A Critical Review of 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 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, “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, I argue, declares that an inferiority complex is the direct result of colonization, 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 prevailing arguments from this chapter, objectivity and economic inequality, as the prevailing structures that allows racism to manifest and continue, 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 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.

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