Tuesday, 8 April 2014

A Response to Frantz Fanon’s 'Black Skin, White Masks'

by Jonis Ghedi Alasow

Frantz Fanon’s 1952 book, Black Skin, White Masks, is one of the most interesting and insightful books I have ever read. Fanon sets out his discussion with the intention of showing the “various attitudes the Negro adopts in contact with white civilisation” (Fanon, 1952: 5). He labours through a particularly personal and reflective discussion to ultimately provide a “progressive infrastructure, in which it will be possible to discern the Negro on the road to disalienation” (1952: 142). Thus Fanon is fundamentally concerned with describing the place that is held by black people in the mid-20th century. He aims to illustrate the problems with the place of the black people and to point the reader towards an emancipatory future. Black Skin, White Masks is most certainly a ground breaking book and it would be possible to write a review of it that is as long as the book itself. Here I will only focus on a few major themes in an attempt to convey the importance of Black Skin, White Masks in understanding not only the world of 1952, but also the world of 2014.

The first thing worth considering is the very idea of a “Negro”. Where does this idea come from and what is the purpose of sustaining such an idea? Fanon is clear in attributing the notion of blackness to the European (1952: 83). W.E.B. Du Bois argued that black people only know that they are black by seeing themselves through the eyes of white people. Similarly, Jean-Paul Sartre attributed the existence of the Jew to the imagination of the Anti-Semite (Sartre, 1948: 7). Fanon follows on from these thinkers and argues that the black person only comes to realise his/her blackness when told by the European that he/she is not white. It is for this reason that people, like Fanon, who leave the Antilles to go to Europe are forced to confront their blackness (Fanon, 1952: 84).

Now that the origins of blackness have been discussed it is time to consider the significance thereof. Why is the distinction between the ‘Negro’ and the ‘European’ necessary? More specifically, I would like to explore the roots of racism as perceived by Fanon in Black Skin, White Masks. Fanon in fact dedicates an entire chapter to explaining how language is used to distinguish between a more valuable European culture and a less valuable culture of the Antilles (1952: 8). Emphasis is placed on ‘speaking properly’ by both the European and the person of the Antilles in an attempt to get black people to assimilate European culture. Fanon is careful to link language and culture together. Thus by assimilating the language of the coloniser, the black person is also assimilating the culture of the coloniser. By adopting this new culture, the colonised can be “elevated above his jungle status” [sic] (1952: 9).

This perpetual striving towards assimilating the culture of the European seems to indicate a desire to be like the European or, if possible, to be the European. Many have argued that this quest for assimilation is rooted in an inferiority complex. Fanon is not impartial to this idea, but disagrees with M. Mannoni’s notion that the inferiority complex is always present in the black man or woman and that it is only made explicit in the colonial moment (1952: 62). For Fanon the inferiority complex that black people suffer from is entirely socialised. It is brought into existence through the interaction with Europeans and reinforced by the colonised.

For Fanon, the notion of black inferiority is inherent in the structure of modern society. He is for instance dismissive of the idea that racism is the result of economic factors. The root cause of racism is not competition between black and white people for the same resources where race is subsequently used to elevate one group’s right to the resources over the rights of others. (Fanon, 1952: 64). For Fanon notions of white superiority and black inferiority would exist even in the absence of economic differences between the groups. For him this complex is deeply rooted in the psychology of the black being. In explaining the creation of the inferior black man/woman, Fanon draws on the work of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Anti-Semite and Jew. Fanon argues that in the same way that the Anti-Semite creates the Jew, “it is the racist who creates his inferior[1] (1952: 69). In this creation of the inferior by the one who wishes to deem himself or herself as superior, there is a tendency to associate the ‘inferior’ with evil. Therefore both the black person and the Jew are considered as epitomes of evil (Fanon, 1952: 139).Thus inferiority is created by the coloniser and it is inherent in the institutions and structures that govern society.

