Black Skin, White Masks

Black Skin, White Masks Irony

Irony of Language

In Chapter 1, Fanon discusses the relationship between language and culture. He says that speaking a language is joining the culture from which that language comes. But there is a certain irony in how this is perceived when a Black person speaks French in France:

To speak a language is to take on a world, a culture. The Antilles Negro who wants to be white will be the whiter as he gains greater mastery of the cultural tool that language is. Rather more than a year ago in Lyon, I remember, in a lecture I had drawn a parallel between Negro and European poetry, and a French acquaintance told me enthusiastically, “At bottom you are a white man.” The fact that I had been able to investigate so interesting a problem through the white man’s language gave me honorary citizenship. (25)

The irony here is that Fanon is expressing his Blackness in a white language. The content of what he says is about the Black experience, but because it comes in the form of French, it is sometimes heard as whiteness. This is the peculiar way in which language can at the same time hide, transform, and police identity.

Irony of the Double Bind

Black Skin, White Masks is full of sometimes-bitter ironies, in which a desire or possibility that had seemed promising ends up becoming a burden or a curse. One example is the desire to become white that Fanon observes in many Black people. The irony is that this desire produces a lose-lose situation:

The Negro’s behavior makes him akin to an obsessive neurotic type, or, if one prefers, he puts himself into a complete situational neurosis. In the man of color there is a constant effort to run away from his own individuality, to annihilate his own presence. Whenever a man of color protests, there is alienation. Whenever a man of color rebukes, there is alienation. (43)

The Black man thinks that becoming white will give him more advantages. But becoming white will require him to lose a sense of himself, and therefore enter a position in which he is not psychologically able to exercise advantages. This is the bitter reality of the psychopathology Fanon discusses.

Irony of the Minority

Irony can sometimes be produced when something unexpected happens, or when things turn out differently than predicted. One such irony is in the discussion of inferiority and minority status. Other philosophers, such as M. Mannoni, have claimed that people feel inferior because they are a minority in a culture. But ironically, Fanon claims, white people tend to feel superior precisely because they are a minority in a culture:

Once again one asks the author to be somewhat more careful. A white man in a colony has never felt inferior in any respect; as M. Mannoni expresses it so well, “He will be deified or devoured.” The colonial, even though he is “in the minority,” does not feel that this makes him inferior. In Martinique there are two hundred whites who consider themselves superior to 300,000 people of color. In South Africa there are two million whites 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. (68)

Thus, the population of a group can’t determine the kind of hierarchical position they take up in a society. Instead, it is racism that produces this hierarchy.