Frantz Fanon's "Black Skin White Masks" (Ch. 4) [finger on the page]



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The goal of these posts will be to conduct a chapter-a-week close reading of Frantz Fanon's Black Skin, White Masks, while analyzing, summarizing, and dialoguing with the text to provide readers with a better understanding of this crucial contribution to thinking about race. For those curious, I will be using the 1991 paperback reissue with [cover design by Liadain Warwick Smith]. Given the current debates raging about a post-racial America, the election of the nation's first black president, and continued disagreements over what really constitutes "blackness," we may find that Fanon provided some very intriguing answers -- over 50 years ago -- to our most pressing questions about black people.

Chapter Four: The So-Called Dependency Complex of Colonized Peoples
(Last week: Chapter Three)

In this work I have made it a point to convey the misery of the black man. Physically and affectively. I have not wished to be objective. Besides that would be dishonest: It is not possible for me to be objective.

Chapter four encompasses Fanon' thoughts surrounding the work of one of his contemporaries, Octave Mannoni, specifically, a work entitled "Prospero and Caliban; Psychology of Colonization". Fanon states that he has chosen the author's work because it emphasizes the problem of "exhaustive" studies on the effects of colonialism tat still cannot manage to provide any real insights into the phenomenon.

Fanon is primarily concerned with the lack of subjectivity displayed by Mannoni, which he believes is responsible for the scholar's assumption that, "the inferiority complex [is] something that antedates colonization" or put more simply, that inferiority complexes are somehow inherent to "primitive" or uncivilized peoples (85).

After hihlighting Mannoni's contention that racism can expres itslf in varying degrees; that one form may not be as racist as another, Fanon remarks, "a given society is racist or it is not" (85). He also states that he believes it is possible for people who are not of color to help bring authentic understanding of the colonial situation, the only prerequisite being that the analysis not be stymied by objectivism, because "that would be dishonest" (86). But Mannoni's analysis goes on to treat apartheid South Africa as a simple situation in which grumpy and poor whites resent their African counterparts. Mannoni believes that any racism in South Africa is merely a reactionary response of the white poor and that rich whites have to time to be bothered with racist attitudes towards Africans. Fanon says of this situation:

What is South Africa? A boiler in which thirteen million blacks are clubbed and pinned in by two and a half million whites. If the poor whites hate the Negroes, it is not, as M. Mannoni would have us believe, because "racialism is the work of petty officials small traders, and colonials who have toiled much without great success." No; it is because the structure of South Africa is a racist structure (87)

Next, Fanon dismisses Mannoni's argument that there are different kinds of exploitation or racism by pointing out that all forms of oppression draw their justification from a seemingly "biblical" source that allows them to rationalize the lack of humanity in whomever is being oppressed. Fanon goes on, "when one tries to examine the structure of this or that form of exploitation from an abstract point of view, one simply turns one back on the major, basic problem, which is that of restoring man to his proper place" (88).

Fanon then references a work by Aimé Césaire which compares lynchings in America, worldwide discrimination against Jews, and the legalization of forced labor in Africa to the actions of Hitler to prove his point that oppression is a universal concept that does not vary its intensity whatsoever. He also contends that particular segments of a society are not more or less responsible for racism when he paraphrases Francis Jeanson's statement that "every citizen of a nation is responsible for the actions committed in the name of that nation (91).

In response to Mannoni's statement that, "France is unquestionably one of the least racialist-minded countries in the world" Fanon replies by stating, "France is a racist country, for the myth of the bad nigger is part of the collective unconscious" (92). In response to Mannoni's insistence that inferiority complexes usually occur within a fraction of a minority population and that majority populations seldom experience such complexes, Fanon reminds us that, "in Martinique there are 200 whites who consider themselves superior to 300,000 people of color. In South Africa there are two million white against almost thirteen million native people, and it has never occurred to a single black to consider himself superior to a member of the white minority" (92-93). Fanon insists that there is a correlation between the feelings of inferiority experienced by people of color and the feelings of superiority espoused by whites, that in fact, "it is the racist who creates his inferior" (93). Following Mannoni's line of reasoning, Fanon explains, creates a situation in which an oppressed individual must either develop feelings of inferiority or remain dependent on the colonizer.

Fanon emphasizes in the pages that follow the notion that inferiority complexes are not innate but that they are responses to the newly-occurring phenomenon of discrimination encountered by colonized peoples. He also dismisses Mannoni's assumption that because colonized people held inferiority complexes previous o the arrival of white men (and that they welcomed whites as long awaited masters, hence their inability to view them as enemies) in favor of Césaire's idea that colonized people acted with humanity, good will, courtesy and the basic tenets of "the old courtly civilizations" (99).

Next an example is sketched out by Fanon of a black man who is wondering about the dreams he has in which he turns white after a long and arduous journey to find white men behind a closed door. For Fanon, this dream indicates an inferiority complex which my be rid of--not by remaining "in his place" (i.e., dependent)--as Mannoni would have it-- but by becoming aware of the source of his subconscious conflict and choosing action against its structure or else remaining passive.

Finally, Fanon ends the chapter by rephrasing his point: that inferiority complexes in people of color are the result of the white man's arrival and that "Mannoni lacks the slightest basis in which to ground any conclusion applicable to the situation, the problems, or the potentialities of the [Africans] in the present time" (108).

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