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Epistemology of Hoodies: On the Black and Nonbinary


We never experience or know ourselves as a body pure and simple, i.e. as our “sex”…

—Judith Butler, “Variations on Sex and Gender: Beauvoir, Wittig, and Foucault”

Do we really know what we know in seeing?

—Mimi Thi Nyugen, “The Hoodie as Sign, Screen, Expectation, and Force”

I. Reddit Events

It was 1:14pm central standard time on a Friday. There was a meme on reddit. An image of what looked like knights around a stone table. They held their swords out, guiding them in coalition, not, in this meme, in “brotherhood,” facing the center of the table. A redditor annotated each sword: one sword labeled “gamers,” another “college students.” The remaining three swords, the swords in the middle of this phalanx, were labeled “trans women,” “trans men,” and “nonbinaries.” Each of these coalitional swords that are not, and refuse, brotherhood point to the table’s center which the redditor also annotated: “wearing oversized hoodies.”

I sent the meme to my partner, also nonbinary and in possession of just as many hoodies as me, and they responded “hahaha. too much truth in one meme.” What is it about the hoodie that unites, as it were, these transgressors, these nonnormative mis/users, of gender? I am one who, not is but, finds generative subjectivation through nonbinariness, a critical departure from and declining of gender as a regime to which I must genuflect in all instances of existence in order to be said to properly exist. And, I am one who, even during the summer, shrouds myself in hoodies. Why, I asked myself after the fact, did the meme speak to me? And more precisely, why did it speak to me through and in service of the nonbinary?

I am contending here that the hoodie, as mundane as it might appear to be, facilitates the obscuration necessary to, as it were, delegitimize the “body” as the site of gender’s truth and the disallowance of gender as a property of the subject. In doing so, the hoodie blushes as an event: the hoodie happens to the supposed body, and such a happening occurs outside of or in excess of a subject. As Foucault expresses, the event “is neither of the body nor of the soul, neither outside nor inside.” Which permits the possibility of “avoiding the entire psychological and medical armature that was built into the traditional notion of desire,” and inasmuch as gender is something that is deeply fused with the armature, the regime, of psychological and medico-juridical and generally institutional, of various industrial complexes, if the hoodie can serve here as a kind of event it permits the avoidance of the strictures and structures of gender. For, as event, it cannot be assigned to a subject.[1] One cannot be sure that a certain thing is there, beneath the hoodie, and one cannot be sure what is there, beneath the hoodie. Indeed, one need not be, and perhaps can never be.

Perhaps it is that the hoodie, as I wear it, as it services the transgression of the gender normative, is an attempted sartorial obscuration of the purported body being rendered, nonconsensually, as the site of subjective truth. The hoodie more than covers; the hoodie demonstrates a disallowance of the body to serve as an index for one’s subjectivity, chief among its constituents: gender. With this disallowance of the body, raised is a serious consideration of whether the body remains—is there a body beneath the hoodie? What is a body that is not transparently legible?

II. Lugubrious Silhouettes

But we know, or must know, that the hoodie is not all upside. We do a disservice when we assume so, though it is also, in my estimation, a disservice when we relegate the hoodie only to its darker connotative alleys. I must admit, however, that it is ever more enticing to me, at least in this moment, to give primacy and precedent to its generative capacities and, in those generative capacities, what might even be possible in the dreaded, terror-filled penumbra of the connotative hoodie-as-deathly-invitation.

It began with Trayvon, though of course it did not begin with Trayvon. We know the story, it is one that it does not seem beneficial, outside of performing the fact that we know the story, to recapitulate. So perhaps instead of continuing to not mention Trayvon, I will mention, and meditate on, that which adorned Trayvon. Truly, I hope it is known, this is not to evacuate Trayvon of personhood, invisibilizing him as a figure subject to deadly violence. His person, his life and aspirations, his curtailment, his ontological circumscription—which might all be to shorthand the multiplicity of his Blackness—is a discursive task taken up by myriad people. The scholarly archive is heavy with this literature. It happens that here, in this meditation, I am concerned with not even his hoodie but, more readily, the hoodie—and, maybe more acutely, the obscuring modalities hoodies offer, here in the aura of horrific brutality, which is also, I think, a response to the boisterous vitiation of the lay of the land engendered by such obscuring modalities.

It might be asserted that the hoodie stands in as representative of nefariousness. Insofar as an Enlightenment hubris of transparency pervades relationality—a sense that one must be available to me in order to deem them respectable, upstanding, properly subjective and subjectivated; a sense that Western thought’s criteria for “understanding” requires a reductive evacuation: “In order to understand and thus accept you,” Édouard Glissant writes, “I have to measure your solidity with the ideal scale providing me with grounds to make comparisons and, perhaps, judgments. I have to reduce”—the hoodie disallows such understanding that predicates Western thought.[2] This understanding is the basis on which other values are bestowed: honesty, integrity, propriety. Obscuring the ability to immediately access knowledge of another, which we might liken, more contemporarily, say, to wishing to permit law enforcement into your home even if you have “nothing to hide,” renders the logics of Western thought stalled. If you have nothing to hide, if you are upstanding, if you are no threat, why resist?

