In the introduction, Fanon reflects on why he chose to write Black Skin, White Masks. He argues that in order to understand racism, we must ask what “man” wants and what “the black man” wants. Fanon seeks to understand the relationship between white and black people, and argues that both groups are trapped within their own racial identities. He argues that psychoanalysis is a useful tool for understanding the black experience, and that, through analysis, it is possible to “destroy” the enormous psychological complex that has developed as a result of colonialism. He gives an overview of each chapter and ends by emphasizing that it is difficult to understand the true nature of black experience because white society has created so many harmful myths about black people.
In Chapter 1, Fanon describes the experience of black Antilleans who travel to France and become “whiter” by assimilating into the colonial culture and language. Fanon explains that when these Antilleans return to their homeland they and are treated as superior, which encourages them to act in a haughty manner. Many black people try desperately hard to “prove” their intelligence to whites, but Fanon warns this is pointless, arguing that intelligence alone “never saved anybody.” When a white person speaks to a black person in pidgin, the black person feels their entire sense of self disappearing, since speaking pidgin is a subtle—if unintentional—way that whites remind black people of their inferior status in the colonial order. White people fear well-educated black people, especially those who read revolutionary writing such as the work of Karl Marx. Fanon concludes the chapter by pointing out that some say Aimé Césaire has a more skillful command of the French language than any white Frenchman. Fanon sates that, if this is true, it shouldn’t be surprising, since the people of French colonies have just as much of a claim to being French as a white Frenchman does.
Chapter 2 examines Mayotte Capécia’s autobiographical novel I Am a Martinican Woman, about a black woman obsessed with marrying a white man even though she knows that white men will always see her as inferior to them. The novel is very popular, but Fanon disapproves of it because it advocates “unhealthy behavior.” In colonial culture, whiteness is associated with virtue and beauty, and Martinican women like Mayotte have been taught to believe that they can “save” their race by making themselves whiter. They come to feel desperate for white approval, which leads them to act in irrational and self-sabotaging ways. Fanon then turns to a novel called Nini by Abdoulaye Sadji. The titular character of this book is a biracial Senegalese woman who rejects the advances of a black man even though he is devoted to her, because she wants to marry a white person. Fanon argues that Nini shows how black women internalize racist ideas which they direct at black men and ultimately also at themselves.
In Chapter 3, Fanon looks at the reverse situation: black men who want to sleep with white women. This time he uses René Maran’s autobiographical novel A Man Like Any Other, about a black Antillean named Jean Veneuse who lives in Bordeaux, France. Jean is talented but neurotic, desperate to prove himself to others. He is in love with a white woman, and although he has white friends who accept him, they do so on the condition of him renouncing his blackness—which only causes him further psychological torment. Fanon considers the fact that many black men desire white women because they want to engage in the vengeful act of “dominating a European woman.” Fanon argues that Jean suffers from an abandonment neurosis, which is described by the psychoanalyst Germaine Guex. However, Fanon clarifies that Jean experiences this neurosis differently than a white person would, and that understandings of the abandonment neurosis have to be adapted given this context.
In Chapter 4, Fanon discusses Octave Mannoni’s book The Psychology of Colonization, in which Mannoni analyzes the psychological relationship between the colonizer and colonized. Fanon criticizes Mannoni’s argument that the inferiority complex of colonized people originates naturally in early childhood, arguing instead that the inferiority complex is a direct consequence of colonization. Fanon then examines the ways in which, even among people of color, different ethnicities, nationalities, and religions are encouraged to feel superior to one another. This ultimately helps to maintain the power structure of white supremacy. He rejects Mannoni’s argument that the best sides of European culture are not responsible for colonialism, arguing instead that all of Europe is complicit in colonial violence. He also rejects Mannoni’s claim that Malagasy people did not have a sense of their own identity prior to colonization, pointing out that instead colonization destroyed Malagasy people’s existing culture and identity. He concludes that Mannoni does not truly understand Malagasy culture or have any sense of what this culture could be like if liberated from colonial oppression.
Chapter 5 begins with the most famous passage in the book, in which Fanon describes sitting on the train and hearing a white child fearfully exclaim: “Look! A Negro!”. This interaction is deeply painful for Fanon, who feels an enormous sense of anger in response to the child’s fear of him. He describes how racism can engender a feeling of alienation from one’s own body. Quoting from Jean-Paul Sartre’s argument about the corrosive impact of anti-Semitic stereotypes on Jewish people, Fanon points out that while Jewish people can downplay or renounce their Jewishness, black people can never escape their blackness. Fanon examines the history of how science was used to justify racism, arguing that “science should be ashamed of itself.” He moves on to critique the artistic movement known as Négritude, stating that the attempt to reimagine a mystical, precolonial black culture ultimately won’t help black people in the present—and that certain aspects of Négritude also ironically confirm racist stereotypes about black people.
In Chapter 6 Fanon evaluates whether psychoanalytic concepts can be usefully applied to the black experience. He argues that the family lives and early childhoods of white people are different from those of black people simply by virtue of racism and colonialism, and therefore many of the predominant psychoanalytic theories developed by white Europeans don’t hold true for many people of color. Fanon affirms the existence of a “collective unconscious” of black people and argues that the only way for black people to be healed from the psychological damage of colonialism is through “collective catharsis.” Fanon critiques the psychoanalytic idea that all phobias are necessarily caused by childhood traumas. In the case of negrophobia––fear or hatred of black people––the problem is actually rooted in racist colonial culture. At the same time, psychoanalytic theory states that phobias are ultimately sexual in nature, and Fanon believes this to be true in the case of anti-black racism, pointing out that anti-black violence is often sexual in nature. Fanon hopes that over time, the black “collective unconscious” will heal and black people will not feel so profoundly alienated. He concludes the chapter with a case study of a white woman who suffered from tics, which—through psychiatric treatment—were diagnosed as a symptom of her fear of black people.
Chapter 7 considers the work of the psychoanalyst Alfred Adler. Fanon supports certain aspects of Adler’s writing while noting that Adler views psychology too much in individual terms, without considering societal issues like racism. Fanon argues that the whole of the Antilles is a “neurotic society” as a direct result of colonialism. He considers the ways in which the psychological dynamic of master and slave still lingers today, even after slavery has been abolished.
In the concluding chapter, Fanon admits that different colonized populations from around the world will need their own, specific solutions to the problems he has identified. He points out that appealing to dignity and reason alone will never change the world—and in some cases, conflict will be necessary. He resolves not to become obsessed with the past but instead focus on the present, and he dedicates himself to ensuring that no one will ever be enslaved again. He concludes with an appeal to true open-mindedness and a prayer that he will always be “a man who questions.”