Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Impossible Standards for the Black Man

Precis on Frank Fanon's "Black Skin, White Masks"

In a post-colonial world, society has been struggling to balance, adapt to, and in some cases, overcome the new hierarchy imposed by the white European nations. In the excerpt from Blacks Skins, White Masks, Frantz Fanon analyzes how this new social order affected the black community and the impossible standards that it inflicts. In chapter one of this book “The Negro and Language,” Fanon examines how the language imposed on the colonized people subjected them to this sort of imbalance in which two richly cultured identities would clash, and those who would then try assimilating into the colonizers’ language would then inevitably lose their own local culture. He penetrates into the heart of the matter when he writes: “He [the black man] becomes whiter as he abandons his blackness.” But what is interesting is that the structure of this chapter and the various messages that he strategically juxtaposes connote a sense of hypocrisy and confusion and volatility that he expresses with the white man’s intentions. In this chapter, it seems as if Fanon is arguing that along with the conflict that the white man imposes on the black man with language and the clash of culture identities, there is also a discrepancy among the white people in their reactions when the black man adapts to the white man’s expectations, which only serves to exasperate the impossibility for the black man to truly assimilate into the white man’s world.

        Fanon begins by establishing two dimensions in the black man’s personality that causes this clash of culture, behavior, and identities. As a result of the colonizers’ interference, or as they would call it intervention, “every colonized people – in other words, every people in whose soul an inferiority complex has been created by the death and burial of its local culture originality – finds itself face to face with the language of the civilizing nation.” Thus the black man, or more generally the colonized people, is involuntarily placed into the difficult situation of maintaining his culture vs. adapting to a new world order. Those who decide to maintain their identities were often denigrated for their backwash, uncultured, and uncivilized ways.  But those who manage to obtain status symbols (education, language, etc.) and acquire the “white masks” were often ostracized, disdained, and uniquely feared, as Fanon explains, for “he is almost white.” To matters worse, the more he adapts and assimilates, the less he becomes himself: “he becomes whiter as he abandons his blackness.” Yet the reward for immersing in the new language places the black man in a social category above the rest of his fellow black men, as Fanon describes with the role of the interpreters in the French colonial army. The complexities in the dilemma that Fanon exposes demonstrate the struggle to preserve the cultural identity while surviving in the hostile environment constructed by the colonizers created a new level of impossible standards, social norms that the black man can never truly achieve.

        Having stated the more obvious point about the effect of colonialism on the black community, Fanon exits that particular argument by illustrating how the white man reacts in fear and suspicion when the black man lives up to the white man’s expectations. However, immediately proceeding this argument, he proceeds with an anecdote, a reminiscence that triggers another underlying point. He recalls a conversation with a man from Martinique, presumably another black man, who was telling him about his disdain for “Guadeloupe Negroes” who were acting like Martinicians. This, of course, portrays the hierarchy that the white man imposed to the colonized societies in which all non-whites were categories and ranked according to their whiteness or pseudo-whiteness. But instead of mentioning the obvious, he begins to talk about “jabber” and how “[i]t is said that Negroes love to jabber.” Puzzling at first, the anecdote extends to his second argument, which he begins by describing that the “Negro is just a child.” This is not based from his perspective; this is an observation that he makes which he incorporates into his argument. The Negro jabbers, and jabbering is for children; thus the Negro is nothing but a child who speaks the language that adults, in this case the white man, speak but which no adult pay serious attention to. To emphasize his point, he employs another story of twenty white European patients whom the doctor treats respectfully and maturely but with the one black or Arab patient who comes in, the doctor decomposes his language to meet the level that he thinks the black or Arab patient can comprehend no matter how well-spoken the patient may be. And here lies his second component of his argument: the inability of black people to fit into the white society’s norms is intensified not just from the conflict of cultural identities established in the imposition of language but also from the hypocritical, unpredictable, and confusing white man’s reaction to the black man’s  “elevation.” The white man imposes on the black man a new, so-called superior language, depreciating the black man’s culture and identities but when the black man assimilates into the white man’s culture with the mastery of the superior language, the white man either reacts in fear and suspicion or continues to treat the black man as an inferior subhuman. It’s as if Frantz Fanon is crying out “Make up your mind white people!” because of the impossible standards that restrict, confuse, and degenerate the black man in any kind of progress he tries to make.

