Sunday, February 10, 2019

Black Skin, White Masks by Frantz Fanon

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. 

Fanon writes,

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,”

He writes,

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.


Sue Bursztynski said...

Right now, in Melbourne, where I live, newspapers report on incidents where crimes are committed by “youths of African appearance.” They don’t generally bother to describe perpetrators of the vast majority of crime in this state as “of Caucasian appearance” unless there is CCTV footage they can post. This follows a couple of politicians who don’t live in Melbourne but want to have a deliberate go at “the other” telling the journalists that people in Melbourne are afraid to go out to dinner because of African gangs.

mudpuddle said...

i think there's no question that racism is increasingly used as a tool by competing powers, whether political, religious, or commercial... and as soon as the financial motive is introduced, ethical considerations are pretty much thrown under the bus. all of which presents a future sinking into a slough of prejudice, so far as i can see... it will take a massive change in moral behavior on the part of most persons to improve the situation... or a dramatic alteration in the world's population, which imo is the driving force behind the competition for money coupled with dwindling resources and increasing pollution... color me negative today, i guess...

Brian Joseph said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brian Joseph said...

Hi Mudpuddle- Without a doubt, sometimes powerful interests use racism to thier advantage. Wire that, I think there is a psychological component in people that drives racism even when not egged on by the powers that be. I also think that we should never minimize racism, it is poisonous, but I also think that the world is getting less racist.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sue - We live in a world where there is still a lot of stereotyping and racism. I had heard about the rhetoric that you are refereeing to. One of my big themes in life is that it is important to avoid stereotypes.

Sharon Wilfong said...

Another excellent, balanced review, Brian. It is interesting to me that today we have people who act like we are still living in the 1930s and must "fight" for race rights.

Anyone who knows what life was like here in the 1930s know that we no longer have separate drinking fountains, segregated schools, or people forced to sit in the back of the bus based on the color of their skins.

Yet it seems to me, as Mudpuddle said, there are people stirring up discontent and proclaiming to be the "saviors" of the oppressed by identifying various groups as "oppressed" and then making smarmy political speeches full of lovely rhetoric that has no basis in reality.

It disturbs me that the number one cause of death of black men in America between the ages of 20 and 30 is murder and by the hands of another black man. Where is the outrage over that? The majority of black men incarcerated for murder killed other members of their own community. People want to harp on racial profiling, why don't they care about the scary, unsafe neighborhoods and schools so many black people live in and go to?

Not to make people prickly, but how many people know that 80% of abortion clinics are in black neighborhoods and Margaret Sanger (the found of Planned Parenthood) was a devoted eugenics leader?

It's the current zeitgeist to keep harping and blaming colonialism and white supremacy but until individuals own up to the responsibility of their own actions, nothing is going to change.

Sorry if I'm preachy, but I just saw the movie "Get Out" and the racist message it communicates, and also the trendy reviews stating how it so eloquently tackles racism, in other words, reinforces the notions that all white people are evil and deserve to be killed, really got under my skin.

Kathy's Corner said...

Hi Brian, I've never read Frantz Fanon but over the years I've heard of him and one of his books in particular, The Wretched of The Earth. He was a man of many achievements but back then he also faced alot of racism and it sounds like he began to see the world entirely through that prism. A very good idea to be reading writers on colonialism right now because the legacy is still in the news, for example the cultural appropriation controcersy that rages right now about who can wear and write what.

Judy Krueger said...

I have heard of this author for some time. I appreciate your analysis of his ideas. I think that all who have attempted to examine, explain and even propose ideas about racism did important work. I have not read Freud himself nor much of Jung but am aware that their ideas still permeate discussions of the "other" whether it be blacks, Jews or women. They were both white men and I think many women have since contributed profound ideas as have Black thinkers and writers of both sexes. The ideas of white supremacy are ridiculous and transparent, as are those of racists and misogynists. When it comes to economics and politics though, the rhetoric also gets quite untrustworthy as far as I am concerned. I admire that you are doing this reading.

James said...

I read this book last year and found it fascinating. Your excellent review reminded me of my very similar reaction to much of the book. His emphasis on the "other" was a concept that I thought could be applied to other minorities. Overall it is a thought-provoking book to read.

Suko said...

This sounds very thought-provoking, Brian Joseph. Thank you for sharing your articulate thoughts about it.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Sharon.