This is what we know via Black study and Black studies. This, too, illuminates one of the convergences I seek to highlight: that of the Black and nonbinary, or the Black and trans. Insofar as the hoodie has a rich archive of being theorized as a proxy for Blackness, as a disseminator of the criminality deemed inherent to Blackness, the hoodie can be more generally linked to deceptiveness. In obscuring, the logics that predicate transparency are unable to register that which is obscured on its grammars, casting the site of obscuration, then, as deceiving such logics. At the same time, we must note that the point of triangulation that is criminality and deception, dissemblance and deviance, indexes precisely the convergence of the Black and trans: because in the realm of the trans and nonbinary is, too, the presumption of deception and dissemblance, of deviance—things are not as they seem.

If this meditation is specifically on the convergences of the Black and nonbinary, it is useful here to think about that nexus’s methodology. The Black nonbinary, its method, is theorized pristinely by SA Smythe. Smythe articulates Black nonbinary method as departing from cultural studies dogma of embracing the both/and—a pairing I heard often in grad school by some to indicate what seemed to me a non-side-taking, ennui-inducing middle ground that essentially meant nothing—in favor of the neither/nor, a neither/nor that divests from all extant options for identification, embodiment, and gender. What is at present offered, all of it, is refused in favor of something that does not yet exist—something that is not real, nonexistent. And this is perhaps the point of contention that many get stuck on, reverting to the tune of privileges and history and the like. At base, while these moves are, it seems, attempts to reign in the lofty ideality of utopias that delink one from the “real,” “material” conditions that accost the marginalized, they still, I would rigorously contend, disallow the radical abolitionist leanings toward which my project aspires. They disallow the unthought that the Black nonbinary attends to, wrapping its purchase in the woefully mundane garb of the able-to-be-thought. These intelligible thoughts, which mature into legible genders and identities, are eschewed. Neither gender democracy (“equal” treatment of all genders) nor gender proliferation (any and all genders permissible) is the aim; Black nonbinariness cannot concede the identitarian thinking that inheres in the assumptions that genders are necessary and pervasive. To be clear, the Black nonbinary is not Black nonbinary people and it is not a valorization of the racial category of Blackness and the gender category of nonbinary people (indeed, neither Blackness nor nonbinariness are equivalent to a specific “race” or “gender”; they are, in fact,  race and gender’s discontents, their vitiating subtension). That is, the Black nonbinary is a posture and orientation, one given to, as Smythe writes, “an emancipatory or abolitionist tense that seeks to dismantle the institutionalization of resources and the state itself.”[3] As well, in a slight departure from Smythe, I contend that what is most generative is not the Black nonbinary “as otherwise embodiment,” as they write on the subsequent page, but something that undermines the very status of the body, is the body’s blurring, the body’s vitiation. If it is true, as Tavia Nyong’o says, that “Black life exceeds the identitarian terms that seek to define it,” such an excess mandates that the very frame housing identitarian claims—namely, that this is my body, this is my race, this is my gender—cannot hold.[4] This is a spillage from the container such that the container is lost, and perhaps may have never been there in the first place—or further, is eroded by the spillage, the excess.

III. Subjective Exhaustion

Stefano Harney and Fred Moten’s book-length meditation on incompleteness, logistics, and regulation—All Incomplete—dropped as the highly anticipated sequel, of sorts, to The Undercommons.[5] Stefano sent me a copy in the mail, from London, a few weeks before the book was officially released. Once I received it, I began reading, finishing Denise Ferreira da Silva’s Foreword, before sending Stefano a confirmation of receipt. I wrote to him: “I hope you are doing well, living and loving as best you can. And I hope you feel the expansion of your coalition, your undercommon sociality. I, or whatever ‘I’ ‘am,’ which might be to say the nonbinariness and black radicality that is called, in this instance, ‘I,’ think I am moving through such a realm with you and Fred and Denise and so many others. Every time you and Fred, or the inseparable, because always and already together, entity that is StefanoFred, as it were, write and think out loud, you expand that realm. Keep making it as robust as possible.” It is a kind of inseparability manifest, in part, which is accompanied by other parts that are all woven into it, in the refusal to venerate discretion, to venerate the singularity—or even existence—of a body, individuated or not (though bodies might always be definitionally individuated), that illuminates the utility in obscuring and dissembling in the nonexistent face of the body, that corporeal and ethically imperative intellectual “master”—at least according to others who might be called my detractors. That body is no longer abided.

