A major theme through Black Skin, White Masks is a desire on the part of Black people to be white. In Chapters 2 and 3, Fanon discusses this in relation to interracial relationships, where having a white lover seems to provide access to a formerly prohibited white world. For Fanon, the desire to be white derives from the power differential within a society. In other words, people see that white people have more opportunities and economic advantage, and they desire to become white in order to join that sphere of opportunity. However, Black people can’t actually become white. They will always be Black, according to Fanon, and so the desire to be white causes a psychological problem of losing a sense of one’s self.
Recognition by the Other
Fanon draws upon the philosophical work of Hegel and others in order to argue for the ways in which a sense of one’s self is produced by how one is seen by others. Black people, for instance, do not think of themselves as Black until someone who is white—“a white Other”—recognizes them as such and imposes a sense of inferiority upon them. This means identity categories are always produced through interaction and relationships that involved people with different social positions.
Racists Create Inferiority
An important argument to which Fanon returns more than once is that Black people don’t naturally feel inferior. Instead, their sense of inferiority is produced by racist societies. Because of the recognition involved in identity, white people create their own sense of superiority by saying Blacks are inferior. You can’t have superiority without inferiority, and Black people come to have this position. As a result, getting rid of an inferiority complex in Black people isn’t just a matter of correcting a neurosis in an individual. It requires the transformation of an entire society in which this hierarchy of inferiority and superiority is perpetuated.
Individual vs. Social Problem
Related to the previous theme, Fanon consistently critiques other philosophers and psychologists for casting a social problem as an individual problem. It is racist societies that produce neuroses in Black people, for instance, rather than these problems being “private” problems of one person or another. Psychologists who treat Black people in isolation from social context will provide bad advice; they can’t see that it is necessary to transform the entire social system in order for Black people to be able to flourish.
Black as Biological
A theme throughout cultural representations of Black people, according to Fanon, is that they are a symbol for the biological. This means that they are not thought of as thinking or feeling people, but primarily as physical bodies like animals and beasts. One consequence of this is the over-sexualization of Black people. Reduced to their bodies, they are also reduced to the purely physical and sexual side of human life. In turn, Fanon argues, this is why Black people are feared in European society. They are seen as overly sexual and therefore dangerous.
The Future vs. the Past
Much of Black Skin, White Masks is a study of how colonization and slavery have produced a sense of inferiority in Black people that also supports a feeling of white supremacy. But Fanon cautions we should not dwell on the past too long. If we continue to be determined by the past, we will keep producing a racial hierarchy. Instead, Fanon says, we have to look to the future, and must realize the freedom we have to break from the past. That means demanding justice now and, for Black people, demanding recognition by whites of their essential humanity. Act only in a way that maximizes freedom, Fanon advises, instead of in a way that continues the wrongs of the past.
Knowing vs. Acting
Because Fanon’s ultimate goal is freedom, he values action more than knowledge. That means it is more important that people have the agency than it is that people know everything there is to know about racism and racist history. In other words, he doesn’t actually think everyone needs to read his book in order to be free. Knowledge isn’t a prerequisite for action. The important thing is enhancing people’s agency.
Black Skin, White Masks Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Black Skin, White Masks is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.