I am somewhat on the middle on these things. There are those who claim that there has been no racial progress. That position is divorced from reality. I also think that there is still racism in America and elsewhere and that it is important that it be addressed.

I think that regardless of issues in the African American communities, it is important to address racism and stereotyping. A person who is the target of such injustice is not responsible for the behavior of other members of the ethnic or racial group that they belong to either.

With that, I agree that not enough attention is given to the issues that that you mention. Sometimes people who want to discuss them are also unfairly attacked in personal ways.

I have not seen Get Out. I do see something really bad rising out of what many are calling the illiberal left. They have returned to stereotyping and demonizing people based upon their race. Their obsession with white people is leading to all sorts of bad things including the siding with oppressive forces in developing countries. This is at the heart of what I have been referring to as the argument between the postmodern left and the traditional or humanist left.

Have a great week!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Kathy - Fanon was indeed a person who had an extraordinary life. The cultural appropriation thing is also an aspect of the divide that is going on right now. I think that objections to cultural appropriation are wrong. I think that this is comping from an illiberal place and will take society backwards, No one owns a culture. All culture is part of our shared humanity.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Judy - Racism is really bad stuff. White Supremacy is poison. There is room for differences of opinion on politics, economics, social issues, etc. I agree that sometimes the rhetoric get crazy. Sometimes good faith disagreements turn acrimonious.

Have great week!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks James. It is so interesting that you read this recently too. The concept of "other" is important. I agree that it can be applied to any group that is oppressed anywhere.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Suko. It really was a book that stimulated the mind.

Caroline said...

It is highly regarded, indeed. I’ve read so much about this book and also own it but ended up never reading it. His theories were important for my studies. It’s shameful, I didn’t read the original text.
A great review, Brian.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Caroline. It is not that long of a book so you could always make up for lost time.

Sheila (Bookjourney) said...

This sounds really interesting and one I may be adding to my old list to read.

thecuecard said...

This writer seems to offer some valid points and his calling for the elimination of whiteness and blackness is quite noble. His prose must have made it a somewhat challenging read ... from essay to stream of consciousness and with all the thinkers he quotes. Nice review of this subject.

CyberKitten said...

I have a copy of his other famous book - The Wretched of the Earth - in one of my TBR stacks. I shall be looking forward to it even more after reading this. He certainly has a reputation for being a thoughtful commentator on race and colonial issues. You might also like to look out for anything by Edward Said who wrote extensively on these issues including Cultural Imperialism. The continuing impact of the colonial age on world events (it explains so much that is, on first glance, seemingly inexplicable) is an interesting area of study.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks for stopping by Shelia. If you read it I would love to know what you thought of it.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Susan - Indeed. Fanon’s views on a color blind world are laudable.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi CyberKitten - The wretched of the Earth is another test that is lauded by Postcolonialists. If you read it I would be curious as to what you thought of it.

I have just finished Said’s Orientalism. I will be posting on it in a couple of weeks.

Felicity Grace Terry said...

Hmm! This is a subject that has always really interested me, never more so than at the moment when hate crimes of all kinds sadly seem to be on the increase, and yet I'm kind of put off by the writing style.

Alas a 'stream of consciousness' style isn't generally to my taste to begin with so for prose that reads like a conventional essay only to at times lapse into a stream of consciousness ... I'm afraid not.


Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tracy - I think that he wrote in the way that he did in order to convey emotion and feeling. I can see why this style would not be for everyone.

Violet said...

Hey, Brian. I have plenty to say about your take on this book, but I should probably just keep my mouth shut. The comments section on a blog post is not the place for worthwhile and nuanced discussion. I just wanted to let you know that I read your post. *waves*

Brian Joseph said...

Hey Violet - Thanks for reading. I think that you should express yourself! You know that if you disa with what I said that am fine with that. Also, one can write and write on these comments sections so one can keep the ideas flowing. I even wrote a post on how cook my comments section was because folks were expressing thems. Remember that we used to talk on Twitter, which is like the worst medium for such discussions :)

Whispering Gums said...

I was away when you posted this - visiting my little grandson in Melbourne, so I am gradually catching up. And, actually, it's timely because of the talk I went to on Monday night.

You quote him as saying "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." This reminds me of feminist Jane Caro's statement the feminism is fundamentally about seeing women as "human" not as other, or lesser, or different, and then she said feminism offers advantages to me because it allows them to be FREE too.

