Black Skin, White Masks

by

Frantz Fanon

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Black Skin, White Masks: Chapter 5 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The chapter begins with two exclamations: “Dirty nigger” and “Look! A Negro!” Fanon notes that such phrases turn black people into objects. After hearing them, he wants the person who said them to give a sign confirming that he is indeed human, but gets nothing. As long as black people remain living in black nations, they will not have to exist “for others,” an idea Fanon adapts from Hegel. Fanon argues that colonialism has destroyed people’s ability to grasp the ontology of blackness—meaning that it is impossible for people (of all races) to understand what it means to exist as a black person. This is due to the way colonialism forces black people to live in relation to white colonizers.
The concept of “ontology” is essential to understanding Fanon’s work, but its meaning can be quite difficult to grasp at first. In philosophy, ontology refers to the part of metaphysics that deals with thinking about the nature of things as they are. Thinking about blackness in ontological terms means asking questions like “What is blackness?” and “What does it really mean to be black?” Therefore, the difficulty inherent in grasping the ontology of blackness is that it has historically been defined Euro-centrically—that is, by European whites and in relation to whiteness.
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Due to this ontological erasure, black people are cut off from their own bodily experience, forced to view themselves “in the third person.” Fanon considers the cumulative effect of hearing a child on a train shout: “Look! A Negro!” over and over again, followed by “I’m scared!”. He argues that if he had only heard that phrase once it might be easy to dismiss, but hearing it multiple times leads to a complete crisis of identity. He feels self-conscious about his body and an awareness of the history of his ancestors. Fanon returns to the scene on the train, adding that the child’s mother urges Fanon to ignore the boy, saying “he doesn’t realize you’re just as civilized as we are.” Yet this does not make it any better.
Here Fanon contrasts two forms of racism: one exhibited by the child, and the other by his mother. The child has internalized racist ideas which have led him to fear black people. Because he is too young to know any different, he expresses this fear openly. The child’s mother suppresses her instinctive feelings for the sake of politeness. However, her assurance that she knows Fanon is “civilized” shows that she still associates civilization with whiteness.
Themes
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Fanon runs through all the negative stereotypes and fears about black people, before writing that the little boy now cries: “Maman, the Negro’s going to eat me.” Fanon feels crushed by whiteness and filled with anger. When a woman remarks, “Look how handsome that Negro is,” Fanon reacts with the same fury, responding: “Fuck you.” He is roused by the thought of a conflict, but is disappointed by the reality that white people respond to his righteous anger only with further rejection. He feels determined to “assert myself as a BLACK MAN.”
Again Fanon returns to the idea that expressions of kindness, desire, and love can be just as hurtful as open racism because both are often undergirded by the same racist ideas and only serve to reinforce existing power structures. The woman who comments “how handsome that Negro is” is exoticizing and fetishizing Fanon—marking him out as strange, different, and inhuman. This is why Fanon wants to assert himself as both black—the way people see him—and a man—which is manifestly not the way people see him.
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Sartre argues that Jewish people are constantly fearful of confirming anti-Semitic stereotypes, and that this fear corrupts their personalities. Yet Fanon points out that it is possible for Jews to hide or downplay their Jewishness, and that, while Jewish people have faced terrible persecution, unlike black people they do not suffer from being “trapped” in their own race in the same way, since black people cannot hide their blackness. Fanon desires nothing more than to be “unnoticed.” He feels ashamed and humiliated, and cannot even find solace in other black people, as they have internalized racist ideas and are constantly trying to make themselves white.
One of the most tragic elements of Fanon’s portrayal of black existence is the intense isolation caused by racism. Fanon feels a sense of solidarity with Jewish people, and yet remains distanced from them due to the differing nature of their oppression. Similarly, he cannot connect with black people who have chosen to reject their own blackness. These experiences show how racism creates a matrix of dimensions to the isolation felt by people of color because of racism.
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At the time Fanon is writing, there are many black doctors, teachers, and priests, so it might seem to some as if negative stereotypes about black people are dying away. However, he points out that black doctors exist in a precarious situation. If they make a single mistake it will be taken as proof that black people are not capable of being doctors at all. White people claim to hope that “color prejudice” will soon “disappear,” but Fanon must still live with the torturous knowledge that he is irrationally “despised” on account of his race. Science has now proven that there is no biological hierarchy of the races, and that, from a biological perspective, people are all the same. Yet while white people reluctantly acknowledge this, they have remained steadfast in their opposition to sexual and romantic intimacy between different races.
