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A Critical Review of Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks

“Objective” Discourse, Economic Inequality, and The Production of Structural Racism

A Critical Review of Black Skin, White Masks

By: Charlie Rivas

black-skin-white-masks

 Black Skin, White Masks by Frantz Fanon, explains how French hegemony affects the psychological development of the colonized Antillean. Through literary examples, personal experiences, and observations/studies deriving from his profession as a psychoanalyst, Fanon describes what he refers to as an inferiority complex. Fanon theorizes that the production of an inferiority complex derives from the forced imposition of French institutions (e.g., language and education) since they paradoxically force the Antillean to reject their own culture/civilization in exchange for a culture/civilization that rejects them.

Being that Fanon’s subject of study is the Antillean, and considering that he is also a native of the Antilles, he acknowledges that he cannot separate his psychological study from his personal subjective experience: “I have not wished to be objective. Besides, that would be dishonest: It is not possible for me to be objective” Therefore, rather than concealing his subjectivity, he chooses to exemplify it which allows his personal (subjective) experiences to contribute to his psychological studies. By explicitly taking a subjective stance Fanon places himself in direct opposition to his contemporary, Psychoanalyst M. Mannoni. Mannoni “objectively” theorizes through study and observation that the Antillean’s inferiority complex is not the result of colonization or hegemonic dominance, but instead results from an inherent dependency complex. Meaning that the Antillean begins to develop an inferiority complex only when and if they divert from their “natural” predisposition to be dependent on others. By making this “objective” assertion, Mannoni begins to resemble the typical “orientalist.” In Orientalism, Edward Said explains how the “West,” (or “occident”) has historically been able to describe, observe, and theorize the “Orient,” with little resistance under the general heading of knowledge (Said 1978:7). The “West,” France in this case, assumes a cultural, intellectual, and scientific superiority that grants it the power to produce “objective” knowledge, regarding the African people. Fanon’s subjective stance can therefore be understood as a direct challenge to French hegemonic authorities that have dictated what “Black” is under the guise of objective knowledge. Fanon, unlike Mannoni, declares that an inferiority complex is the direct result of a colonization process that is perpetuated through racialized, imperialist institutions, grounded on a structure of economic inequality and assumed objectivity. It is for this reason that I find “The So-Called Dependency Complex of Colonized Peoples,” to be the most decisive chapter in Black Skin, White Masks. By critically analyzing and understanding Fanon’s main argument from this chapter: “objectivity” and economic inequality as the prevailing structures that perpetuate racism, one can attain a clearer, more in-depth understanding of structural racism as described in Black Skin, White Masks.

In “The So-Called Dependency Complex of Colonized People,” Mannoni “objectively” theorizes that the Antillean’s inferiority complex emerges only when and if the Antillean departs from his inherent dependency complex. Therefore indicating that an inferiority complex is not the direct result of colonization or French hegemony, but instead, it is a side effect. However, as Fanon points out, Mannoni’s “. . . central idea is that the confrontation of ‘civilized’ and ‘primitive’ men creates a special situation – a colonial situation . . . [therefore] since this is M. Mannoni’s point of departure, why does he try to make the inferiority complex something that antedates colonization?” (Fanon 1967:87). The reason for this is that Mannoni’s assumed “Western objectivity,” has distanced him from understanding the felt experience of the colonized subject: “M. Mannoni has not tried to feel himself into the despair of the man of color confronting the white man” (86). In effect, this prevents Mannoni from realizing that an inferiority complex results from a “racist structure” (87). Furthermore, by assuming a faulty “objective” stance, he is also perpetuating and masquerading racism. In reference, Said points out that “Orientalist discourse [has] very close ties to the enabling socio-economic and political institutions (Said 1978:6). Meaning that the “objectivity” found in orientalist discourse, is linked to the structuring of racialized institutions. Thus Fanon makes a few critical claims in this chapter; first, he declares that assumed “objectivity,” while often being erroneous, also functions in masquerading and perpetuating structures of racism. Secondly, in contrast to M. Mannoni, who sees racism as a basic prejudice between lower class colonials, Fanon understands it as the direct outcome of an economic structure that allows it to flourish in a variety of forms.


“[South Africa] is a boiler into which thirteen million blacks are clubbed and penned in by two and half million whites” (87). The structure that allows “two and half million whites” to dominate “thirteen million blacks” is a “racist structure” (87). A racist structure that results in class differences, animosities, and is therefore complicit in the dissemination and institutionalization of racism.


