Fanon, a psychiatrist, is concerned with understanding both the psychological and material (i.e., physical and economic) dimensions of colonialism. This approach to thinking about colonialism was revolutionary at the time of Fanon’s writing, when Western beliefs about the psychology of people of color tended to be crude, dehumanizing, and false. Indeed, Fanon points out repeatedly that white Western culture cannot begin to understand or describe black experience. Therefore, Fanon’s major achievement in Black Skin, White Masks is delineating how the already well-documented material realities of colonialism have shaped the psychological experiences of black people.
Fanon examines the impact of racism on black consciousness, arguing that black people internalize racist beliefs about themselves. The most famous example of this given in Black Skin, White Masks is Fanon’s description of witnessing a white child seeing him and exclaiming: “Maman, look, a Negro! I’m scared!” Fanon explores how repeated experiences such as this inflict lasting damage on black people’s self-image, distorting their understanding of themselves in the world. Specifically, he argues that the experience of racism has a disembodying effect on black people—meaning that it causes them to feel alienated from their own bodies. He contrasts the experience of anti-black racism with the experience of anti-Semitic racism, making the claim that race, for Jews, is not visible on their skin in the same way it is for black people. He notes that when Jewish people are oppressed it is more on account of racist ideas about Jewish history, ancestry, customs, and religious practices than it is on the actual bodies of Jewish people. Black people, by contrast, are subject to a uniquely embodied experience of oppression, and that one of the gravest psychological dimensions of oppression under colonialism is that black people experience themselves as if from outside their own bodies, and even begin to think about themselves in the third-person. This deeply embodied sense of oppression is particularly acute because white people tend to associate black people with the body and with the animalistic side of human existence. Fanon compares the fear of black people to the fear of biology itself, pointing out that black men in particular are associated with their penises within the white imagination. In this sense, Fanon emphasizes the powerful interconnection of psychological and bodily oppression.
Fanon also examines the ways in which the science of psychology has been constructed around white people, cultures, and norms. He argues that the study of psychopathology (neurosis and abnormality within the psyche) does not take into account black experience, arguing: “We too often tend to forget that neurosis is not a basic component of human reality. Whether you like it or not the Oedipus complex is far from being a black complex.” Fanon uses his training as a psychiatrist to extend psychological principles to black people while highlighting the ways in which black people have starkly different psychological experiences than whites.
Finally, Fanon writes about the racism of white people through the framework of psychopathology. He discusses white people’s “phobic” fear of black people and explains how this irrational fear can itself be seen as an adverse psychological effect of colonialism. He gives an example of a woman whose fear of black people has affected her so deeply that she suffers from debilitating physical tics. By addressing the adverse psychological impact of colonialism on not only black people but on their white oppressors, Fanon suggests that colonialism is not simply a zero-sum game in which white people win and black people lose: rather, it’s a lose-lose situation in which both parties are haunted by the violence of colonialism, albeit in very different ways. It’s worth noting that the psychological lens through which Fanon examines colonialism is what enables him to craft an argument that colonialism is bad for everybody—portraying racism as a psychological malady that afflicts both the oppressor and the oppressed.
Material vs. Psychological Oppression ThemeTracker
Material vs. Psychological Oppression 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.
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.
Hatred is not a given; it is a struggle to acquire hatred, which has to be dragged into being, clashing with acknowledged guilt complexes. Hatred cries out to exist, and he who hates must prove his hatred through action and the appropriate behavior. In a sense he has to embody hatred.
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.
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.
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.