Fungibility: A Vocabulary Lesson for White People

Post Author: Whitney Wilkinson Arreche

The author

The nerd force has always been strong with me. When other kids were competing in sports events over the weekends, I was competing in storytelling contests to see who could recite a story from memory with the most accurate detail. Middle school found me occupied with a group called Future Problem Solvers, who were given the task of “solving” invented, but based in reality, situations from ecological catastrophes to diplomatic disasters. (Designing the t-shirt for that group was the pride of those years for me.) During college, I ignored my chemistry homework in favor of reading theological tomes like David Bosch’s Transforming Mission for fun.

So, it should perhaps come as no surprise that I find myself to be something of a quasi-professional nerd these days: a full-time student, with a backpack to boot. Pastoral care conversations in parishioners’ homes have been swapped for intense chats with authors who don’t so much as offer me a glass of lemonade. During these chats, I’m frequently bombarded with words I’ve never heard of: leitmotif, interdiction, dehiscence, interlocutory, and thantalogical (and that is only in one article, alas). One word keeps cropping up again and again, especially in my studies of African American theology and ethics: fungibility. It sounds kind of cute, doesn’t it? The first images conjured for me were of gerbils who were the life of the party (fun-gerbility), or the special talents of fungi. But this word, despite containing “fun” within it, is not in the least bit fun. As I often do with confounding words, I consulted the oracle (Google) and discovered this:

“Fungible: being something (such as money or a commodity) of such a nature that one part or quantity may be replaced by another equal part or quantity in paying a debt or settling an account.”[1]

But here’s the rub: fungibility wasn’t being used to talk about bitcoin, or pennies, or bartered boxes of Girl Scout cookies. It was being used in my readings to talk about Black bodies. People as fungible: interchangeable, profitable, which made them understood not as people at all.

As I read deeper, particularly Saidiya Hartman’s Scenes of Subjection, I began to see a picture of the horror of this fungibility emerging:

“…exploiting the vulnerability of the captive body as a vessel for the uses, thoughts, and feelings of others”[2]: fungibility.

Enslaved Africans being forced to dance and sing, with tears rolling down their falsely-grinning cheeks, as they were ripped from their loved ones at auction, all because seemingly-happy slaves garnered a greater profit when sold: fungibility.

Masters organizing dances for the enslaved, because subjugation doesn’t just require a whip, but the continued internalized regulation of all aspects of life, especially entertainment: fungibility.

Abraham Lincoln observing a slave coffle aboard the steamboat Lebanon, and theologically naming their (forced) frivolity as “God tempers the wind to the shorn lamb[3]: fungibility.

I began to think of Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the National Anthem to protest police brutality against people of color, and the ensuing response that he’s an entertainer and should keep politics out of it, and just do his job: fungibility.

I thought of the tendency of us white folk to confuse the faces of people of color, as if they all look the same: fungibility.

I thought of the belittling (not just outright, but also through forced repetition) of names that don’t read straight out of a Jane Austen or Lee Child novel: fungibility.

Then, as I read on in Hartman’s book, I found words of a slave owner that I’ve said verbatim myself, that African Americans “have a natural gift for music[4]: fungibility.

Again, there’s the rub. With that, the damning self-righteousness that so many of us white progressive folks wear was stripped away, at least for a moment. You see, my claims (intended as a compliment, but intention is irrelevant here) that African Americans sing Gospel music better, or have better rhythm by nature, is participation in their continued fungibility. I am reducing human bodies to what they can produce, and the roots of that reduction is found in enslaved Africans being forced to sing and dance by masters for a profit, until that performance was erroneously seen to be innate.

This isn’t of course to say that some African Americans aren’t incredibly talented in dancing and singing. But to label a whole people, especially with the blue-eyed gaze of intending to confer honor that they do not require from me to be whole or human, is quite simply racism. Polite progressive racism, perhaps, but racism all the same. It is racism rooted in fungibility, and fungibility is rooted in treating African Americans as non-people.

Vocabulary lessons can sting a bit sometimes, can’t they? But this is one I really need to learn, and maybe my fellow white people do as well, especially those of us who consider ourselves “liberal” or “progressive” or somehow past racism, which is usually when the worst of it sneaks out of us, unbidden, but sinful all the same.

Now, to be honest, I’ll probably forget many of the words I’m reading these days: leitmotif, interdiction, dehiscence, interlocutory and the like. My poor nerd brain can only hold so much (especially given the amount of Harry Potter I have permanently stored in there). But this word – fungibility – written in the blood of enslaved Africans at performative coffle trades, written still in the gaze of whiteness that registers “the other” as so easily reduced to derision and nothingness (and names that gaze a compliment, no less), this is a word I need to recall from memory again and again in the ongoing story of chattel slavery in this country. Fungibility. May there be the day when this word only applies to bitcoin, pennies, and Girl Scout cookies, and not to beloved, whole, beautiful people made in God’s image. And may we all – especially us white folk – do the self-critical work of examining our own complicity in the vocabulary of hate, that God’s language of love might be ever in our gaze, on our lips, and in our hearts.



[2] Saidiya V. Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth Century America. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997, 19.

[3] Ibid, Saidiya V. Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth Century America, 34.

[4] Ibid, Saidiya V. Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth Century America, 44.

Whitney Wilkinson Arreche is a Presbyterian minister and Doctor of Theology (ThD) student at Duke Divinity School, exploring practical theology and ecclesiology of peace and conflict. She serves on the board of Young Clergy Women International, and is a contributing editor to the Just Race column of Fidelia. She finds joy in time with her spouse, dog, large cups of coffee, and good books.

Image by: Painted Peacock Photography
Used with permission
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