In Black Skin, White Masks, Frantz Fanon combines autobiography, case study, philosophy, and psychoanalytic theory in order to describe and analyze the experience of Black men and women in white-controlled societies. He is especially interested in the experience of Black people from French-colonized islands in the Caribbean, like himself, who have come to live in France themselves. He explores how these people are encouraged by a racist society to want to become white, but then experience serious psychological problems because they aren't able to do so.
In Chapter 1, Fanon explores the relationship between race, language, and culture. For Fanon, language provides entry into a culture, so when someone speaks French, they are taking on the French culture. But when Black people speak French, they are always reminded they can never be fully French. Moreover, they are told they do not have a civilized language of their own, unlike people from other white European countries like Germany or Russia. In this way, language is used to make Black people feel they are uncivilized and without a history. As one consequence, Black people who have been told they are inferior may develop a kind of inferiority complex and want to become “superior” by becoming white.
This desire to become white is explored in Chapters 2 and 3, which are about interracial relationships between Black and white people. Fanon observes that Black women may take a white lover in order to get access to a white culture that has more advantages and privileges. Similarly, Black men may consider white women gatekeepers to culture, and marrying a white woman provides a feeling of having married all the beauty, education, and wealth that whiteness stands for in racist societies. But because Black people can never leave behind the fact of their Blackness, fleeing from their race is also fleeing from themselves. This leads to a loss of a sense of self and in turn a loss of agency to act in the world.
In Chapters 4 and 5, Fanon develops this analysis of the inferiority complex of Black people and the impossibility of leaving behind the fact of being Black. For Fanon, it is important to realize that Black people do not naturally feel they are inferior. Rather, this feeling is created by racism, which says whites are superior to Blacks and gives whites more economic advantages. When Black people internalize their oppression as a personal failure, this is when an inferiority complex arises. It is also constantly reinforced in everyday life in racist societies, because Black people are constantly reminded they are Black first and people second. In other words, people are reduced to their race, instead of seen as unique human individuals.
In Chapter 6, Fanon provides more specificity for what it means to be reduced to one’s race. In European societies, Fanon argues, the only cultural representations of Black people are in ways that make them seem animalistic. They are a symbol for the “biological,” which means they are primarily depicted as bodies rather than as people with minds and feelings. This also leads to be over-sexualization of Black people, because Blackness becomes associated with the biological fact of reproduction. European society is full of images of the virility and aggressiveness of Black men, for instance, from whom white women are said to need “protection.” This is one of the ways in which Blackness is depicted as an “evil Other.” Fanon says this is similar to how Jews are feared in European society. But whereas the Jew is seen as a political threat, the Black man is seen as a biological threat.
In the final chapters of Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon explores how people might move beyond this situation in which Black people are depicted as inferior and often develop a feeling of inferiority as well. He dismisses theories by other psychiatrists that would solve the neurosis of an individual Black man by asking him to adjust his expectations and face reality. Instead, he wants social solutions that transform the racist society that produced conditions of inequality to begin with. Black people need to be encouraged to transform society by demanding humanity from white people, asserting freedom, and building a future freed from the subjugation of the past.