In the broadest sense, Black Skin, White Masks is a book about the powerful effects of colonialism on life in the 20th century. Fanon examines colonialism’s impact on black as well as white people in both colonized (or formerly colonized) regions such as the Caribbean, and in the countries of the colonizers, such as France. While the 20th century saw the official end of most of the Western empires that controlled vast stretches of the world, Fanon shows that the legacy of colonialism continues to determine the way that people experience reality in the present. In particular, he focuses on the experience of diaspora and the feelings of alienation that colonialism engenders within colonized peoples, including both those who stay in their homeland or those who, like Fanon, live in the country of the colonizers.
Fanon argues that colonization strips colonized people of their culture, identity, and oftentimes even a sense of their own existence, leaving them in a state of profound alienation. Throughout the book, he emphasizes that black people are forced to exist “in relation” or “in comparison” to whiteness. Fanon writes that the crippling effect is that this makes it nearly impossible for anyone to define what blackness means in and of itself. As a result, many black people spend their lives trying to prove themselves “less black” than other black people, and to prove themselves “basically white” to white people—all of which further confuses their sense of self and troubles their relationships to black and white people alike.
Fanon expresses his own struggle to feel a sense of home and belonging, pointing out the ways in which colonialism is to blame for his sense of alienation. As a child educated in the French Caribbean colony of Martinique, he was taught to identify with French culture and to reject the parts of him that make him “other”—in essence, to dis-identify with his blackness and his history as a member of the African diaspora. Fanon illustrates this point by making the incendiary claim them that “subjectively and intellectually the Antillean behaves like a white man. But in fact he is a black man. He'll realize that once he gets to Europe.”
As an adult in France, Fanon is faced with constant reminders that he is not “really” French—and he takes a fierce stand against this idea in the book. He insists: “I am interested in French culture, French civilization, and the French. We refuse to be treated as outsiders; we are well and truly part of French history and its drama.” Fanon does not advocate a “post-racial” denial that non-white people from French colonies are the exact same as white French people. Rather, he argues that their existence is just as much part of France as that of French whites. France’s colonial history and the lives of its colonized peoples are not a minor footnote. Rather, they are a central, intrinsic part of French culture. Fanon has just as much right to identify as French as any white person.
Fanon also explores the ways in which colonialism prevents people from the African diaspora from feeling a sense of community, kinship, and belonging with one another. He admits: “The truth is that the black race is dispersed and is no longer unified.” For this reason, black people outside of Africa are alienated from one another and from a sense of their own history, ancestry, and identity. Furthermore, colonial racism discourages black people from colonized nations to identify with Africans. In this way, Fanon shows that colonialism leaves its subjects bereft of a sense of belonging—either in their own culture or in that of the colonizing country—and therefore the most enduring legacy of colonialism is perhaps psychological in its dimensions, resulting in the complete alienation of the colonized people.
Colonialism, Diaspora, and Alienation ThemeTracker
Colonialism, Diaspora, and Alienation Quotes in Black Skin, White Masks
All it needs is one simple answer and the black question would lose all relevance.
What does man want?
What does the black man want?
Running the risk of angering my black brothers, I shall say that a Black is not a man.
Less commonly he [the “educated black man”] wants to feel part of his people. And with feverish lips and frenzied heart he plunges into the great black hole. We shall see that this wonderfully generous attitude rejects the present and future in the name of a mystical past.
All colonized people––in other words, people in whom an inferiority complex has taken root, whose local cultural originality has been committed to the grave––position themselves in relation to the civilizing language: i.e., the metropolitan culture.
When an Antillean with a degree in philosophy says he is not sitting for the agrégation because of his color, my response is that philosophy never saved anybody. When another desperately tries to prove to me that the black man is as intelligent as any white man, my response is that neither did intelligence save anybody, for if equality among men is proclaimed in the name of intelligence and philosophy, it is also true that these concepts have been used to justify the extermination of man.
Both the black man, slave to his inferiority and the white man, slave to his superiority, behave along neurotic lines. As a consequence, we have been led to consider their alienation with reference to psychoanalytic descriptions.
Out of the blackest part of my soul, through the zone of hachures, surges up this desire to be suddenly white.
I want to be recognized not as Black, but as White.
But––and this is the form of recognition that Hegel never described––who better than the white woman to bring this about? By loving me, she proves to me that I am worthy of a white love. I am loved like a white man.
I am a white man.
The Malagasy no longer exists… the Malagasy exists in relation to the European. When the white man arrived in Madagascar he disrupted the psychological horizon and mechanisms.
The Frenchman does not like the Jew, who does not like the Arab, who does not like the black man. The Arab is told: 'If you are poor it's because the Jew has cheated you and robbed you of everything." The Jew is told: 'You're not of the same caliber as the Arab because in fact you are white and you have Bergson and Einstein." The black man is told: 'You are the finest soldiers in the French empire; the Arabs think they're superior to you, but they are wrong." Moreover, it's not true; they don’t say anything to the black man; they have nothing to say to him.
Shame. Shame and self-contempt. Nausea. When they like me, they tell me my color has nothing to do with it. When they hate me, they add that it’s not because of my color. Either way, I am a prisoner of the vicious circle. I turn away from these prophets of doom and cling to my brothers, Negroes like myself. To my horror, they reject me. They are almost white. and then they'll probably marry a white woman and have slightly brown children. Who knows, gradually, perhaps . . .
In Europe and in every so-called civilized or civilizing country the family represents a piece of the nation. The child leaving the family environment finds the same laws, the same principles, and the same values. A normal child brought up in a normal family will become a normal adult. There is no disproportion between family life and the life of the nation.
Since the racial drama is played out in the open, the black man has no time to "unconsciousnessize" it. The white man manages it to a certain degree because a new factor emerges: i.e., guilt. The black man's superiority or inferiority complex and his feeling of equality are conscious. He is constantly making them interact. He lives his drama. There is in him none of the affective amnesia characteristic of the typical neurotic.
Still on the genital level, isn't the white man who hates Blacks prompted by a feeling of impotence or sexual inferiority? Since virility is taken to be the absolute ideal, doesn't he have a feeling of inadequacy in relation to the black man, who is viewed as a penis symbol? Isn't lynching the black man a sexual revenge? We know how sexualized torture, abuse, and ill-treatment can be. You only have to read a few pages of the marquis de Sade to be convinced. Is the black man's sexual superiority real? Everyone knows it isn't. But that is beside the point. The prelogical thought of the phobic has decided it is.
The Antillean does not possess personal value of his own and is always dependent on the presence of "the Other." The question is always whether he is less intelligent than I, blacker than I, or less good than I. Every self-positioning or self-fixation maintains a relationship of dependency on the collapse of the other.
Intellectual alienation is a creation of bourgeois society. And for me bourgeois society is any society that becomes ossified in a predetermined mold, stifling any development, progress, or discovery. For me bourgeois society is a closed society where it's not good to be alive, where the air is rotten and ideas and people are putrefying. And I believe that a man who takes a stand against this living death is in a way a revolutionary.