So I agree that that much of what Fanon says can be applied to other forms of oppression. Each form has a different origin in WHY the oppressed group is seen as other, but the fundamental thing, really, is the very fact of "otherness" isn't it?

Whispering Gums said...

Oops, big typo there - Caro said feminism offers advantages to MEN (not "me")!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi WP - There is never a rush to get a comment up on a blog post.

The 'concept of "other" is important and very interesting. It is absolutely true. Ending discrimination, and bias benefits everyone. Be it sexism, racism or other kinds of bigotry. It makes the world a better place, it reduces violence and other social ills. It increases prosperity.

baili said...

A very powerful analysis Brain!

i am so happy i did not miss this one

i think we cannot not blame writer because he wrote what he realized at that time so "the Otherism" sound a perfect term what he wanted to say .as we all know that every one speaks through his experience so most probably during army service he beard Much that led him to share his stress and anger in form of this book.

I felt Compelled to read it and i am sure i will.

this is right that world is bettering in many ways among which is racism .

but sometimes that people in power has only changed their targets .
they are setting up certain nation as "other" and for this the lobby seem to invest it's whole energy

anyway this is also notable commercialism has took over this field to great extent and specially politicians use this term for personal advantages

glad that you chose this book ,i will fondly be waiting for this series

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Baili. Otherism is an important term that seems to go off into all directions. If you read this I would love to know what you thought about it.

Though sometimes people do the wrong things, I think that the dissipation of racism is still worth celebrating The rise of commercialism is interesting. I think that it is a mixed bag. There are some very bad things about it, but I also think that there are some benefits.

Maria Behar said...

BRILLIANT post, Brian!!

I will have to come back later, as I have more to say. But right off the bat, I'd like to was that racism has insidious effects, and it's SO ubiquitous in the psyches of many white folks, that they might not even be aware of it.

This is DEFINITELY a book that I'm going to add to my Goodreads shelves! As you have stated here, the world has indeed changed since this book was published. However, racism has NOT been eliminated; it has simply become more subtle, less obvious. But it's still there. White supremacy is STILL alive and well.

Having recently read "The Hate U Give", I can attest to the fact that racism is ABSOLUTELY alive and well! Even seemingly "innocent" comments, or "jokes", made by some whites show the obvious racism lurking in the background. Indeed, this novel, which I hope you read at some point in the near future, is hard-hitting and totally relevant to our times, unfortunately. And the author, Angie Thomas, was moved to write it because of all the cases of white cops killing African-Americans in recent years. It was also inspired by the Trayvon Martin case. I STILL can't believe that Zimmerman was NOT convicted!! This was total travesty of justice!!

The group, "Just Us For Justice", mentioned in this novel, was obviously based on the real-life group, "Black Lives Matter". And to those who say that ALL lives matter, I reply: yes, they do. But BLACK lives have to be emphasized here, because they have NOT been equally considered in our HORRIBLE racist history, and STILL aren't.

I'll be back with more! Have a GREAT day, and thanks for another AWESOME post!! <3 :)

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Maria. As we have discussed I agree that there is still a lot of racism and bias. I think that the Trevor Martin case is the ultimate example of this. That was a case characterized by blatant racism and violence. It was outrageous.

Of course there are some white racists out there. But I do not think that we should label bias as outright racism. I am part of a diversity program. In it we illustrate how folks of all races and nationalities can fall into bias. Folks with the best intentions can fall into it. Of course, bias hurts minority groups the most. What do I mean by bias? Several studies have shown that African American police offers are more likely to shoot African American suspects then white suspects. The African American cops are biased against African Americans! Just one link to what I am talking about:

This is part of what Fannon was talking about.

I not want to minimize today’s problems, but I think the good news is that things are slowly getting better. In particular, the young folks seem a lot less biased then previous generations.

I must read The Hate U Give. As I mentioned, I think some folks are sincere about All Lives Matter. But it seems aimed at distracting from the issues of racism and bias.

Rachel said...

Hi Brian! If you are interested in colonialsim, I vaguely remember reading a book called Culture and Imperialism by Edward W. Said many years ago. My recollection is that it mentioned several classics that covered (even indirectly) colonialsim or the beginnings of post-colonialism. I gave the book four stars, so you might want to check it out and see if it's something you would be interested in. It was before my days of writing reviews, though.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Rachel - Thanks for the recommendation. I actually just finished Said’s Orientalism. I will be posting about it soon.