Fanon states that it is time to assess whether psychoanalysis offers useful insight into black people’s consciousness. Psychoanalysis situates all mental and emotional problems in the context of the family. In Europe, the family is patriarchal: the father has the most power in the family, and his power represents the power of the nation on a small scale. The health of the nation depends on people living in healthy, “normal” families. Parents are entrusted with raising their children to follow social and moral rules. Children learn to submit to authority within the family environment.
In ordinary conversation, families are mostly discussed as units of love, care, and comfort. In this passage, Fanon presents the family in a notably different light: as an instrument of state power and thus of racism and sexism. This may at first seem far-fetched, but Fanon shows how children are taught to accept authority (and particularly the authority of men) through the family structure.
Fanon argues that black people do not fit into this model because “normal” black people who grow up in “normal” families will becomes “abnormal” as soon as they encounter white society. Fanon includes several passages by Freud in which Freud argues that neuroses are normally the result of not one but multiple traumas. Freud also explains that people repress the traumas that cause neurosis, which seems like a solution but in fact makes the neurosis difficult to treat. Fanon considers the possibility of a “collective unconscious” of black people, in which the conflict between the white “Master” and black slave is submerged. This means that even black people who have never personally interacted with a white person can still be psychologically damaged by the legacy of colonialism and slavery.
The notion of a “collective unconscious” may sound somewhat farfetched to some, but this concept is in fact quite widely accepted (although it is not always expressed in the psychoanalytic terms Fanon uses). For example, scientists have shown that the descendants of people who experience major trauma (such as slavery or the holocaust) “inherit” trauma through their genes. This genetic inheritance is arguably another way of understanding the idea of a collective unconscious.
Fanon suggests that the solution to this widespread psychological damage is “collective catharsis.” All societies need to have avenues through which people can express their anger. Children’s comics such as Mickey Mouse can be one such avenue, but the problem is that these cartoons were written by white people for white children. They contain racist imagery and thus cannot perform the function of catharsis for black children (even though they are beloved in the Antilles). Comics encourage black children to identify with the white heroes of the story, which sows further feelings of internal conflict and self-hatred within the black population. Fanon suggests that there should be special comics, songs, and history books designed for black children to help them avoid feelings of alienation.
Here Fanon shows that even a children’s comic like Mickey Mouse can be far from neutral. Walt Disney himself was deeply racist, and many children’s cartoons are filled with racist imagery. Furthermore, even something as seemingly innocent as a white comic hero can, as Fanon argues here, have a negative impact on black children. Although a single white hero won’t do any damage, the self-esteem of black children drops when they are not culturally represented.
Fanon argues that white families preserve and replicate society’s values and overall “structure.” He repeats the argument that Antilleans in France are forced to feel “inferior” to white people. For black people, racism is an external matter, not something that is easily repressed or forced into the unconscious. However, because white people feel guilty about racism, they do repress the issue of race. It is easy to feel as if neuroses are an inevitable part of human existence, but this is actually not true. Fanon argues that the Oedipus complex, for example, is not a black experience, perhaps because black populations tend to be more matriarchal (meaning that mothers have a more powerful role as heads of the family).
The Oedipus complex is a psychoanalytic idea which describes a sexual desire for one’s parent of the opposite sex (although it mostly refers to the dynamic between boys and their mothers). The sexual desire itself is repressed, but evidence of it lingers, such as in the form of antagonism with the same-sex parents. Although the theory is highly important within traditional psychoanalytic theory, today it is widely regarded as an overly simplistic conception of the family dynamic.
Before Césaire and Négritude, most Antilleans did not even think of themselves as black. When black people encounter white culture, they experience a psychological fragmentation and see themselves as “the Other.” Psychoanalysts believe that phobias are the result of an early trauma having to do with the mother, but Fanon questions this in the case of “negrophobia,” or fear of black people. He wonders if white women’s fear of being raped by black men is in fact a manifestation of their desire for black men. Similarly, negrophobic men might in fact be “repressed homosexuals,” afraid of their unacknowledged and illicit attraction to black men. Where anti-Semitism is based in the fear of Jewish people’s supposed ability to “take over” institutions of power, anti-black racism is rooted in fear of black people’s sexuality.
