Fanon places huge importance on language. He argues that black people exist in two modes: one when they are around other black people, and the other when they are in the company of whites. In this chapter, he will outline the way that black Antilleans become “whiter” through their absorption into the French language. All colonized people are forced to think of themselves in relation to the language and culture of the colonizers, and are taught to consider the colonizing country as vastly superior to their own homeland. Antilleans who travel to the major cities of the colonizing country and assimilate into the colonial culture are treated with awe by those who do not leave the Antilles. They stop speaking Creole, using it only to communicate with servants; other Antilleans will describe them as “almost white.”
The importance of language as a vehicle for colonial oppression is one of the most important themes in postcolonial studies. As Fanon shows, language is not simply a neutral tool through which people express themselves: rather, language gives people a sense of their own identity. When Antilleans who go to France stop speaking Creole except to servants, it is as if they have assumed the identity of the colonizer (even though their race means that they will never actually be in the colonizer’s position).
Antilleans who spend time in France imitate the “correct” pronunciation of the French language to a degree that is at times almost comic. Fanon would like to see a study of the way that black people’s psychological state changes after only one month in France, and believes it is important to address the issue of narcissism. He argues that France casts a “spell” on black people in the colonies, due to the fact that everyone who occupies a position of authority in the colonies originates from France. When Antilleans return from France, they deliberately “forget” the way things work in their homeland, are highly critical of their countrymen, and behave in an authoritative manner.
Here Fanon elaborates on the idea that colonialism encourages the colonized population to aspire to the experience and position of the oppressor, the end result of which is nothing less than the complete alienation of the colonized population from their own heritage, culture, and way of life. This is one of the most significant ways that colonialism promotes feelings of self-hatred among the colonized population.
Fanon reemphasizes the way that returnees from France speak in a new language, and points out that this is not just true of people from the Antilles but in fact all colonized peoples. Black people from the Caribbean tend to think of themselves as superior to Africans, because they are closer to French culture and thus to whiteness. For example, there is no solidarity between Antilleans and Africans who are serving in the army. Instead, Antilleans align themselves with the white Frenchmen. Black citizens of different nations within the Caribbean also feel superior to one another—for example, some Martinicans feel that they are better than Guadeloupeans.
As you can imagine, Fanon thinks the competitiveness and lack of solidarity between black people (and even between different black Caribbean populations) is pointless and harmful. Note that the idea of racial (or ethnic, national, tribal) superiority is not unique to Western colonialism. Still, the terrible power of Western empire is to blame for greatly exacerbating this issue among colonized populations.
Fanon brings up the common stereotype that black men are like children, but argues that the problem of the inferiority complex is far more complicated than this. Antilleans speak “correct” French in order to prove themselves to whites, and as schoolchildren they are forbidden by their teachers from speaking Creole. While many black people feel pressured to prove their intelligence to whites, Fanon emphatically states that philosophy and intelligence “never saved anybody.” While he is describing black people who have become “alienated” because of colonialism, it is important to remember that white people are equally alienated.
Fanon’s statement that “intelligence never saved anybody” may appear confusing, given that elsewhere in the book he emphasizes the importance of intellectual thought in undoing the damage of colonialism and racism. However, at this moment Fanon is rejecting the myth that if only black people were able to “prove” their intelligence to whites, their persecution would end.
Fanon speaks from a position of curiosity and inquiry. He knows that the history of black people “takes place in obscurity” and that he must therefore illuminate this history himself. Some people try to prove the equality of the races by appealing to religion, love, and generosity, but this is not Fanon’s goal. Instead, he is trying to “liberate” black people from the psychological oppression caused by colonialism. Frequently, a white person will speak pidgin to a black person, supposedly out of kindness and generosity—while in reality it is deeply patronizing toward the black person. White people will protest that there is no harm meant, but this is not the point. The effect is that the black person feels his very self disappearing. When white people speak pidgin, the aim to remind black people to remain in their position of inferiority.
Fanon is not convinced by the idea that kindness, generosity, and love are enough to fix racism. As he shows in this passage, white people can claim (and perhaps they sincerely believe) that they are acting in a kind manner to black people. However, racism is so deeply entrenched in people’s psychology that it is often not enough to simply try to be kind (or claim that you are being kind). Instead, people must understand how their way of thinking has been shaped by racism and then actively work to undo this. In the example Fanon gives, the white person’s act of “kindness” only serves to reaffirm existing power structures.
When Fanon speaks to a non-French white person who has only a limited command of French, he communicates in a simple manner while reminding himself that this person has a language and culture of their own. Yet within the colonial mindset, black people do not have a culture of their own, and are understood only in terms of racist stereotypes invented by white people. These stereotypes are conveyed through books, movies, and other elements of culture, and their impact is to trap black people within a false image of themselves. Black people who defy these stereotypes—for example, by being highly intellectual—are treated with suspicion.
One of the major themes of “Black Skin, White Masks” is the idea that black people are excluded from the category of humanity within the colonial mindset and are thus not treated with the basic decency and respect that all humans deserve. Indeed, this becomes something of a vicious cycle, because the more whites treat black people as less than human, the less convinced they become that black people are human.
White people fear that if black people are well-educated, they will revolt against white supremacy (particularly if they are reading authors who challenge existing power structures, such as Marx). Fanon notes that some Antilleans who return from France continue to speak Creole and deliberately try to make it seem as if “nothing has changed,” yet this act is unlikely to last long, since the returnee in fact has changed. Fanon argues that Antilleans who wish to become white will achieve this aim in the sense that, through their use of the French language, they can appropriate French culture. He recalls being told by a white Frenchman that he was “basically… a white man” because he had been speaking about French poetry.
In this passage, Fanon highlights both the positive and negative ways in which knowledge can be used—as a tool and a weapon. On the one hand, knowledge of radical political theory (such as the writing of Marx) may help empower people to fight oppression. On the other, colonial societies associate intelligence with whiteness, and thus when someone like Fanon reveals his high level of intellect and education, he will be told that he is “basically” white.
Black people speak French in order to enter spaces and unlock opportunities from which they’d otherwise be excluded, but also to prove themselves to white people. When Aimé Césaire was running for office in 1945, his speech was so powerful it made some audience members fall on the floor convulsing. Some have said that Césaire has a command over the French language unmatched by any white person, and Fanon comments that if this is true, it shouldn’t really be surprising considering Césaire is “a Martinican with a university agrégation.”
Throughout the book, Fanon repeatedly argues that as a result of colonialism, European culture no longer “belongs” only to white Europeans but equally to colonized populations. Therefore, to suggest that there is anything surprising or exceptional about Césaire’s masterful command of French wrongly implies that French culture and language belong exclusively to white French people.