Here Fanon describes the way that even as racism seems to be changing, its root—the belief in white supremacy—remains the same. While there are many surface-level indicators of racial progress (such as the existence of black doctors and white people’s claims to want racism to disappear), in reality there are still powerful expectations, codes, stereotypes, and practices that reinforce the idea that black people are inferior to white people. One difference is that at the time Fanon is writing, these phenomena are perhaps more likely to be unspoken than was the case in the past.
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Examining the way that science has been used to justify racism in the past, Fanon exclaims: “Science should be ashamed of itself!” He then returns to the comparison between anti-black racism and anti-Semitism. Some people say that anti-blackness and anti-Semitism are essentially the same thing, but Fanon clarifies that while all anti-Semites are also prejudiced against black people, the reverse is not necessarily true. At a certain point, Fanon decided to take pride in his blackness and in black culture. Having been irrationally rejected by white people, Fanon refuses to participate in irrationality himself. Instead, he embraces the “bitter brotherhood” of black people.
Note that Fanon’s criticisms of science do not mean that he is rejecting science point-blank. Fanon is, after all, a scientist himself who believes that medicine, psychiatry, and the quest for truth can all play a significant role in achieving social justice. At the same time, Fanon’s relationship with science is decidedly ambivalent. At many points in history, science’s potential for good has been overshadowed by its use for sinister purposes.
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Fanon includes quotations from Césaire’s Notebook of a Return to My Native Land, the central text of Négritude. He acknowledges the power of “black magic,” eros, and rhythm, but cautions that celebrating these things can give the impression that black people are “backward” and “naïve.” Claiming that black people have a special relationship with the body and earth can in turn reveal that white people lack such a relationship. Fanon quotes an American friend who writes that when white people feel they have become too “mechanized,” they turn to black people for “human sustenance.” While it may give black people relief to be “recognized” in this way, Fanon emphasizes that this is really a false assurance.
This is the point at which Fanon really launches into his critique of Césaire. In “Notebook of a Return to My Native Land,” Césaire celebrates blackness through a surrealist lens. Yet Fanon is concerned that Césaire’s understanding of blackness can be too easily coopted by white people and used to reinforce harmful stereotypes about black culture, ultimately empowering racism rather than combatting it.
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White people often claim that black people are supposedly magical, poetic, or animalistic in nature because they are at an earlier stage of human development. Yet from his own reading Fanon knows that there were advanced black civilizations that long preceded the colonial period. Fanon quotes another passage by Césaire, in which he argues that precolonial black populations were both technically advanced and morally superior to the violent white colonizers who destroyed their way of life. However, once again Fanon points out that it is easy for white people to coopt a view like Césaire’s. White people might claim that precolonial black civilizations were gentle and kind in the same way that children are gentle and kind, and that, again, this is because black people are at an earlier stage of development than whites.
Fanon spends a great deal of time refuting arguments whose falseness and racism probably seems painfully clear to modern readers. However, some might respond to Fanon’s critique of Césaire by claiming that he is too cynical, and that even the most revolutionary thinking can be coopted to reinforce the status quo. Fanon is highlighting the way that everyone—even preeminent anti-colonial intellectuals like Césaire—has been influenced by colonial ideology. Ridding one’s mind of that ideology requires rigor and arguably even a bit of paranoia.
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Fanon moves on to quote Sartre’s critique of the fact that followers of Négritude tend to be “militant Marxists,” who substitute a focus on the issue of race for the more universal issue of class. Fanon admits that when he first read Sartre’s words, he was deeply hurt. Although Sartre goes on to suggest that black people embrace Négritude anyway, Fanon finds this patronizing and not at all reassuring. Fanon is left with a feeling of total loss, and re-emphasizes that “the black man suffers in his body quite differently from the white man.” Black people suffer from the feeling that they do not exist, and live in fear of themselves. Fanon is determined to embrace the depth and fullness of his own existence in spite of racism. However, this is difficult and painful.
Sartre’s critique of Négritude might seem confusing at first—since he accuses the first artistic-political movement to celebrate the black diaspora of prioritizing class over race. Although this may sound unlikely, later generations of anti-colonial theorists have reiterated Sartre’s point, and even Césaire himself reversed his position soon after “Discourse on Colonialism” was published. While Césaire was once optimistic about a global interracial working class fighting in solidarity for change, over time he lost this sense of optimism.
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