Regardless of the roots of this inferiority complex, it is still a very real part of the life of the black person. Hegel’s dialectic between the master and the slave is often invoked to explain the relationship between the black person and the European. Hegel argued that the slave needs to resist the master in order to be recognised (Fanon, 1952: 171). This dialectic relationship is often applied to the relationship between black and white people. Fanon however disagrees with this. Not only because it is not in fact recognition as an essentially separate entity that black people seek from white people, but rather they wish to enter humanity. Furthermore, the resistance that is required by Hegel’s dialectic has not yet manifested itself in the black-white dynamic. The recognition/freedom was handed to the ‘Negro’ by the Europeans. Thus black people have moved from one subordinate state to another. They have not entered into a totally different ontological position (Fanon, 1952: 171). Thus Fanon recognises the fact that black people consider themselves as inferior to white people whilst white people are content in accepting the notion that they are superior. Though Fanon regards adherence to this inferiority complex, by both black and white people, as completely irrational he does recognise the material existence of this complex.

Closely linked to this idea of inferiority are the ontological assumptions made by the coloniser. Inherent in the racist structure I mentioned earlier is the assumption that there are different degrees of humanity where Europeans occupy the highest rank. Fanon indicates a Manichaeism where whiteness is synonymous with being human, whilst black is synonymous with being, at best, significantly less human than the Europeans (1952: 106). Thus the black person can only claim ownership of his/her humanity by embracing European norms around what it means to be human. Rather than recognising within everyone the capacity of good or evil, different races are essentialised to embody either good in its entirety or evil in its entirety (Fanon, 1952: 150). Fanon is principally against this essentialising. For him it is problematic that blackness becomes the “scapegoat” (1952: 150) of all that is evil, even the evil within whiteness.

It has so far become clear that racism is the result of blackness being essentialised as inherently evil and in the very least as inherently inferior to whiteness. This notion has been internalised by everyone. From the black woman who is repulsed by the notion of a black man to the black man who is seen by the white woman as no more than an embodiment of sexuality. Both black and white have internalised the notion of inherent and ontological inferiority of the black person. Before concluding I will briefly discuss some of the ways that one might, according to Fanon, transcend the contemporary[2] status quo of racism.

Of fundamental importance in creating the new order that will end racism is the recognition of black humanity on its own terms. The black person should be able to be recognised as a full human without a necessary dependence on whiteness. At the moment the idea of a black being on its own terms is as unthinkable as the Haitian Revolution was in 1791 (Trouillot, 1995: 73). Just as the revolution could only be understood through the lens of white agency, the only understanding of black ontology is through the lens of white ontology. As long as black existence is only seen from the point of view of the white person, there can be no true existence of black people.

In order to create this black ontology, Fanon endorses the notions of Negritude (1952: 106). For Fanon, Negritude allows for a common black history and a common future. This is vital in the rewriting of the black ontology. He does however recognise that Negritude is a means to an end and that the essentialising that it requires will at some point have to give way to a universal humanity. It is Fanon’s hope that the creation of a black existence that is not framed by white existence will eventuality give rise to a humanity in the most literal sense of the word. He dreams of a world that will recognise with him “the open door of every consciousness” (Fanon, 1952: 181).

Black Skin, White Masks is certainly an amazing engagement with the fate of the black individual in society. The book deals with various questions and dilemmas faced by all humans. Its power lies in the fact that it remains surprisingly optimistic in spite of its serious subject matter. Fanon recognises the problems faced by the former colonised and is quite aware of the psychologically draining position that he/she occupies. Yet, he focuses his attention on the debunking of whiteness as the epitome of being. He seeks to “work out new concepts” (Fanon, 1961, 255) and remains optimistic that this can indeed be done.

  Works Cited:

·        Fanon, F. 1961, The Wretched of the Earth, Penguin Books: London.
·        Fanon, F. 1952, Black Skin, White Masks, Pluto Press: London.
·        Sartre, J-P, Anti-Semite and Jew, Schocken books: New York.
·        Trouillot, M-R. 1995, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, Beacon Press: Massachusetts.

[1] Emphasis in the original.
[2] “Contemporary” here refers to both the time in which Fanon was writing and the world we are in today. In spite of the fact that official domination by states has largely come to an end, there is still the idea of black inferiority. The symbol of beauty and intelligence is still captured in the white body. Why else is it seen as important to have ‘white hair’, or ‘fair skin’ or to ‘speak properly’? What was true for the young Fanon in 1952 in France is true for the black South African in 2014.