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Debates on Race and Language: Frantz Fanon

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sociology
Wordcount: 2568 words Published: 5th Jul 2018

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“In no way should I dedicate myself to the revival of an unjustly unrecognised Negro civilisation” Explain and assess this statement by Fanon at the end of Black Skin, White Masks


We understand the world, ourselves, and other people through language (Foucault, 1977). For Foucault everything in life is determined by what he calls discourse, that is to say what we say about a subject. Thus, the language that we use defines how we see the world and how we view other people. Foucault (1977) further maintains that language is controlled by those who hold power in society. This means that everyone else’s use of language is determined by what those I power have to say about a subject. Nowadays many writers maintain that the social and linguistic construct of race has had a powerful effect on the consciousness of both black and white people. Language is real because it is inevitable acted upon (what Bordieu describes as a speech act) the language that spoke of one race as inferior to another became a justification for enslaving those people designated as inferior. Discourses of race and inferiority were central to the success of the modernist project as black people were seen as treacherous to the central narrative of Western personhood, that is to say they were different from what was elevated as the white norm (Fanon 1986).

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Frantz Fanon was a French essayist and author whose main concern was decolonisation and what he, and many other thinkers have seen as the psychopathology of colonialism. He died in 1961 at the age of 36 yet his work continues to be highly influential, particularly in the fields of cultural studies and race and ethnicity. He wrote most of his work while he lived in North Africa, by contrast, Black Skin, White Masks was written while he was still living in France. For many he is seen as the intellectual thinker on decolonisation in the twentieth century. His work has had far reaching implications over the years on a number of liberationist movements which has led some people to regard him as an advocate of violence.[1]

Beginning with an introduction to modernity this assignment will discuss Fanon’s work and his statement in the context of this debate about language and the debate about black experience and black identities which, Gilroy (1993) maintains can only be understood in terms of the history of slavery. Fanon (1986) would however, dispute this notion, he believes that if it were at all possible, then colonialism should be done away with and wiped from the history books, even though he recognises that this is not possible.

The period of colonialism where countries were made great on the backs of slavery separated white from black as though they were two completely different civilizations. The western world became that of the oppressor and the oppressed and Fanon sees the world in terms of this almost pathological relationship. Fanon’s work in Black Skin, White Masks (Fanon, 1986 ed.) encapsulates the sense of division that is felt by both oppressed and oppressors, black and white. Such divisions are rooted in the period that sociologists and cultural theorists now speak of as modernity.


The onset of what is known as Modernity can be traced back to the Enlightenment in the late 17th to early 19th century. The Enlightenment was an intellectual movement and its primary concerns were the powers of human reason, the inevitability of human progress, and the ability of science to provide humanity with answers. Philosophers of this period were also interested in how knowledge was transmitted and how we came to know what we know.

This period is renowned for the immense technological and social changes that were taking place and which eventually led to a break with traditional view of the social, of society, and of a person’s place within that society. During this period there was an intense concentration on the individual, which prompted the philosopher Hegel to develop his idea of the historical subject. This is the idea that people’s actions are what have made history what it is. In recent years many theorists have argued that the subject referred only to the white, western, middle class male (see Abbott and Wallace, 1997) and that women, children and other races were excluded from the whole project.

This idea of modern society, coupled with the Enlightenment notion of human progress has been problematic for a number of reasons, not least because, as we are well aware, human beings do not always act rationally, and in this sense modernity brought out the darker side of our human nature. The events of the twentieth century have done nothing to dispel this notion, in fact there are those who would argue that modern society is now at its most irrational. Modernity gave the world the nation state, the spread of capitalism and as we shall see, western cultural imperialism and colonization. Modernity produced the conditions for slavery and its success was built upon the enslavement of people who were regarded as different from, and thus inferior to, white western males.

Fanon’s Concerns

Western history is not just a history of colonial oppression but it is also a history of the struggles against such oppression. Western history is about the oppression of colonialism and the struggles against that oppression, which calls into question Enlightenment notions of the subject. These problems are examined by Fanon in Black Skin, White Masks (1986) where he concentrates on black subjectivity and experience and with the problematic concept of western modernity. He was also concerned with the refutation of dualism, that philosophy apparent in the Enlightenment period which separated things into binary opposites such as male/female, white/black. Binary divisions not only separate genders and races, they objectify them because that which is other is defined only by the oppressor. Fanon’s other major concern was the dislocation that occurs when people are taken from their homelands and forced into a diasporic existence.[2]

Fanon (1986) contends that the biggest weapon the coloniser’s had was their representation of those who were colonised, as different. This was done in such a way that they were no longer recognisable even to themselves. For Fanon being colonised estranges human beings from themselves so that they are no longer connected to their own human nature. He is concerned with the history as it is relates to the black experience although his work is sometimes disorganised and not always easy to follow. He writes about the black/white, self/other experience, and how colonialism results in an alienation of the person. Fanon, is against ethnic and cultural absolutism, but could see no reconciliation between the races because the white colonisers will always be waiting for the black mask to slip and reveal the whiteness beneath.


