Black Skin, White Masks

Black Skin, White Masks Summary and Analysis of Chapter 6

Summary of Chapter 6

Chapter 6, “The Negro and Psychopathology” is probably the most widely cited chapter of Black Skin, White Masks, because it provides a clear explanation of how racism and colonialism affect the psychology of Black people. “Pathology” refers to an abnormality or disease; “psychopathology” is, thus, a disturbance or problem in a person’s psychological makeup, or how a person thinks about themselves and their world. Fanon’s argument in this chapter, drawing on his own experience as a psychoanalyst, is that many of the psychological problems faced by Black people are caused by racism.

The major dynamic throughout this chapter concerns the relationship between Black people and cultural representations of Blackness. Fanon starts by exploring the cultural stories children are exposed to. Every society, Fanon argues, has stories about adventure. In reading these stories, children naturally identify with the hero. In racist societies, the hero is white. That means that even in the Antilles, where the majority of people are Black, all the stories about explorers are still about white people, because the culture is controlled by France. Black children, too, read these stories and naturally identify with the white explorer. But as they grow up and realize they are Black, not white, this form of identification causes a crisis. Children realize they were not a hero all along, but a savage belonging to the unexplored lands the hero is discovering. Thus, already at an early age, Black children experience a psychological disturbance that is a product of the white culture they are a part of.

As a consequence of cultural representations in which the hero is always white, the Black person who first identified with the white hero now wants to become white himself. There aren’t representations of Black heroes; to become a hero, you have to become white. Many of the psychological disturbances created by this dynamic were explored in Chapters 2 and 3. As Fanon showed there and now points out again, the desire to become white is a desire not to be one’s self. As a result, the self loses the ability to act in the world. People lose a sense of self and therefore lose agency.

So far, Fanon has discussed representations of white people and how Black people want to become white because these representations are the only ones in which there are heroes to identify with. Now Fanon explores the question: if Black people aren’t depicted as heroes, how are they depicted? He discovers that representations of Black people are almost always as a kind of beast. White people, confronted with Blackness, cast this otherness as a difference in species. Black people’s difference makes them subhuman in a racist society. Therefore, Black people are represented as animalistic, irrational, and dominated by physical desire.

This contributes as well to the over-sexualization of Black people in cultural representations. In the racist imagination, according to Fanon, white people have minds but Black people are primarily bodies. They are reduced to symbolizing the “biological.” By this, Fanon means the purely bodily side of human life. Because human life is produced by and through sex, the Black man is reduced to his penis in white culture. White people fear the Black “beast” who is considered to have a larger penis and more virile sexuality. White women, in turn, need to be “protected” from Black men. In the racist imagination, Black men are walking genitals, according to Fanon. This is the natural consequence of treating Black people are beasts with different and frightening bodies.

Fanon compares racism against Black people with anti-Semitism against Jews. Here, he draws upon the work of Jean-Paul Sartre, a French philosopher with whom Fanon corresponded. Sartre explores how European society turns the Jew into an “Other” in a way that parallels Fanon's exploration of how it turns the Black into an “Other.” But there are different ways of making this Other. The Jew is not over-sexualized in the same way that Black people are. Whereas the racist thinks that white women need to be protected from Black rapists, the anti-Semite thinks white society needs to be protected from Jewish merchants and schemers. In the racist imagination, Black men need to be castrated, their genitals cut off in order to eliminate the sexual threat. The same is not the case for Jews, because their threat to society is not considered sexually.

Despite this difference, Blacks and Jews experience a common condition in European society of being cast as “Evil.” The two groups have different relations to sexualization. But they are the same in European society in that they are Other to everything European society claims to value. It is also because Blackness stands in for Evil that racism continues to justify itself. Black people deserve to be subjugated, according to the racist, because they are not only inferior, but evil. And because the Black person is primarily reduced to a body in racist cultures, the Black person is not only a symbol for Evil, but also for Ugliness. Black people are not only “other” to good, but also other to “beauty.” This, too, justifies their continued oppression, according to racist cultural ideas.

Analysis of Chapter 6

In this chapter, Fanon continues to show the range of his knowledge and expertise. In the previous chapters, he used psychoanalysis to explore romantic relationships and the effects of colonialism. Thus, he combined a historical perspective with a psychological perspective, in order to explain the experience of a group of people. Now, he is exploring cultural representations as well. This requires him to survey and explain everything from children’s stories to propaganda in colonial and French contexts alike.

Fanon is writing before the creation in academia of what has come to be called “cultural studies.” This area of study examines how cultural products including books, novels, and photographs create different ideologies or perspectives. Black Skin, White Masks is a powerful contribution to this area of study before its time, because Fanon analyzes and unpacks the racially-charged cultural messages in a range of cultural products and media.

Implicitly, there are two at least two ways of thinking about the relation between cultural images and a culture as a whole. On the one hand, images that depict the over-sexualization of Black people, for instance, express the way the culture as a whole thinks about Black people. Thus, cultural products are “symptomatic” of the cultures they come from. By reading these products, we can discover what people in that culture think or feel: in this case, their racist ideologies.

On the other hand, cultural products also go into shaping and creating culture itself. Thus, the lack of Black people in cultural representations goes into making the culture as a whole white, excluding people of color. This is why Black children feel excluded from culture. They have no images that allow themselves to see themselves as people who matter in the world. In turn, racism is reinforced, because the race of children determines the kinds of access they have to representation and a sense of agency.

The connections Fanon makes between the Black and Jewish experience are controversial, but they most importantly help to show the intellectual landscape in which Fanon was writing. In the 1950s and 1960s, Jean-Paul Sartre and the existential school of thought to which he belonged dominated the French intellectual scene. By discussing him, Fanon positions himself in a place of relevance and importance in French philosophy. But by showing how Sartre cannot by himself explain the Black experience, Fanon also shows the need for further study and elaboration. Fanon shows that no one school of thought is adequate for thinking about racism. That is another reason he has drawn from so many different traditions, from psychoanalysis to cultural study.