Black Skin, White Masks is an academic text, written at the intersection of psychology, philosophy, history, and literary studies. Fanon is forthcoming about his own status as a highly-educated intellectual, but remains critical of the ways in which academic knowledge is entangled with the history of colonialism, not just because the academic worldview tended to be white- and Euro-centric, but because the work of academics has historically been used as justification for racism. On the other hand, Fanon argues that ignorance and misinformation are to blame for many of the problems that exist within the colonial (and postcolonial) world. He criticizes the tendency to too easily accept simplistic or conventional understandings of the world and concludes the book with a “final prayer” against such intellectual complacency: “Always make me a man who questions!”
Indeed, Fanon credits his own curiosity as the reason he is able to see certain truths about human existence that others seem unable to access. He writes: “I came into this world anxious to uncover the meaning of things, my soul desirous to be at the origin of the world, and here I am an object among other objects.” This sentence highlights Fanon’s struggle as someone with an intensely curious, skeptical, and sharp mind who has been classified as an “object” within the colonial system, but who has leveraged this perspective to try to see all people as “objects” of history. According to the racist world order in which he is supposed to exist as a black man, Fanon should not harbor such an intellectual curiosity about the world around him: he is supposed to be the “object” of study rather than the person doing the studying.
Part of Fanon’s insistence on his own subjectivity involves a critique of objectivity. He admits: “I did not want to be objective… I found it impossible to be objective.” Whereas Western thought traditionally prioritizes objectivity as the only way to access truth, Fanon questions whether it is actually possible for humans to be objective. White academics may believe themselves to be objective because their viewpoint is positioned as “universal” within the colonial mentality, but black intellectuals such as Fanon disprove the idea that the white, colonial framework is the objective and true way of viewing the world. Particularly when it comes to socially-constructed issues like race—which have no meaning outside the meaning humans invent for them—Fanon prioritizes subjective experience as an important way of accessing truth.
Fanon is also critical of fields of thought that have been used to justify colonial violence. He points out that much scientific knowledge is infused with racism and at one point exclaims: “Science should be ashamed of itself!” Fanon does not propose that the solution to the use of science to justify racism is to abandon science altogether in favor of irrationality or ignorance. Rather, he argues that knowledge must be developed and adapted to account for the complex realities of the world—particularly when it comes to the experience of people of color. He notes that sticking too rigidly to established forms of thought leads to “intellectual alienation,” stagnation, error, and violence. He argues: “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.” Although ignorance is dangerous, Fanon shows that certain forms of knowledge can be dangerous, too.
Knowledge vs. Ignorance ThemeTracker
Knowledge vs. Ignorance Quotes in Black Skin, White Masks
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.
I did not want to be objective. Besides, that would have been dishonest: I found it impossible to be objective.
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.
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.