What did I learn from Frantz Fanon “Black skin, white mask”?
With Fanon’s book, I was surprised on several levels.
First, I had never questioned myself in my relationship as a White woman versus a black man/woman. Having grown up in a region of southern Italy before a more intense migration in recent years, the black person was “rare” in my Apulian social reality. In fact, in my elementary school, I had never “seen” one, in middle school, maybe one. The foreigner was Albanian or the Serbian, who with a white skin tone and a perfect command of the language, asked for nothing more to be assimilated into the social and work network as quickly as possible. For me, the black man was the peddler on the streets at the patronal religious feast. And I’m sure, for many in my village, the relationship with a black person stops at the exchange of a leather bag, a belt, and a well-imitated wallet. We know, one must try to lower the price because they “try” to fool us.
So the black person was never really a topic of identity relationship for me. However, the black man was always present in the imagination, in language around me since the childhood: “If you are not good, I will take you to the black man”; “Don’t be bad; otherwise the black man will come”. The discussion ended there; I never asked for additional information on the “black” man in question. Without asking, I already knew as a child that the man was the stranger, the different, the bad, the one who could be aggressive, for no apparent reason. Yet I’m wrong: the black person has always been there at home, precisely in the living room while I was sitting on the sofa or a the table. The black reality joins us from the television, playing stereotypical characters. In the background of a living room, distracted by the emotional and empty adventures of a white protagonist, without knowing, I was building my relationship with the black person: “the white person, in front of this person who is different, to defend himself characterise the Other.” Often, in the negative.
In Marseille, everything is different for me. The city has been a port since its foundation. Yet, even in this new scenario of my daily life, my identity relationship with the black person has never been brought into question. He or she has become my neighbour, my hairdresser, my friend. However, Falon suggests that I have to make a sense, an interpretation of this unquestioned relationship.
As the author says, “why to write this book? Nobody asked me”. I would say the same about me “why read this book? Nobody asked me”, or rather why to question me about an identity relationship dimension — as I white woman in my relationship with a black person — that has never been a real question of identity for me. As the author says, “White is enclosed in its whiteness”. In a superiority that undermines the simple admission of being open to the other.
I discovered to have lived some experiences similar to the author. In Morocco and then Camerum I was surprised by a taxi driver and an educated black woman who referred “others” as the real Africans, no to them. An “Other” who has less access to an imaginary trajectory towards a symbolic fictitious white capital.
Second, apart from the question of colour, the book opens a reflection on the alienated areas of my identity as a woman / white/popular class and then it invites me to transcend gender/colours / social class towards an as yet unrealised authentic humanism.
Some points that hit me:
- Man’s malaise is that of having been a child. The family, social, cultural dynamics are introjected, and one inevitably becomes part of other’s universes of discourses. It becomes courageous to know how to question them in adulthood: “closed in an objectivity that annihilates, I implored others”.
- One belongs to one’s century, one’s own country, one’s existence. In no way should we prepare for tomorrow, in a moratorium that leads to the paralysis of action. “I irreducibly belong to my era” — the present alone counts as the safest insurance of the future. The present is the anchor of the action.
- To pay attention to the language we use and that is used towards us to access the representation we have of the other and that the other has towards us. When in France, I was introduced by a colleague to another colleague as “our little Italian”, at the age of 30, in a work context, on a formal occasion, the expression struck me, I heard a feeling uneasy but didn’t know how to code it. Racism has a thousand shades that can start from a simple look. I didn’t feel I belong to them, “I wasn’t little”, my condition as an Italian in that context was not relevant. “To speak petit-Negre is to express this idea: you, stay where you are”. Then the experience of migration is universal, and the recursive expressions given and received should surprise us: “How long have you been in France? You speak French well”. Are we so little creative in everyday human relationships?
- The sense of inferiority. It is a significant theme of the book. It is a theme that speaks to me. From my condition as a worker daughter, the other professional has often classified me during the interaction, and I have allowed myself to be classified: to paraphrase Fenon, a woman is asked to behave like a woman. From me, the conduct of a white woman of popular class: “I desired the world and the world amputated me of my enthusiasm. They asked me to confine myself, to reduce myself ”. Entering a profession you don’t know anyone, being a professional among professionals: “it is racism that creates the inferiorized”. Alienation is also the absence of response, reaction, reflection following an elusive verbal exchange with a stranger, an authority, an employer, a deskmate from a different social background. It is the interaction that opens up the negotiation of meaning: “In no case should my colour (my social class) be felt like a flaw”. Yet, the alienation is ready to be experienced several times. It can remain intact even after a process of intellectualisation, of schooling.
- The body is a “questioning organ”. The feeling passes through the body. From the body to the universal “I feel a soul as vast as the world, my chest has an infinite power of expansion … I wanted to get up, but the eviscerated silence returns to me. Irresponsible, I start to cry ”. A personal body, which has not past and on whose skin, as Fanon says, no values related to colour are deposited. A body to feel, to touch, made to reveal ourself and reach compassionately the other.
- Everything that exists deserves a solution; the best is to trace a path of freedom for oneself and others. As a psychoanalyst (and so also a teacher in the educational relationship?): “My goal will be let the other to choose action (or passivity)”, in the light of shared knowledge and having clarified the root of the conflict. On the other side, for the patient/student, the invitation is the action: “since others hesitate to recognise me, there is only one solution left: to make myself known”. The invitation is to reject an unhealthy, conflicting, ghost-fed, antagonistic, and inhuman solution. To do this, we must strive for the universal. And the ability to choose is at the centre of the discussion: “I can take back my past, enhance it or condemn it for my subsequent choices”.
Third, the book amazed me about the style, and, at times, for the subtle irony. The book opens dialogues, introduces poetry, feeds on literary and scientific citations, surprises the reader for the vast possible repertoire to enter into the narrative. Then, the author himself is a poet: “the eye is not only a mirror but also a mirror that straightens”.
I have been busy reading the book (in the French version) and not other readings and interpretations of the text. Mine is added to the others, to testify a personal, local, very provincial yet empathic reaction of the universal outlined: “man is a yes to life, to love, to generosity”.
“I wake up one day, and I recognise only one right: demanding a human behaviour from the other”.