I choose here, in this concluding section, to engage the incompleteness of Harney and Moten’s thinking, particularly as it pertains to the body, of which they are skeptical. Admittedly, it is rare that I find other modes of thought that bear a critical eye toward “the body,” especially those that stem from a tradition of radicality—Black and trans radicality, which might be to say radicality—so I wish here to amplify such thinking. I fear sometimes that certain thinkers have the expansiveness of their work reduced to certain buzzwords or supposedly key terms. So, Harney and Moten are heralded for their notion of the undercommons, and sometimes study, though the extent to which these terms are grappled with and engaged in a sustained and serious way is up for debate. And I fear that in reading All Incomplete others might latch onto, say, logisticality or the ravages of improvement—in other words, the shit that sounds cool. But I want to, so that it does not go unnoticed or willfully overlooked, make explicit their thoroughly iconoclastic musings on the body.

What is this “body” of which we speak? It is, following da Silva in the Foreword of the text, the name for the giving of “the whole for which all parts account” (Harney and Moten, 6). Let us assume this is the case, and, returning to the sartorial conceptual frame for this meditation—the hoodie—let us assume that hoodies, their indexical nonbinariness, obscure as a way to facilitate an opacity in the regime of Enlightenment transparency. Hoodies, facilitating nonbinariness, disallow the exhibition of the body said to transparently provide gender, it severs the wholeness presumed inherent to the body and embodiment. With this, da Silva becomes more illuminative: “That which does not exhibit either cannot be seen as total, finalized, absolute, or perfect,” she writes. Hoodies’ eccentric “ac-complicity” to nonbinariness—or rather, to the deactivation of the body’s transparency and thus immediate giving over of gender, or even more precisely, its immediate extraction for its supposed gender—rests in partial and incomplete image of the “body” it adorns (7). The body becomes incomplete, making it, curiously enough, not a body proper. Not exhibiting, not being properly formed, not giving itself as a whole makes one, by way of this mischievous sartorial obscurant, “not a body” (6; emphasis added). The coming together of parts to make a whole, to make a body, cannot be completed because the nonbinary thrives on opting out of, essentially, that which serves as the adherent for embodied completion: gender. The “body” cannot, and will not, and is willed to not, be completed.

The hoodie’s obscuring of the body in service of nonbinariness invites, we might say, the attempt to un-obscure, to make transparent. This is nothing new: it has long been known that to break from the normative is to invite the disciplining of the normative. To be visibly, whatever that is to mean, gender nonconforming is to “invite” the comments and legal prohibitions and moral denigrations and violent attacks of gender normativity, cisnormativity. To be obscure and obscured “is to be hunted, to be subject to the subject of the grasp,” Harney and Moten write, in the gorgeously horrific wake of Saidiya Hartman’s writing (15). This is not to be used to say that one should not continue or begin to mobilize nonbinariness or obscurity. That grasp and its vociferousness is indicative of the subversive possibilities of its being threatened, which is another way of saying the onset, viscerally and possibly so, of a pervasive abolition. Inasmuch as nonbinariness opts one out, in part at least, of personhood, one moves and does not move in ways unsanctioned. One can indeed walk and speak as they have, but to refuse to ascribe it to gender, to refuse to be a gendered being whose behaviors and movements ooze gender; to refuse to have gender be who you are, even in part, is to move and not move in incorrect ways. Because gender must be one’s lot, and it must saturate the body in order for one’s body to be and do what bodies are said to be and do. This wrong movement and non-movement, movement that does not permit gender to characterize it, movement that is gender’s refusal and refuse, “is sabotage” (40).

This hoodie I and others wear, such that there is not really an “I” that wears it but an obscured and thus corporeally evanesced assemblage, is a corruption of the body and masking of its boundaries (Harney and Moten, 162), proving generative for a discussion regarding the utility of taking abolition and nonbinariness to the ends of a thought: the abolition of the self. Through the nonbinariness exuded in, and, as it were, worn by the hoodie—with its concatenation with darkness, with Blackness—there is a way that the obscuration invites and manifests the obscuring and emptying of the body as a vector of social intelligibility. What remains, if anything, is an open question, and I want simply to offer the convergence of Blackness and the nonbinary via an analytic meditation on the hoodie as something else for us to possibly be.


[1] Foucault, Michel. “The Gay Science,” translated by Nicole Morar and Daniel W. Smith. Critical Inquiry 37, no. 3 (spring 2011): 389–90.

[2] Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation, trans. Betsy Wing (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997), 190.

[3] SA Smythe, “Black Life, Trans Study,” TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly 8, no. 2 (May 1, 2021): 166, doi.org/10.1215/23289252-8890593.

[4] Tavia Nyong’o, “Non-Binary Blackness: After the End of the World with Samuel R. Delany,”      Art Practical (November 21, 2019), artpractical.com/feature/non-binary-blackness-after-the-end-of-the-world-with-samuel-r.-delany/.    

[5] Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, All Incomplete (Colchester; New York; Port Watson: Minor Compositions, 2021).