The relationship between anti-black racism and sexuality is very important. Fanon’s claim that the persecution of black people often takes on thinly-veiled sexual significance. Meanwhile, psychoanalysis is deeply concerned with sexuality, and thus fits well with this issue. However, it is also crucial to understand that the relationship between anti-black racism and sexuality doesn’t have to be understood in the psychoanalytic terms that Fanon offers here, and many would find them reductive.
This sexual element of antiblackness helps explain white people’s obsession with black athletes, whom they routinely turn into objects of erotic fantasy. White men are famously paranoid about the superiority of black men’s sexual virility. Even though this idea of superiority is obviously false, it remains powerful—like all phobias—precisely because it is irrational. Fanon emphasizes that we must understand psychoanalysis not in universal terms, but in the context of particular issues such as racism. He gives the example of the fact that anti-Semites do not castrate Jewish people—rather, castration is an act of violence used on black people specifically due to the sexual nature of anti-black racism. Black people are viewed as a “biological danger,” whereas Jewish people are seen as an “intellectual danger.”
As is clear by this point in the book, Fanon is not afraid to make sweeping generalizations. In saying that anti-Semitism is about fear of Jewish intelligence while anti-black racism is about fear of black sexuality, Fanon is not implying that there are no sexual elements to anti-Semitism or that anti-Semitic oppression has been free of sexual violence. Rather, he is point to a general pattern with the hope of beginning to make sense of how people’s prejudices translate into specific acts of violence.
Racism leads white people to associate black people with animals, biology, sex, the body, the devil, and sin. White people circulate absurd stories to perpetuate these racist stereotypes, including a story Fanon mentions having heard from a sex worker about a white woman who had sex with a black man and “lost her mind” as a result. Fanon also mentions the stereotype that white women who have slept with black men lose interest in men of their own race. Again, such stories and stereotypes are irrational, yet they are deeply powerful.
Part of what makes psychoanalysis useful in understanding racism is the fact that it focuses on explaining irrational behavior. Why do people act against their own interests, or maintain belief in something that is obviously false? Understanding people’s “pre-rational” and repressed impulses is one way of explaining irrational acts and beliefs.
Fanon notes that while his focus is on the Antilles, there are black populations living under Belgian and British colonial rule as well as independent black nations, and it is thus difficult to make generalizations about the race as a whole. One commonality, however, is that “wherever he goes, a black man remains a black man.” White people “need” black people, but will not let black people exist on their own terms. Fanon reiterates that white people’s fears about black people are irrational, and that many white people harbor masochistic fantasies about black people. He returns to the issue of white women’s desire for black men, suggesting that many white women have repressed desires to commit violence against women and thus come to fantasize about being violently harmed by black men in a sexual context.
Some feminist critics object to Fanon’s discussion of women’s desire for violence, pointing out that it seems dangerously close to the argument that women secretly want to be raped. Indeed, this fits into a larger criticism of the sexism of psychoanalytic thought. On the other hand, we don’t have to interpret Fanon as arguing that women desire rape. In light of the fact that white women are forbidden from expressing desire for black men, there is perhaps little surprise that this desire morphs into an apparent appetite for violence.
Black and Jewish people are both associated with evil within the racist white mindset, however, Fanon argues this is more acute in the case of black people. Some Jewish people internalize anti-Semitic ideas, decide to reject their own Jewishness, and will speak in a violently anti-Semitic way themselves. Fanon hopes that Black Skin, White Masks will be a “mirror” through which black people “can find the path to disalienation.” Fanon has noticed that black people are increasingly trying to universalize their own experience, which risks blinding them to the unique severity of anti-black racism.
