940.

For trans and two-spirit youth, their genitals suddenly become the most important thing about them, their gender expression constrained within a pseudo-biological binary [17]Leonardi, B., Farley, A. N., Harsin Drager, E., & Gonzales, J. (2021). Unpacking the T: Understanding the Diverse Experiences Trans Students Navigating Schools. Berkeley Review of Education, … Continue reading, and dictating how they are allowed to occupy space and which spaces they can occupy [18]Farr, S. (2013, March 19). She left her all-boys’ school after coming out as trans. Now, she leads LGBTQ trainings there. The Philadelphia Inquirer.[19]Davies, A. W., Vipond, E., & King, A. (2019). Gender binary washrooms as a means of gender policing in schools: A Canadian perspective. Gender and Education, 31(7), 866-885.[20]Slater, J., Jones, C., & Procter, L. (2018). School toilets: queer, disabled bodies and gendered lessons of embodiment. Gender and Education, 30(8), 951-965.. These logics of bodily enclosure establish young people as sites of production and reproduction, enforced and reinforced by violence. The body is raced and gendered for purposes of domination, commodified for its ability to produce and reproduce capital, and regulated through systems of discipline and punishment.

The Regulated Body: Discipline, Punishment, and Policing

Much like the prisons after which they are often modeled, schools attempt to tightly control the positions and movements of student bodies, operating with a clear carceral logic. Students are expected to be in specific places at specific times for specific durations. These expectations are reinforced by systems of rules, rewards, and punishments, as well as school personnel — which in many cases are literal police, deceptively renamed “school resource officers”. 

It is within the norms of many classrooms for students to have to raise their hands in order to solicit the right to speak, or even to go to the bathroom. These trips are tightly regulated with respect to the path students must walk, and the time it should take there and back, with vital bodily functions wedged in between. Those who stray from these expectations are often regarded with reflexive distrust — which is to say, a suspicion of wrongdoing rather than concern for a student’s health which might see them spend more than the time “allotted” for relieving themselves. 

Starting in elementary school, it is a common expectation for students to move through the halls silently, in organized lines. I have witnessed young children being told to “catch a bubble” (i.e. to fill their mouths with air and hold it), as a visual indicator of compliance. This strict regulation of bodies, when understood through the carceral logic that informs them, becomes even more pernicious when we consider that just like prisons, public schools are disproportionately populated by young people of color. 

It is a reproduction of social attitudes toward Black bodies outside the school: an underlying fear baked into the very crust of our social order which dictates that Black people must be controlled, lest our animal impulses lead us to burn down the whole of society.  Schools, as proxies for the State, recognize that “when the body can no longer be controlled through the mind, [it] must be controlled by force” [21]Newton, H. P. (1971, March 27). Huey P. Newton Intercommunal Youth Institute. Black Panther, D, E. [PDF]. The relationship between schools and the carceral system, as inflicted on Black and Brown bodies, reflects the continuity “between slavery and freedom, compulsion and consent, and terror and discipline”.[22]Hartman, S. V. (1997). Scenes of subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-making in Nineteenth-century America. Oxford University Press.

Discipline (n.) — the physical, emotional, mental, and/or spiritual reinforcement of the relations of domination, particularly in response to any perceived disruption, subversion, or resistance. From the Old English þeodscipe, “treatment that corrects or punishes”.

Where bodies are an “excess” to the productive activity of schooling, it effects a separation of mind and body, wherein students are even denied the freedom to meet their own physical needs. Where and when they can eat, when — and whether or not — they can use the bathroom is tightly controlled in order to regulate the movement of bodies within the enclosure of schools. These procedures “create a mental and physical disposition toward obedience and conformity…central to students’ preparation for the world of work”.[23]Luykx, A. (1999). The Citizen Factory: Schooling and Cultural Production in Bolivia. State University of New York Press. In other words, the productive activity of schooling is in itself the cultivation of subjects subordinate to capital and the state.