Black Skin White Masks By Frantz Fanon English Literature Essay

Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks is a stirring glimpse into the mindset of a black man living in a white man’s world. The author approaches the subject of racism from a psychoanalytic viewpoint rather than from a sociological stance. To Fanon, racism is a psychological disease which has infected all men and all societies. He argues that the black man is constantly trying, but never fully succeeding, to be white and to assimilate into the white man’s world.

Fanon was a psychiatrist so, naturally, he analyzed the problem of racism as such. Based on today’s racism, many would try to classify racism as a sociological problem. Fanon, however, looked at racism as a psychological obstacle in the path of humankind’s realization of its true potential. “When there are no more slaves, there are no masters.” [1] While he does acknowledge the existence of a socioeconomic divide that coincides with racism, he does not believe that poverty and social inferiority are the worst consequences of racism. He believed that the psychological damage is the worst problem resulting from racism. Unlike the blatant discrimination, violence and hatred associated with the anti-black racism of the United States prior to the Civil Rights Movement, racism in the French world was less obvious and more psychological than physical. This psychological discrepancy, Fanon argues, is more damaging and much harder to overcome and resist than physical racial abuse.

In the introduction, Fanon states, “The white man is locked in his whiteness. The black man in his blackness.” [2] This statement says that there is nothing a person can do to change his or her skin color no matter how hard they try. This is a fact of nature and there is no need to argue against it and that one should, instead, try to work around this fact. Race is not the problem. The problem is the way people, both white and black, view race as being a significant factor in personhood and as a way to judge a person’s worth. “Fact: Some Whites consider themselves superior to Blacks. Another fact: Some Blacks want to prove at all costs to the Whites the wealth of the black man’s intellect and equal intelligence.” [3] By this, Fanon means that by trying so hard to prove the black man’s worth to the white man, one is recognizing an inherent difference in the two races and the inferiority of the black man to the white man.

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However, many non-whites will try to make up for their skin color by trying to excel in many cultural standards associated with being white. The first chapter of Black Skin, White Masks deals with language and how it is a tool used to discriminate the black man. Fanon grew up in Martinique, a Caribbean island under French control. At an early age, he observed that all the upper-class white French people all spoke perfect French, but all black, lower-class people spoke Creole, a less prestigious dialect of French. The relationship could be compared to English versus Ebonics in today’s American cities. Creole was looked down upon by the more civilized people of Martinique, and the rest of the French world, and was avoided by the middle- and upper-class. Fanon also observed that when a man from Martinique would return home after attending school in France, they would speak in perfect French like the upper-class Martinicans.

He found out the reason, firsthand, when he attended school in France. In France, white people would look down upon black people and speak to them in pidgin French as if they were little children who didn’t have the mental capacity to understand proper French. He compared this to the way he would speak to a mentally challenged patient. When the student would return home he would act as if he were superior to the Creole-speaking natives, as if he were equal to the French upper-class,

“He can no longer understand Creole; he talks of the Opera House, which he had probably seen only from a distance; but most of all he assumes a critical attitude of his fellow islanders. He reacts differently at the slightest pretext. He knows everything. He proves himself through his language.” [4] 

A black man who believes himself to be equal to the white man and shuns his own people would forever be an outsider to both groups. He could never fit in with either side. He would never gain acceptance from whites and he would be ridiculed by blacks for trying to evolve.

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One of the ways to overcome racism is to have an unbending sense of self-worth and to fully know oneself. If one can achieve this, they will no longer compare themselves to others, so the psychological effects of racism will not have any bearing on them. However, Fanon argues that this is may not be possible for the black man to do. People, in general, and especially those who have been constantly oppressed, have a tremendously difficult time determining and accepting their own self-worth by their own accord,

“The Antillean does not possess a personal value of his own and is always dependent on the value 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 or dependency on the collapse of the other. It’s on the ruins of my entourage that I build my virility.” [5] 

The only way the black man knows how to build his self-worth is to destroy the worth of another. But, unfortunately, since the black man is in no position to downgrade white people, they must attack other blacks in order to build their self-worth. This creates a vicious cycle in which the black man keeps himself and his people down and the white man can remain in power without even doing anything. “The Martinicans are hungry for reassurance. They want their wishful thinking to be recognized. They want their wish for virility to be recognized… Each of them wants to be, wants to flaunt himself.” [6] 

The color of a man’s skin is ultimately what defines him in this world. Because a man’s skin is black, this will forever be his identifier, no matter his abilities or accomplishments. While a white man who gains the title of doctor will be referred to as Dr. So-and-So, the same man, if he were black, would be known as a black doctor, not just doctor. Nothing a black man can do will shake this identifier. Referring back to the language analysis, many white men would say to an educated black man, “You speak perfect French.” This would never be said to a white man who also speaks perfect French. The reason for this is that it is expected for a white man to do so, but it is an exception, an anomaly, for a black man. “For not only must the black man be black; he must be black in relation to the white man.” [7] 

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“The black man wants to be white. The white man is desperately trying to achieve the rank of man.” [8] What Fanon means by this statement is that no one, black or white, is truly a man, in the sense that mankind has not realized its full potential, greatly in part from the blemish of racism. This is even worse for the black man than it is for the white man. A black man must first become a white man before he can become a man. The white man is already one step ahead of the black man in this. This is just another example of the identifier of black or white. If man can lose the identifier of the color of his skin, then he can finally become a true man.

Black Skin, White Masks gives the reader a provocative look inside the mind of post-Colonial black man. Fanon’s psychoanalytic analysis of the topic of racism is a unique and fresh view of the downfalls of man. He makes a compelling argument that blacks want to be and try to be whites, but will never be granted true acceptance in the white man’s world. However, human society is set up in a way that, no matter how hard a black man tries, he will never be truly equal to the white man. Until both groups can learn to be men, instead of black men or white men, racism will not and cannot be overcome.

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