        Fanon himself, perhaps, says it most clearly when he articulates these two things: 1) “The white man is sealed in his whiteness. The black in his blackness…” and 2) “For the black man there is only one destiny. And it is white.” For the black man, who is sealed in his blackness and blackness as his essence, to have a destiny that is white makes it undeniably clear of the disability and, more importantly, the inability for the black man to conform to the white society’s norms. As a result, the black man will always be torn in the complex and retrogressive struggle in which he can never truly belong to an identity unless as Fanon argues in the later chapters, society looks to the universality of man in a world where there is no white ethnic, no white intelligence, and no white world and where there is no Negro and no superiority vs. inferiority. Although some may disagree with Fanon’s proposed solution, he makes an extremely powerful claim substantiated by equally compelling evidence and analysis on the present society that very few can deny.


Eric Gentry said...

I hate the word 'post-colonial' it implies that we are no longer living in colonial rule. Native Americans are still living on reservation because the colonizers stole the Americas. All minorities still live under colonial dominance, white society.
Did Fanon draw from James Baldwin's Double-Consciousnesses when writing "Black Skin, White Masks?" The entire notion that African Americans have to be two people in white society, African and American. It seems that African Americans can never stray too far from either, or be outcast from all. Fanon seemed to say that all Blacks were acting white, unless they were still living like Africans in the home land. Rituals, and killing animals, etc. As long as you were "civilized" then you were acting white.

Jo Hodaly said...

I agree with Eric's exasperation. I myself merely use "post-colonial" in reference to self-described discourses and institutions. It's especially insidious when describing the history and ongoing struggle of indigenous people everywhere. The more one realizes how we continue to displace and dispossess indigenous Americans--as you've exemplified Eric--the more a term like "post-colonial" seems to serve the nationalist propaganda of popular American history. I agree that even talking about "post-colonial" discourse as such is something we need to be more critical about. Somewhat related: are you familiar with the Subaltern Studies group (includes the likes of Spivak and Ranajit Guha)?

Samiha Baseer said...

I also agree, the word post-colonial is misleading because it glosses over the power relations of our nations. Many nations are still remain economically depdednt to the wealthy indusctrial states even though they are independent technically.

Joshua Park said...

Sorry y'all. Did not mean to incite such feelings with my words.

I do understand that even today there are nations subjugated to other nations whether directly or indirectly and other nations and societies throughout the world that are suffering from a century or more as a result of imperialism. But, when I mentioned the post-colonial world, I meant it to be a time when nations no longer actively seek to imperialize or colonize a nation for being backwards, uncultured, and retrogressive since we don't see much of that going on around today with any of the world powers. The complexities of international relations and the overall global progressive changes happening across the world, whether slowly or quickly, I think prevents such thing from happening. Thus, the very next phrase adjusts to the present situation and portrays many of the issues discussed in the comments.

I don't necessarily see post-anything as implying a termination of that anything. It just means it happened in the past; its effects can still linger.

Lea Dandan said...

Aside from political correctness, I found most interesting the fact that while the black man desires to be white, where are the other archetypes that affiliate themselves with being black? How about the black woman who is a part of the LGBT community? I wish Fanon could have shed light on the interaction between a black woman in a group of black women vs. white women and the nuanced energy between the two parties.

Joshua Park said...


Thanks for bringing up something other than my first phrase! LOL cannot believe three whole comments were dedicated to my third word of the precis but political correctness and its issues are pretty controversial so its understandable.

I also find interesting about the intersectionalities of various identities. However, I don't know if Fanon should be the one discussing the interaction "between a black woman in a group of black women vs. white women" for in my opinion it would lose much of the ethos that dominates his piece in Black Skins, White Masks. He is after all, a black male and realistically and personally examines the interaction of black men with black men vs. black men with white men.