As I have written previously, I have decided to read a few books on the subject of colonialism. To start, I have decided to read a few books that are considered important to the belief systems known as Postcolonial theory. Written in 1952, Black Skin, White Masks by Frantz Fanon is one such book. This was originally written in French. I read the Charles Lam Markmann translation.
Fanon was a native of Martinique, which was a French Colony. During World War II, he joined the Free French forces and fought in combat against Axis forces in both Africa and Europe. Fanon was wounded, and he was decorated by the postwar French government for his service. Later, he became both a psychiatrist and a philosopher. His background had a great effect upon his ideas.
This work is a philosophical condemnation of racism and colonialism. It is also Fanon’s analysis of the psychology and sociology behind racism and colonialism. He examines both the perpetrators and the targets of racism here.
This work is written in an unusual way. At times, the prose reads like a conventional essay. At other times it lapses into a stream of consciousness and seems almost poetic. This was a translated work so it is difficult for me to tell for sure, but Fanon’s prose seems powerful as well as sincere. The author includes a fair amount of literary analysis, and the text is heavy with quotes from novels, philosophical works and poetry. Fanon quotes thinkers and authors as diverse as postcolonial theorist and poet Aimé Césaire to Sigmund Freud to Georg Hegel.
Fanon first describes the terrible and ubiquitous racism that he and other black people have experienced throughout the world. He next tries to formulate a psychological and cultural theory that explains both those who hold racist views as well as those who are targeted by them. He believes that the concept of “black” had become ingrained in the psyches of all people of all races. This image was synonymous with all the racist stereotypes attributed to black people. He writes a lot about how culture has placed the concept of “blackness” and black people as “the other.” Thus, “black” had come to mean uncivilized, stupid, violent, lazy etc. Black people themselves had internalized these views.
White civilization and European culture have forced an existential deviation on the Negro. I shall demonstrate elsewhere that what is often called the black soul is a white man’s artifact.
Furthermore, the concept of whiteness had come to mean civilization, intelligence, nobility in the psyches of most people of all races.
As a result, most black people throughout the world had developed an inferiority complex. In addition, most black people identified more with the image of “whiteness” than of “blackness.”
Fanon goes on to say,
There is no help for it: I am a white man. For unconsciously I distrust what is black in me, that is, the whole of my being.
Ultimately Fanon calls for the world to move past racism and the concepts of “whiteness” and “blackness,”
To us, the man who adores the Negro is as “sick” as the man who abominates him. Conversely, the black man who wants to turn his race white is as miserable as he who preaches hatred for the whites. In the absolute, the black is no more to be loved than the Czech, and truly what is to be done is to set man free.
Fanon was a psychologist. He used the theories behind psychoanalysis to further formulate his own theory. He develops something of a psychological profile for black men, black women, white men and white women. He draws heavily on such theorists as Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. Thus, the author finds that racism and its effects are akin to psychological illnesses. In the end, Fanon admits that he does not have all the answers but advocates for a world where the concept of whiteness and blackness are eliminated. Along the way, Fanon suggests that something similar, but not identical, goes on with all oppressed and colonialized peoples. He draws both parallels and contrasts between racism aimed at black people and antisemitism. He also mentions that he believes Marxism is one way to bring about what I would call a colorblind world.
I think that Fanon’s description of racism throughout the world is hard hitting and sometimes infuriating. Of course, the world has changed since this book was written. That is important. It is also significant, as racism and oppression are still with us. His call for the world to move beyond racism is, of course, spot on.
As for Fanon’s psychological theories, I think that this is a bit of a mixed bag. His description of racism and how its targets are made to seem like “the other” seems to be a true reflection of reality. I think that this process can be applied to any group that is the target of bigotry and oppression anywhere in the world. Without a doubt, some oppressed people develop an inferiority complex. Yet, I am not sure that this inferiority complex was as universal as Fanon portrayed it to be, even in in 1952.
Fanon does a lot of generalizing about black people and white people as well as about men and women. Perhaps this is par for the course for the time this is written. However, in my opinion, such generalizations are not a way to get to the truth. I also find many of the psychanalyst-related theories, especially those that relate to Freud, unscientific and unsubstantiated. Once again, such theories were all the rage when this was written. Nevertheless, I found this part of Fanon’s reasoning lacking. Finally, I disagree with Fanon’s advocacy of Marxism.
Based upon what I have read online, this book is highly esteemed in many circles. It had, and still has, a great influence upon post-colonialist thinking. For this reason alone, it is important. Fanon’s writing is also unique and distinctive. It is also an eloquent and powerful indictment of racism, stereotyping and “othering” as well as being a powerful call for equality. I found the psychological theories, which are the basis of the book, to be questionable however. With that, I recommend this for those interested in these subjects.
My commentary of Colonialism/Postcolonialism by Ania Loomba is here.