Black Skin, White Masks (French: Peau noire, masques blancs) is a 1952 book by Franz Fanon in which Fanon studies the psychology of the racism and dehumanization inherent in situations of colonial domination.
With the application of historical interpretation, and the concomitant underlying social indictment, the psychiatrist Frantz Fanon formulated Black Skin, White Masks to combat the oppression of black people. He applied psychoanalysis and psychoanalytic theoryto explain the feelings of dependency and inadequacy that Black people experience in a White world. That the divided self-perceptionof the Black Subject who has lost his native cultural origin, and embraced the culture of the Mother Country, produces an inferiority complex in the mind of the Black Subject, who then will try to appropriate and imitate the culture of the colonizer. Such behavior is more readily evident in upwardly mobile and educated black people who can afford to acquire status symbols within the world of the colonial ecumene, such as an education abroad and mastery of the language of the colonizer, the white masks.
Based upon, and derived from, the concepts of the collective unconscious and collective catharsis, the sixth chapter, “The Negro and Psychopathology”, presents brief, deep psychoanalyses of colonized black people, and thus proposes the inability of black people to fit into the norms (social, cultural, racial) established by white society. That “a normal Negro child, having grown up in a normal Negro family, will become abnormal on the slightest contact of the white world.” That, in a white society, such an extreme psychological response originates from the unconscious and unnatural training of black people, from early childhood, to associate “blackness” with “wrongness”. That such unconscious mental training of black children is effected with comic books and cartoons, which are cultural media that instil and affix, in the mind of the white child, the society’s cultural representations of black people as villains. Moreover, when black children are exposed to such images of villainous black people, the children will experience a psychopathology (psychological trauma), which mental wound becomes inherent to their individual, behavioral make-up; a part of his and her personality. That the early-life suffering of said psychopathology — black skin associated with villainy — creates a collective nature among the men and women who were reduced to colonized populations.
Spittoon’s Faisal Gazi certainly seems taken by Fanon. He even has his picture as his Facebook profile picture How ironic then that Fanon diagnosed the coconut syndrome suffered by Mr Gazi.
Fanon’s work on the Algerian war of Independence is seminal. But of course that was the past – even longer ago than the 1971 ‘Bangladesh’ war. Except in our time it is the war of terror that dominates the headlines and it is the ‘Brown skins , White masks’ of people like Gazi who defend western imperialism. Hamid Dabashi has a brilliant book of that title exposing Mr Gazi and his neo con ilk -‘the native informers’
Dabashi shows how intellectuals who migrate to the West are often used by the imperial powers to misrepresent their home countries. Just as many Iraqi exiles were used to justify the invasion of Iraq, Dabashi demonstrates that this is a common phenomenon, and examines why and how so many immigrant intellectuals help to sustain imperialism.
The book radically alters Edward Said’s notion of the “intellectual exile,” in order to show the negative impact of intellectual migration. Dabashi examines the ideology of cultural superiority, and provides a passionate account of how these immigrant intellectuals — rootless compradors, and guns for hire — continue to betray any notion of home or country in order to manufacture consent for imperial projects.
Here’s a review:
The anti-colonialist writer Frantz Fanon’s first book was a howl of outrage called Black Skin, White Masks, published in 1952. It explored the psychology of colonial subjects who came to identify with their oppressors.
Hamid Dabashi has written a new howl of rage with Brown Skin, White Masks against these “native informers”.
Dabashi is a radical Iranian living in New York (see interview on page 20). He sees a new version of Fanon’s happy colonial intellectuals in the academics, pundits and columnists – largely from the Muslim world – who make their living cheering on Western imperial intervention in Iraq or Afghanistan. Initially it can be confusing for a British reader as he assumes you will know the people he is attacking – writers who have become bestselling authors in the US. In the early chapters he doesn’t spend time repeating what they wrote.
But by the middle of the book he lays into two authors at some length – the Iranian writer Azar Nafisi and the commentator Ibn Warraq. Now Dabashi makes the reason for his rage very clear. He says that Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran “exemplifies the abuse of legitimate causes (in this case women’s repression), for illegitimate purposes (US global domination).”
He hates writers who the US right cites because they are from the country’s affected, but who seem to have picked up much of their knowledge from Western sources and appear unaware that there are traditions of criticism in the Muslim world. They appear unaware that “there has been scarcely a period when radical and subversive thought has not been integral to Islamic intellectual history”.
He uses Edward Said’s concept of Orientalism and combines it with Malcolm X to come up with the “house Muslim” who uses the idea of the Muslim as other to get in with the West. His polemical style sometimes uses an overly broad brush. To take one example, it is not true that the US never seriously considered using nuclear weapons between 1945 and its plans to attack Iran in 2006.
For me the most interesting section dealt with the demonisation of Barack Obama, and the shift in right wing racist dog whistles as to what is the worst thing to be – black, Arab or Muslim. “One no longer need be in Algeria to be colonised – Harlem, the Bronx and Newark will do just as well”, he says. This idea was popular with the US left in the 1960s, but is unclear what “colonisation” means as opposed to simply racism or oppression.
In the end he may be throwing in arguments from too many unrelated traditions, but the bile is refreshing and he is quite right to conclude that “the world today is more than ever divided between the overwhelming majority who are abused by capital and the very few who are its beneficiaries”.
Brown Skin, White Masks is published by Pluto, £14.99