While many different colonized and oppressed populations around the world have experienced horrifying trauma and violence, it is generally agreed that there is something uniquely severe about the persecution of black people in history. For this reason, Fanon warns against black people universalizing or comparing their own experience to that of other groups.
Fanon remains optimistic that the “collective unconscious” of black people can be transformed in the future, just as people anticipate that in 100 years’ time, the Jewish collective unconscious will be transformed after the trauma of the holocaust. He rejects the idea that the collective unconscious is the same across all humanity and that its characteristics are fixed. The transformation of the black collective unconscious will be difficult due to the intensity of anti-black racism and the need to “move slowly.” Anti-black sentiment is embedded in every aspect of European culture, linking blackness with evil, while whiteness is associated with beauty, innocence, and goodness. Black people, including Fanon himself, are coerced into feeling suspicious of their own blackness.
It can be gauge how optimistic Fanon is about the possibility of progress. Here he expresses hope in the idea that black people’s collective unconscious can be healed, and even indicates that it might take around 100 years, which—depending on how you look at it—could be a fairly optimistic prediction. Elsewhere in the book, however, Fanon writes that the only way black people will be seen as human is if the world ends as we know it. Although his message is at times hopeful, it often seems to be deeply pessimistic about the prospect of meaningful change.
In European culture, black people are the scapegoats who “shoulder the burden of original sin.” Black people internalize this idea, and when they behave morally they think of themselves as “not black.” Yet even black people who strive toward whiteness will be reminded by white people that they are not truly white. Fanon includes more quotations from Césaire’s Notebook, in which Césaire claims that he recognized the “white man” he had internalized within himself and decided to “kill him.” The “black problem” is not rooted in the coexistence of white people and black people, but in the legacy of genocide, slavery, and colonialism that was committed against black people by whites. Fanon insists that black people are not outsiders to France but “truly part of French history and its drama.”
It might seem surprising that, after such a vicious critique of European culture, Fanon still insists that black people are part of France—but he does so because he rejects any attempt to return to a precolonial period or mentality. Although colonization is a terrible crime and trauma, nothing can change the fact that it happened. The only way to work toward healing and equality, Fanon suggests, is to acknowledge and address the legacy of colonialism.
Fanon describes a case study that took place in a psychiatric hospital in France, concerning a 19-year-old woman with a nervous disorder that caused her to have involuntary tics. The woman explained that the tics normally happened while she was at work. The head doctor at the hospital prescribed waking-dream therapy, and this revealed that the woman dreamed about a “black drum” and half-naked people dancing to its rhythm. In another session, it is revealed that the people dancing are black and “look evil.” The dancers are going to “burn a white man” who hasn’t done anything wrong. An angel persuades the dancers to let the man go free. In the next session, the woman meets the “chief” of the dancers and decides to join them in their dancing. The head doctor wrote that these treatments significantly improved the woman’s health and that her tics stopped.
The case study of the young woman highlights the way that racism is deeply embedded in people’s unconscious. This woman lives in France, so her only contact with the tribal Africa she envisions in her dreams is through the racist imagery and ideas that exist in French culture. Nonetheless, these ideas—however abstract—terrify her so much that they manifest themselves in the form of nervous tics. This story is thus a demonstration of the strange, immense, and irrational power that racism wields.
In a conversation with the doctor, the young woman reveals that her father was a veteran of the French colonial army and that he used to listen to “black music” when she was a child. She became afraid of this music and the idea of black men it conjured, and her siblings would exploit this fear and play drums around her. Fanon concludes that the girl’s mental instability is the result of her fear of black men, and that although her treatments appear to be creating progress, it is unlikely that she is ready to rejoin society.
The inclusion of this case study serves as a model for how awareness of the intersection between race and psychology can help individual patients while also creating a more just society. At the same time, Fanon also highlights the limitations of psychoanalysis alone in the face of the overwhelming racism that exists in the world.