Chapter 7: 'The Negro and Recognition'
Black Skin, White Masks, Frantz Fanon
by Ulandi Du Plessis
In the first part of the chapter Fanon applies Alfred Adler’s personality theory to the ‘Antillean Negro’. He describes how Antillean Negroes act towards each other, always putting each other down. Adler contended that an inferiority complex could, in some, “arouse… the rash resolve to penetrate the shadows at all costs”[i]. Your unconcious self ideal works to convert feelings of inferiority to superiority; your neurosis goes as far as to impose your reality on another. Thus a determined strive for superiority, self-validation, or as Adler would say “completeness”, torments the neurotic individual.
“The question is always whether he is less intelligent than I, blacker than I, less respectable than I.”
“It is the wreckage that surrounds me that provides the foundation for my virility.”
Adler speaks about a final goal – the goal of self-validation – towards which those with an inferiority complex strive. But the risk in the end is finding “that nothing has been gained, or that what has been gained is illusory”[ii].
But the relationship is more complicated, Fanon believes, than Adler’s theory can explain. The “question of value” that plagues the neurotic Antillean Negro is historically constructed and has arisen out of colonialism. Fanon muses about the role colonial education plays in this formation. “It is because the Negro belongs to an “inferior” race that he seeks to be like the superior race”. The neurotic Negro finds himself not in a diadic association with his fellow Negro in his strive for superiority, instead there is a third link: the white man; not as as some god-like figure towards which they strive, nor is the final goal to be white – but “the Other corroborates him in his search for validation”. It is “the pattern of the white man” that the Antillean wants to emulate.
It is not an individual, but a social neurosis and the problem, the root cause, is not individual, but social. Fanon’s solution to this neurosis is to make clear to the neurotic Antillean that “the environment, society are responsible for your delusion. Once that has been said, the rest will follow of itself”.
In the second section Fanon applies Hegel’s slave/master dialectic to explain the problem of recognition for the black person.
“Man is human only to the extent to which he tries to impose his existence on another man in order to be recognized by him. As long as he has not been effectively recognized by the other, that other will remain the theme of his actions.”
The reciprocity of the recognition is emphasised. It has to be a two-way act.
The problem however is that the White Masters, after internal deliberation among themselves recognised the slave. “The black man was acted upon.” The slave could not act, he could only react. And the only way he could react was to say thank you. If he chose to react angrily “the white man tells him: “Brother, there is no difference between us””. But to only be acted upon “close[s] the circuit… prevent[s] the accomplishment of movement in two directions.. [and] keep[s] the other within himself”. It is necessary that both actors act. Unequal power relations would mean that the one is acted upon and the other acts. Thus action from one side “would be useless”.
What would cause the slave to act instead of react? According to Fanon “when it encounters resistance from the other, self-consciousness undergoes the experience of desire – the first milestone on the road that leads to the dignity of the spirit”. And furthermore the realisation of “human reality in-itself-for-itself can only be achieved through conflict and through the risk that conflict implies”. Without risking your life for your humanity, without actively attacking and breaking down the power formation in order that you are on an equal footing with the ‘Master’ - you will not receive your humanity. It cannot be handed to you. He seems to imply that the recognition of the slave by the Master without an active input – a violent input - from the slave would actually have a negative effect on the slave. The slave is merely being allowed to eat at the table of the Master. It will only frustrate the slave. “There is always resentment in a reaction”. The slave “wants the white man to turn on him and shout: “Damn nigger.” Then he would have the unique chance – to “show them…””.
What implications does this argument have on emancipation? On international human rights discourse? Could white people be involved in a struggle that is exterior to them? Does the slave have to be violent to assert its recognition? The unequal power relations between the slave and the Master means that even if the Master had to confer upon the slave its recognition the power balance would not have shifted. The slave would remain a slave in all but name.
Fanon says that “it is in the degree to which I go beyond my own immediate being that I apprehend the existence of the other as a natural and more than natural reality”. What is the necessary degree to which you go beyond so that your action validates – not a reaction, but an action from the Other. At which degree occurs a shift in the balance of power? Perhaps it cannot. And can such an act obviate violence? If a recognition from the slave entail a risk, an action, then perhaps the degree to which the white master should g beyond his/her immediate being also implies a risk, an action, a sacrifice of power. Perhaps the degree which is necessary to go beyond your own immediate being is as far as is necessary to close the gap of power inequality.