Psychoanalysis of Racism: book review of Black Skin, White Masks
There are many ways to dissect and dismantle racism, and Fanon chooses psychoanalysis in his nonfiction Black Skin, White Masks, a book that explores the realm of Black people’s consciousness when white people enter it and imposes a hierarchy of racial superiority and inferiority. I have always been fascinated by the psychological impact of observation, judgment, and recognition, and the book fully addressed my curiosities and answered the questions I had. With its unique lens, readers get a sense of the psychology of racism and can better learn to deconstruct the psychological complexes that have made racism so durable.
As a psychiatrist, Franz Fanon chose a distinct focus in Black Skin, White Masks, quoting famous psychologists and incorporating personal anecdotes and his experiences with patients who suffer from an inferiority complex and dream to become white. Fanon writes in the introduction of the book that “only a psychoanalytical interpretation of the black problem can lay bare the anomalies of affect that are responsible for the structure of the complex,” and his book proves that a psychoanalytical lens indeed offered insights that a purely political or historical angle could not. Fanon first defines an inferiority complex as the outcome of economic domination and internalization (epidermalization) of such inferiority—which explains the dreams that many of Fanon’s patients had. Instead of fully separating the discourse of the whites and the blacks, Fanon instead chooses to focus on the “juxtaposition of the white and black races,” which he believes has created “a massive psychoexistential complex.” From the very beginning of the book, Fanon makes it clear that by analyzing the complex, he hopes to destroy it, which is a very powerful statement that encompasses the purpose of the book—analysis and solutions.
While previous literature and even works of fiction have implicitly alluded to the psychological experience of Blacks who are rendered inferior by whites, Fanon openly embraces the consciousness of Blacks and hopes to understand its encounter with a white consciousness. Quoting Freud, Hegel, Adler, and many other psychologists and political philosophers, Fanon builds his ideas off of the recognition theory and the concept that self-consciousness exists for another self-consciousness, as Hegel argued. Centering around the recognition theory where “man is human only to the extent to which he tries to impose his existence on another man in order to be recognized by him,” Fanon applies psychoanalysis to a wide range of realms, including the domination of language and culture during the colonial process.
Terming the process an “imposition of a culture,” Fanon points out that adopting the language of the colonist is the first step of developing an inferiority complex. To speak a language, he argues, “is to take on a world, a culture.” In speaking a language, the native speakers (the white colonists) find themselves culturally superior, and adopting the language of the colonists also became a channel for the colonized to “elevate above his jungle status in proportion.” Fanon argues that this is dangerous, problematic, and devastating to a race because when the constructed cultural inferiority is internalized, the black Antillean also “enslaves himself” and “becomes a victim of white civilization.”
Rejecting Mannoni’s analysis and his explanation of a so-called dependency complex (which implied the inferiority of Blacks), Fanon offers his own explanation using the psychological experiences of his own as a Black man, using the lens of psychopathology to account for the cycle of oppression and racism.
As Fanon would argue, the process begins with whites observing the Blacks, and imposing judgments on them. The attention given to Blacks—this attention that comes from a place of difference—seals the observed into “that crushing objecthood” that slowly creates a feeling of inferiority and incivility. As Fanon writes, “And then the occasion arose when I had to meet the white man’s eyes. An unfamiliar weight burdened me. The real world challenged my claims.” When in contact with the white world—when the Blacks’ realm of consciousness is disturbed, something happens to their ego. “If his psychic structure is weak,” Fanon writes, “one observes a collapse of the ego. The black man stops behaving as an actional person. The goal of his behavior will be The Other (in the guise of the white man), for The Other alone can give him worth. That is on the ethical level: self-esteem.” The aftermath of the encounter means a collapse of the ego and a loss of self-esteem and self-recognition—because the whites failed to recognize people of different skin color in the first place.
Psychoanalysis offered a logical explanation for the common desires of Black Antilleans to be white—something that Fanon has experienced himself. When the white man imposes discrimination, makes him a colonized native, and robs him of his worth, he argues that the most intuitive reaction for Blacks is self-denial and a desire to become white.
After the interaction, the feeling of inadequacy, of feeling small, of insularity assaults their ego, and self-awareness altered from recognition to denial. After being observed, the constructed inferiors begin to examine themselves in a self-aware manner. Fanon explains that being Black added extra meanings to his existence, and he slowly started to believe that being Black means that he is “the incarnation of a complete fusion with the world.” He subjects himself to an objective examination, discovers his blackness, and forgoes his ego when his color means “cannibalism, intellectual deficiency, fetichism, racial defects, slave-ships” to not only others but himself.
The self-denial that the book examines is daunting: Fanon welcomed the readers to his psyche and exposed his emotional and mental struggle with his blackness, which has tormented, pursued, disturbed, and angered him for long. Nevertheless, Fanon urges the readers to break the trope along with him, because, despite the savage narrative, Fanon demonstrates through his own case that “there was a myth of the Negro that had to be destroyed at all costs.” In a later chapter, Fanon explores the sexual myth of the Black man in depth and debunks the psychology of such a myth.
While mainly addressing the inferiority complex, Fanon also explores its counterpart and argues that “it is the racist who creates his inferior.” Challenging Mannoni’s belief in an authority complex of the white man and the dependency complex of the Malagasy, Fanon opens up the possibility of a reconstruction of the discourse of colonialism with an understanding of the minds of the colonized.
The book is an excellent exploration of the psychology of colonialism and racism. From applying psychoanalysis to the inequality created by colonialism, the book offers a very micro and nuanced explanation of the formation and durability of whites’ oppression of the Blacks. At the same time, Fanon offers his solutions. Hoping to destroy the complex, Fanon uses the book to expose the psychological processes of the colonists and the colonized, to let the world recognize “the open door of every consciousness.” Understanding the roots of the problem, Fanon exalts love, life, generosity, and denounces degradation and exploitation of man. In the quest for freedom and equality, Fanon ends the book with a conclusion of his own: “Superiority? Inferiority? Why not simply try to touch the other, feel the other, discover each other?”
Information: Black Skin, White Masks–Franz Fanon