Black Skin, White Masks Summary

Frantz Fanon

Black Skin, White Masks

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Black Skin, White Masks Summary

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Black Skin, White Masks is a 1952 book by psychiatrist and philosopher Frantz Fanon. Fanon was an Afro-Caribbean intellectual whose works have been widely influential, particularly in the fields of post-colonial studies, critical theory and Marxist theory. In his book, Fanon is critical of ethnocentric forms of psychiatry and Eurocentric psychoanalysis, while asserting the psychological harm that colonialism has produced. He engages with the contemporary rhetoric of “negritude” popular amongst Francophone scholars at the time, which opposed French colonialism by encouraging a common racial identity for black people throughout the world. First coined by Aime Cesaire, one of the central tenants of negritude (which Fanon would also take up) was that assimilation into dominant culture was inherently harmful to blacks, because dominant culture viewed African culture as barbaric and uncivilized.  However, Fanon argued that it was less important (or not important at all) to return to a common African past than it was for black to adapt to modern European culture by forming their own sense of native intellectual identity.

Fanon also theorizes about the psychological effects of racism on the black middle class consciousness in the French Caribbean. He argues that because in dominant culture black skin is associated with impurity, by attempting to assimilate Antilleans come to despise themselves. One of the examples Fanon uses to illustrate this point is what he names “lactification,” or the neurotic avoidance of black men by colonial women. Other examples of this “self-contempt” are anxiety in the presence of whites, pathological hypersensitivity Fanon names “affective erethism”, existential dread, and a neurotic resistance to one’s own blackness.   Fanon argues that black children that grow up within these racist cultural assumptions, relieve the tension of their own inferiority because of their black skins by coming to think of themselves as white. This is the origins of the title of the book, Black Skins, White Masks.

The book is divided into eight chapters with an Introduction. In each chapter Fanon explores one element of the colonial formation of the black subject. For example, the first chapter is an examination of dominant language which construes intelligence and civility, and therefore must be learned by the black subject. However, if the language of the colonizer is internalized, inherently racist ideas are internalized as well. In the fourth chapter Fanon explores what he calls “The So-Called Dependency Complex of the Colonized,” directly refuting Dominique-Octave Mannoni’s claim that black people have a deep rooted desire for white rule, and that those who oppose it do not have a secure sense of self.

After its original publication, the book remained a relatively minor work until the 1980’s when its insights gained traction as an effective sociological narrative for the cultural assumptions imposed upon blacks in European cultures. In the Foreword to the new edition published in 2008, Kwame Anthony Appiah (philosopher, cultural theorist ad novelist) concedes that much of the psychoanalytic framework Fanon used in his arguments is now of little use, although the damage wrought by colonial racism remains evident.