Gilroy (1993) traces the mutual influence of black and white culture in both America and Britain in an attempt to challenge notions of national and cultural purity and reveal a syncretism of the cultures. Decades before this and in his earlier work The Wretched of the Earth (1963) Fanon writes about syncretism as oppression where the black person assimilates the culture of the coloniser whether they like it or not. He maintains that such syncretism is the colonisers way or reducing black people and thus he speaks of the settler’s creation of the ‘native’ – a concept which is evident in the discourses of modernity and its rational subject. This subject could only exist by excluding difference and otherness. Fanon (1986) maintains that the ‘Negro’ is only acceptable on certain terms:

What is often called the black soul is a white man’s artefact . . . there is a quest for the Negro, the Negro is in demand, one cannot get along without him, he is needed, but only if he is made palatable in a certain way. (Fanon 1986, p. 114)

In saying this Fanon rejects both narcissistic myths of Negritude (and) the White Cultural Supremacy (Bhabha, H. 1986:ix) which is most obvious in linguistic terms. This cultural supremacy still operates today, in most countries in the world children will learn English in school, when the English go abroad many of them do not trouble to learn the language of the country they are visiting. People assume that English will be spoken because cultural hegemony has its base in language and this language signifies power. Thus the language carries with it the power and knowledge of the nation.

Hall (1992) argues that nationalism and the nation state are a direct result of capitalism. When people promote these things in a multi-cultural society it can result in people having a confused sense of national identity. Hall further maintains that identity and culture are closely linked. The cultural diaspora that was brought about by slavery has resulted in what Hall (1992) terms ‘hybrid identities’- an expression which in some ways is expressed in Fanon’s idea of black skin and white masks. Fanon (1986) argues that race has been objectified through discourses of superiority and inferiority and has thus become a fixed category which he decries. What these discourses have done is to make of the black person a divided self, a person with a ‘double consciousness.’ This is a term first used by W De Bois, who defined double consciousness as a twoness-an American, a Negro, two souls, two thoughts, two unrecognised strivings, two warring ideals in one dark body, who dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder (Dubois 2003 quoted in Sawyer, M 2005:86). This double consciousness is demonstrated in the relationships involved in slavery. Slavery was an integral part of this double consiousness of which Du Bois wrote because it consciousness was central to Hegel’s master/slave idea, where the slave remains a slave because they are dominated by a slave mentality.

Following on from this line of thought was Richard Wright who believed that the Negro was a symbol in the psychological, social and political systems of the West. The Negro spoken of in modernist discourse was once an African, along with the experiences of slavery this led black people to experience a sense of dislocation where they experienced what the philosopher Nietzsche once described as a frog’s perspective because they looked up from beneath the chains of their oppressors (Wright, 1956). The frog’s perspective lay behind Wright’s understanding of double consciousness.

Wright’s work had a strong influence on the writings of Frantz Fanon. In Fanon’s work this‘double consciousness’ or divided self is not restricted to the colonised, Fanon maintains that it is also a property of the coloniser because colonialism affects the self-understanding of both the oppressed and their oppresors. In this he demonstrates the influence that Wright (1956) had on his work because Wright thought that mental illness could result from the relationship between master and slave, between the oppressed and the oppressor. Fanon believed that racial subjectivity was determined from outside of the individual and so he sees neither a unitary black experience nor a unitary white experience. Fanon sees experience as contextual rather than historical, that is to say that the experience of the black person who remained in Africa would be very different from the black person who was made a slave – white experience is affected in a similar way. Thus Fanon says that I do not have the right to allow myself to be mired in what the past has determined. I am not the slave of the slavery that dehumanised my ancestors (Fanon, 1986:230).


When Fanon says at the end of Black Skin, White Masks that In no way should I dedicate myself to the revival of an unjustly unrecognised Negro civilisation. He is arguing against the objectification of race and the language of inferiority and superiority that are associated with the term ‘negro’. His life’s work was dedicated to decolonisation of those areas that were still part of what had been called the British Empire. The negro was a function of the coloniser’s differentiation of the slave from the white owner. Thus Fanon’s statement acts as a repudiation fo slavery and colonisation. Furthermore Fanon’s argument is important to cultural analysis and to society at large. Talking about a separate negro civilization puts us in the position of being stuck in the binary categories of a black/white cultural analysis that is the heritage of modernity and its failures. What Fanon (1986) appears to be saying is that society and its analysis needs to go beyond ideas of nationalism and ethnic absolutism – because these things paved the way for colonialism and slavery.

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Fanon (1986) recognises that we have to live with the inheritance of colonialism and that things are not changed overnight. If we dispense with many of its ideas as Fanon appears to suggest then this raises the question of how we analyse race, nationalism, gender and ethnicity without the use of those categories? We have to have some way of speaking about the things that trouble our society and the best ways of dealing with them. Whatever we choose to say or feel about this as individuals the fact of the matter is that these categories are part of our consciousness and so are integral to our discourses on these subjects. Having said that, things are perhaps only this way because those who are not white, western, middle class males, will always be other – because most of the power in the world is in the hands of this group their definitions of concepts still holds.


Abbott and Wallace 1997 A Feminist Introduction to Sociology London, Routledge.

Bhabha, H. 1986 “Foreward” in Fanon, F. 1986 (1967) Black Skin, White Masks London, Pluto Press

Bourdieu, P. 1991 .Language and Symbolic Power. Cambridge, MA : Harvard University Press.

Fanon, F 1963 The Wretched of the Earth New York: Grove Press

Fanon, F. 1986 (1967) Black Skin, White Masks London, Pluto Press

Foucault, M. 1977 Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison London, Allen Lane

Gilroy, P 1993 The Black Atlantic London, Verso

Hall, S. 1992 “Our Mongrel Selves” New Statesman and Society, 19th June 1992

Sawyer, M 2005 “DuBois’ double consciousness versus Latin American exceptionalism: Joe

Wright, R 1956 The Colour Curtain Dobson. London .

Wright, R. 1979 Native Son Harmondsworth, Penguin


[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frantz_Fanon#Work

[2] The spread of groups of people (often against their wishes, and specifically black people and Jews) across different parts of the globe.


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