Economic inequality as a source of structural racism can be better understood by taking a look at Franz Boas’ work, titled, Race, Class and Democratic Society. Regarding racism, Boas explains that the racist individual does not and cannot reason his way into, or out of racism (Boas 1945:16). Instead, there is a prevailing structure in the society that the racist individual resides in, that allows their racism to manifest regardless of its logic: “I do not believe that its sources (regarding racism) can be understood if we confine ourselves to the racial aspect and do not consider other class conflicts” (16). By taking Boas’ theory into consideration, regarding class conflicts as the source of racism, it becomes clear that Mannoni’s conception of racism is in error. Racism is not so much a basic manifestation, that is product of “petty officials” who happen to be dissatisfied with their labors (Fanon 1967:87). As Fanon points out: “[South Africa] is a boiler into which thirteen million blacks are clubbed and penned in by two and half million whites” (87). The structure that allows “two and half million whites” to dominate “thirteen million blacks” is a “racist structure” (87). A racist structure that results in class differences, animosities, and is therefore complicit in the dissemination and institutionalization of racism.

Language and education, can therefore be understood as two different racialized institutions that perpetuate racism under the umbrella of economic inequality. Frantz Fanon explains how imposing the French (language) has forced the native of the Antilles, to embrace a culture and civilization that coincidently rejects them. To learn French is to assume the culture of France, which ultimately leads the Antillean to assume a French identity:

“The Negro of the Antilles will be proportionately whiter- that is, he will come closer to being a real human being- in direct relation to his mastery of the French language” (18).

Like language, school as a French institution has the same function in the Antilles. Children in school read magazines that are put together by white men for little white men (146). Furthermore, Fanon states, “In the magazines the World, the Devil, the Evil Spirt, the Bad Man, the savage are always symbolized by Negroes or Indians . . . the little Negro . . . becomes an explorer, an adventurer, a missionary ‘ who aces the danger of being eaten by the wicked Negroes’” (146). This meaning that through caricatures, literature, and magazines, Antillean children “naturally” identify with the protagonists, who happens to be white, and are placed against the antagonists who appear as “wicked Negroes.” Children therefore assume a white identity. However, the fact of the situation is that France rejects them as “white,” and this becomes obvious when they travel to France and learn that they are not regarded as French but as Negroes: “Subjectively, intellectually, the Antillean conducts himself like a white man. But he is a Negro. That he will learn once he goes to Europe” (148). Therefore, both language and school can be understood as two intuitions of many, complicit in the perpetuation of racism and developing of an inferiority complex.

Although Black Skin, White Masks sympathizes with the colonized individual, it can and is often criticized as being one dimensional. One dimensional here meaning that Fanon primarily focuses on the Black male experience instead of taking into account the full diversity of Black experiences within the Antillean colonized situation. Therefore, readers may feel easily compelled to reject Fanon on grounds of misogyny, in addition to homophobia. Although my own review does not highlight Fanon’s thoughts regarding these relationships, I would like to give some brief points of reference that can potentially offer some insight. If one is to understand structured racism as a product of economic inequality, then one must take into consideration how intermarriage and interracial relationships function within an economic structure that produces class differences. Boas for example points out, that condemning intermarriage is most prevalent in a society composed of class differences due to the fact that class differences put in place a notion of inherent biological differences (Boas 1945:16). Therefore, Fanon’s condemnation of the “white” and “Black” interracial relationship, may be understood as a situation that he fathoms as one driven by a complex entanglement of domination, power and superiority/inferiority complexes, rather than genuine pursuits. However, this does not excuse the fact that Fanon sees women, specifically women from the Antilles, as mere one dimensional mechanisms, complicit in further developing an inferiority complex in men. It is therefore important to take into account and consideration what Fanon achieved by declaring his book a subjective analysis and experience. Not to excuse his lack of properly representing the diversity of colonized experiences, but Black Skin, White Masks must be understood as a study explicitly grounded on subjectivity.

Works Cited

Boas, Franz. 1945. Introduction; Race: Prejudice; and Race: Class Consciousness.Race and Democratic Society. New York: J.J. Augustin Publisher

Frantz, Fanon. 1968. Black Skin, White Masks. C. Markmann, trans. New York: Grove Press.

Said, Edward. 1978. Introduction. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books.

