Black Skin, White Masks

Black Skin, White Masks Summary and Analysis of Chapters 7 – 8

Summary of Chapters 7 – 8

The final two chapters of Black Skin, White Masks move Fanon’s discussion from a psychological study of the present into a political discussion of the future. Many of the themes of these chapters have already been hinted at in the previous chapters, in particular the ways in which society needs to be transformed in order for Black people to be freed from wanting to become white, in turn freeing them from the psychological problems this entails. Now, Fanon brings together the various threads of his argument into a discussion of how this might be done.

Chapter 7 is on “Recognition,” a technical term that Fanon explores through the work of two thinkers: Alfred Adler and Georg Hegel. Adler was a psychotherapist and Hegel was a philosopher known for his “dialectical method” in which two things that are contradictory are brought into relation. In both cases, recognition refers to a process by which people come into awareness of themselves through awareness of an other. In other words, people come to have a sense of identity by being "recognized" by the “Other.” Remember from previous chapters that, according to Fanon, Black people do not think of themselves as Black until confronted by a white Other that imposes a racial distinction. Henceforth, Black people always compare themselves to white people. It is this kind of comparison, and of seeing one’s self through white eyes, that leads to problems of inferiority and pathology as discussed earlier.

For Adler, any kind of psychological problem related to recognition is by definition an individual problem. An individual comes into contact with someone else and judges one’s self in relation to them. The problem arises when someone wants to become something he is not, for instance when a Black person wants to become a white person. The cure is to reveal to this person the pathology of this desire so that they can give it up. In the case of race, that means telling a Black person simply to give up their desire to become white and accept that they are Black.

Fanon disagrees with Adler’s conclusions, although he agrees with some of his psychological principles. In effect, Fanon thinks Adler’s psychological picture is ultimately insufficient for explaining the experience of Black people, because the problem isn’t just individual. Black people want to be white not because of an individual neurosis, but because of the social conditions that make whiteness more advantageous than Blackness. Thus, to cure this neurosis, we have to change the society that makes white better than Black. Only then can individuals, too, be freed of their neurosis. We should cure society, Fanon argues, rather than one individual at a time.

For Hegel, every identity is constituted through its opposite. We already saw what this means in the context of race. Black doesn’t exist as an identity until Black people encounter white people. If you never encounter someone different from you, you don’t think of yourself as a race but simply as a human. An identity is formed through being different from something else. Although Fanon generally agrees with this “dialectical” picture, he is worried about the fundamentally passive and reactionary role this gives to people. It makes it seem like Black people will always be stuck being defined in opposition to a whiteness that has more power. In contrast, Fanon wants to discover ways to “educate man to be actional.” The key is to make it possible for people to transform the world that defines them.

In Chapter 8, “By Way of Conclusion,” Fanon explores what these ways of educating men might look like. He acknowledges that it will look different in different places. In contexts that are closer to slavery, you can’t teach a Black person through ideas alone. Rather, Black people learn to assert their own dignity through fighting back against oppression. This sense of self-worth has to be discovered, not taught. But learning a sense of self-worth also requires moving beyond thinking of one’s self as a slave. In modern contexts, that means freeing one’s self of the past. Black people have to start living in the present instead. This means two things. First, it means not thinking the disempowerment of the past is necessary and natural and should continue. Second, it means not relying on some alternative sense of a Black cultural history. The key is not to revive some mythical past, but to create a new future.

The main theme through this final chapter is freedom. What Fanon is after is the assertion of human freedom, which means making choices that enhance a sense of agency. Always referring to the past locks people into passivity, removing them from acting today. Instead, Fanon says it is his task, and the task of other people of color, to demand recognition from white people today as human. This sense of demand enhances human freedom because it is made through freedom. It is not a passive desire for recognition, but an active demand made every day through the persistence of living as someone who is different but not inferior.

Analysis of Chapters 7 – 8

These last to chapters of Black Skin, White Masks are stylistically a bit of a departure from the previous book, and it is interesting to explore how and why. Chapter 7 is a much more focused and academic discussion of two thinkers, Adler and Hegel. It departs from previous chapters because it reads more like a work of philosophy than some of the more poetic parts of the book. In this way, Fanon shows the serious intellectual interventions the experience of Black people can also provide to Western philosophy as a whole. Fanon isn’t just explaining the Black experience, but also using that experience to explain and intervene in important parts of Western philosophy.

Chapter 8 moves away from this more academic framing to a once again more poetic style in line with the Introduction. But here, Fanon is taking on more of an activist voice. He is concluding Black Skin, White Masks with a call to action. Moreover, he is addressing the Black community more explicitly than he did in the previous chapters. He is rallying people to address the racism they experience in everyday life.

This call to action is something Fanon went on to practice himself. Shortly after the publication of Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon moved to Algeria, where he also supported the efforts of African rebels who were seeking independence from France. This is a different continental context than the one Fanon explores in the book, which has focused more on the experience of Black people from the Caribbean than those from Africa. But in both contexts, Fanon protests the treatment of Black people by white French society.

Considering how Fanon went on to live out the conclusion of his book, it is interesting to consider how Black Skin, White Masks as a whole has been structured as a kind of autobiographical work. Earlier chapters on interracial romance seem to be informed by Fanon’s own experience as a Black person in France, just as the images explored in the chapter on cultural representations of Black people draw upon the stories he had access to as a child in the Antilles. Throughout, Fanon draws from his experience. He is trying to understand not only society, but also himself and the kinds of difficulties he has faced, economically and psychologically, because of racism.

Another way of looking at the relation between autobiography and theory in this book is to consider individuality vs. collective. On the one hand, Fanon tells his own story, and it is important that he be seen as an individual, not just a representative of his race like in in “Look! A Negro!” On the other hand, he is trying to understand how his experience is shared by others because of his subject position. The difficult balance he is trying to achieve is showing how societies create a system in which people have similar experiences while preserving the individuality of each person within that system.