Black Skin, White Masks

Black Skin, White Masks Summary and Analysis of Chapters 4 – 5

Summary of Chapters 4 – 5

Chapters 4 and 5 expand somewhat on the themes explored in the previous two chapters on interracial romance. Now, Fanon turns his attention to the experience of Black people in colonial or white societies beyond romance. In particular, he explores how interracial contact creates conditions of inferiority and superiority in Black and white people, respectively. Fanon wants to know how this hierarchy is created and how it is enforced.

In the previous chapters, Fanon developed his analysis through discussions of novels. Now, he develops his analysis through discussion of a theoretical work by M. Mannoni called Prospero and Caliban: Psychology of Colonization. The purpose of this book was to explain the psychological conditions of colonialism, in other words what kinds of mentality Black and white people have in colonial societies. Fanon is sympathetic to Mannoni’s writing, but he has one major disagreement. For Mannoni, Black people have an inferiority complex that colonialism builds upon. In other words, Black people submit to colonialism because they already had a feeling of inferiority. In contrast, Fanon argues that colonialism produces this feeling of inferiority. There can be no inferiority complex without white people creating it.

Thus, for Fanon, the important task is not so much exploring the inferiority complex itself, but rather showing how a “racist” society produces feelings of inferiority. For Fanon, a racist society is any society that treats one race as inferior to another. Fanon notes a trend of deciding the extent to which a society is racist: some societies are more racist than others, people claim, and within France some regions are more racist than others. To Fanon, this question of degree is foolish. Either a society is racist or it is not. There are no degrees of inhumanity.

Fanon also rejects a premise in Mannoni’s book that a feeling of inferiority is related to being a minority in a population. For Fanon, this is disproved by the fact that white people are often minorities in colonial contexts, but they never feel inferior. Instead, they use their minority status to establish their superiority, like a god among men. Whether in a minority or majority, white people create their own superiority by creating the inferiority of Black people. The colonizer divides up a society into white and Black and assigns higher value to the former. This means that any inferiority Black people experience is because of their status as belonging to a disempowered group. The psychological problem is created from a social problem of unequal power.

In this way, Fanon refutes the so-called “dependency” theory in which Black people are colonized because they naturally feel inferior and therefore want to be subjugated. In Chapter 5, Fanon explores further how, rather than feeling naturally inferior, Black people do not even think of themselves as Black until a white racist society imposes that categorization. Humans just feel they are human until someone else comes along to say they are subhuman because they are “black men” rather than just men. It is when Black people have to encounter white people, and white people enforce that they are different from Black people, that a crippling sense of self-consciousness and self-doubt enters into their minds.

In a racist society, in other words, Black individuals no longer think of themselves as unique individuals, but as Black. Every individual starts to appear as a representative of the group. As Fanon puts it when someone on the streets in France says, “Look, a Negro!” thus putting him into a position as a group rather than an individual: “I was responsible at the same time for my body, for my race, for my ancestors.” This is dehumanizing because it deprives Black people of the experience of being a unique human being. Instead they are objectified and reduced to being only their race.

In contrast to this dialectical position, in which “Black” is defined in opposition to a “white” that is considered superior, Fanon argues for thinking of Blackness as “immanent.” That means it doesn’t have to be defined in relation to whiteness. This means thinking of one’s self as what one “is” instead of what one “is not.” Traditionally, Black has been defined as “not white.” Instead, Fanon begins to reflect on his consciousness and identify his race as not being inferior to something else, but as being a value in its own right. Only with this sense can Black people begin to move beyond wanting to become white, which leads to the psychological problems Fanon explores in the next chapter.

Analysis of Chapters 4 – 5

In this chapter, Fanon critiques more popular and influential theories about the inferiority complexes of Black people. He wants to denaturalize and de-essentialize these theories. Denaturalization means making them unfamiliar, so we don’t take them for granted as describing a natural state of affairs. De-essentializing means getting rid of theories that seek to describe a universal or essential essence within a race. Fanon wants to show that the ways Black people feel are neither natural nor essential. Rather, they are created by the societies in which they live.

In making such an argument, Fanon has to balance a more historical and a more psychoanalytic approach. He wants to show that psychology is historically determined, or shaped by the forces of history. Psychology changes with the historical introduction of colonialism, for instance. But there is surprisingly little history in these chapters, or even in this book. Rather, a closer look at the history of colonialism will have to wait for Fanon’s later book, The Wretched of the Earth. We compare that book with Black Skin, White Masks, in a separate section of this study guide.

For now, it is important to realize the specific context of colonialism. Fanon is writing as a Black Caribbean who has come to France. Most of his analysis in the previous chapters, too, focused on the Antilles, a group of islands in the Caribbean. This is a different context than the African colonial one that Fanon writes about in later books. There are also different histories of slavery in each context, and Fanon would ask us not to conflate these different histories. At the same time, in French society, all Black people are considered the same. French society might not distinguish between Caribbean and African Blacks. Thus, there is a tension between respecting different histories and responding to the fact that French society itself often does not.

In other words, one of the things Fanon is discussing in these chapters it the difference between perception and reality, which is related to the difference between how one identifies and how one is perceived. Often, psychological problems result from a tension between these two. A person feels French, but others feel they are not French: which version of reality is to be believed? How is one to identify when one’s sense of self is different from other’s perception of one’s self? It is in this dynamic between self and other that identity develops.

Although the main historical conflict in these chapters is between white and Black, the main psychological conflict is therefore between individuality and collectivity. The problem is that when someone belongs to a minority in France, they are perceived less as an individual and more as a representative of the entire minority. One is not Frantz Fanon, but simply “a Negro.” Part of the desire to become white, then, might actually be a desire to become an individual, to assert one’s own integrity as a person. Black people don’t have the privilege of that experience, because their individuality is reduced to a social group.