The Interplay of Sex, Race, and Class in Understanding Police Violence

By: Stella Park

 

Kimberlé Crenshaw, in Demarginalising the Intersection of Race and Sex, introduces the concept of intersectionality, a multifaceted form of analysis, as a superior theoretical tool through which society should evaluate minority groups. Intersectionality, as defined by Crenshaw, seeks to understand the social identities of subgroups not as a separate evaluation of individual parts, but as the peculiar interaction between these same components; i.e. understanding black women as not just black and female, but as black females. The phenomenon of police brutality, described by such theorists as Angela Harris as a form of compensatory masculine performance, is better understood by acknowledging the interplay of race and sex, as well as sex and class. Harris’s piece, titled “Gender, Violence, Race, and Criminal Justice” is enhanced with an understanding of how women are subject to a different kind of violence, exemplified in #BlackLivesMatter’s “If it wasn’t for the women,” in which the specific plight of black women as victims of racialized violence is examined. An understanding of each subcategory of sex, race, and class, and how these factors interact to create multiple subgroups of people is integral to understanding the complex dynamics of police brutality enveloped in discourses of subjugation, hypermasculinity, and power first discussed in Bartky’s Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power. Despite what predominates in the media, an analysis of police violence must account for the intersectionality of race, sex, and class, especially in regards to the specific institutionalized subjugation of blacks in contrast to whites, of the poor in relation to the rich, and of women in regards to men.

In Gender, Violence, Race, and Criminal Justice, Harris argues that the preservation of a greater masculinity, especially relative to that of other men, is what explains the systemic predominance of violence among men. Integral to this notion is the assumption that men are divided by race, ethnicity, religion, class, and sexual orientation means that there is not just one kind of masculinity. In making this assertion, Harris promotes an intersectional understanding of masculinity supported by Crenshaw, and links these different types of masculinities to the institution of police brutality. In regard to white males, Bartky claims that their hegemonic control is a product of their institutionally legitimated political and economic advantages. On the other hand, Harris argues that the deprivation of such traditional male privileges for black men leads to an alternate, compensatory masculinity which instead emphasizes the most primitive sort of dominance available to the physically dominant male: violence. In this compensatory performance of masculinity as a result of a lower class and historically subjugated racial identity, there is a presumption of “black superiority and white impotence”. This subversion of traditional power dynamics of masculinity results in a curious mutual tension and resentment between both black and white men; black men envy “white men’s greater control over political, economic, and social resources” while white men also envy black men, but for their “sexual potency, athleticism, and sensual physicality”. This tension between opposing and mutually demeaning masculinities is reified in the dynamic between predominantly white policemen, and predominantly black members of urban, economically struggling groups. For understanding this dynamic, intersectionality, in this case in regards to the different masculinities produced by both sex and race, provides an especially effective explanatory framework. White policemen, exposed to the conflicting and threatening force of an alternate black masculinity, consequently overcompensate with a greater tendency to perform institutionally legitimized acts of police brutality.

Harris additionally addresses another manifestation of male violence – class-based violence propagated on behalf of the hegemony. Here, an intersectional analysis of both race and class is necessary. The police force, constituted mainly by lower class men, is subjected to a subjugation similar to that of black men in the hands of the masculine hegemony of socially and economically privileged men. Thus, they are also similarly subject to the ills of hypermasculinity as compensation for a suppressed manhood. According to Harris, both class and a predominant military background inherent in the hierarchy of police departments further prompts this adherence and subscription to, [t]he hypermasculinity of policing [that] leads to a culture in which violence is always just below the surface. Problematically, police brutality additionally follows the confines of the institutional hierarchies as an instrument of the hegemony by particularly disciplining those who are traditionally dispossessed of power, such as racial minorities and those of lower classes. As exemplified by the brutal police killings of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin among others, police not only conduct violence toward those already deficient in power by merit of class and/or race, but also possess certain biases against these groups as a result of institutional conditioning, as addressed by Bartky’s conception of “docile bodies” indoctrinated into believing the rhetoric of the hegemony. One can further extrapolate Bartky’s claims of, [that which] is done in obedience to the requirements of femininity, to include actions done for the purposes of adhering to and establishing the fulfillment of a proper masculinity. As part of the group dynamic of police forces, as addressed by Harris, some police officers additionally see themselves as defenders of white and wealthy neighborhoods against the intrusions of minorities, which propagates the perpetration of hate violence with the hypermasculine rationalization of protecting the nation against the “others.” When considering all of these factors in analyzing the phenomenon of targeted police brutality, one cannot simply attribute this behavior to overperformed and overcompensated masculinity, but rather should consider that the institution of masculinity is always associated with power dynamics – which have deep roots in such factors as race and class.

In utilizing an intersectional analysis of police brutality, one must also address the other socially recognized side of the binary – women. According to BlackLivesMatter’s “If It Wasn’t For The Women…,” black women are also subject to selective police violence – albeit in a different form than are black men. Though also discriminated upon on the basis of their race, black women are additionally subject to different types of subjugation as a result of the intersecting factors of their race and sex. Not only do black women “often experience double-discrimination – the combined effects of practices which discriminate on the basis of race, and on the basis of sex”, but also “they experience discrimination as black women”. In particular, “black women and girls’ vulnerability to physical and sexual exploitation”, results in a particular manifestation of police violence toward black women that differs in nature and motivation from the violence committed against black men. Without paying special regard to the intersectionality of race and sex, specifically the state of being black and female, the voices of oppressed black women are obscured by black men who claim to be representative of the plight of the entirety of the black population. “Black patriarchal heroicism,” as described by the Combahee River Collective, should not constitute the center of black activism in the fight against police violence, as an understanding of the peculiar state of black femininity, a femininity plagued by the assumptions of black masculinity, is equal parts an aspect of specialized police brutality toward minorities. Adding to an understanding of experienced police oppression is the analogous instance of employer oppression demonstrated in DeGraffenreid v General Motors as mentioned by Crenshaw. In DeGraffenreid, the court evaluated black women by their separate components – whether it was solely on their status as a black individual, or solely on their role as a woman. Such an analysis ultimately proved reductive and insufficient in properly characterizing the abuse suffered by workers who occupied both of these identities inextricably and concurrently – an analogy that can be extended to explain the distinct acts of police oppression that contribute to the specific subjugation of black women.

In addition to this paper’s prior endorsements of an intersectional analysis of police brutality through the coexisting realms of race, class, and sex is a qualifying statement that recognizes and accepts that some aspects of racial and class-based oppression are inextricably co-associated. In regards to police biases toward black individuals, one sees that black individuals in America are statistically more likely to be members of a lower socioeconomic class. Even if a black individual is not part of a lower class, existing racial biases assume that she/he is, and in this way, the quality of being black, and the state of being of a poorer class, are interwoven in complicated ways not easily discernable in a purely intersectional analysis. In addition, when one examines three possible categorical distinctions of sex, race, and gender together as one, discourse on rich black men and poor black men reveal startling similarities on account of the shared racial category, which often supersedes any nuanced considerations of class. In the end, even wealthy black men subscribe to the wealthy white hegemony, just as African American police officers [can be] just as brutal and abusive toward African American citizens as white police officers, as such capitulations to hegemonic expectations offer individuals a chance at all the privileges of hegemonic masculinity. Police violence, viewed through this lens, is predominantly systemic and can be practiced by those who are not a part of the hegemonic class as a means to achieve a comparable level of dominance, and is also indicative of the “docile bodies” discussed by Bartky. Just as women engage in “self-surveillance” as a “form of obedience to patriarchy”, men police themselves in order to affirm their masculinity, heterosexuality, and separation from the dreaded status of “woman.” To the men preoccupied with societal expectations of their masculinity, racial and class-based distinctions are inherently similar in that despite their different manifestations, both alternate categories provide for an individual solution to the continual problem of affirming their masculinities – whether it be through violence, hypermasculinity, or general brutality.

As related by both Harris and #BlackLivesMatter, and understood through the film of Crenshaw’s intersectionality, and Bartky’s Foucauldian model of institutional hegemonic domination, police brutality is best understood through a multitude of interpretations with deep roots in the interplay of sex, race, and class. As the masculine ideal, perpetuated by the patriarchy, explains the origins and motivations behind the actual act of police violence, the experiences of such brutality are subject to the different sexes, racial identities, and economic classes of both the victims and the perpetrators. A black woman’s experience with police violence and oppression cannot be understood separately as solely her experience as a black individual or a female. In the same way, black men, as the main victims of police brutality, possess a special breed of masculinity created as a result of their combined identities as both males, and members of a socially unprivileged and historically persecuted group. For all these reasons, one must, through an intersectional analysis, consider distinct forms of masculinity as they relate to class and race, the existence of oppressed females, and the established institutional hegemony when evaluating the true dynamics of police brutality as it is manifested in the modern United States.

Works Cited:

Beyond Gay Marriage: Race, Class and the Future of the LGBTQ Movement. Digital image. Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor. Kalmanovitz Initiative, 16 Oct. 2013. Web. 21 Sept. 2016.

Bartky, Sandra Lee. Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power. Northeastern University Press, 1988. Print

Crenshaw, Kimberlé. Demarginialising the Intersection of Race and Sex. 1989. Print.

Harris, Angela. Gender, Violence, Race, and Criminal Justice. Berkeley, 2000. Print.

“If It Wasn’t For the Women.” Black Lives Matter. 13 Oct. 2014. Web. 19 Apr. 2015. <http://blacklivesmatter.com/&gt;.