The book “Black Skin, White Masks” by Frantz Fanon analyzes the psychological damage that colonialism wrought on the colonizer and the colonized. Fanon also bases his analyses on his own experiences, wherein he describes how black children develop neuroses that root from their antagonism of their own skin, because of the media and their daily circumstances: “The dominant colonial culture…identifies the black skin of the Negro with impurity; and the Antilleans accept this association and so come to despise themselves” (Appiah ix).
The source of “Black Skin, White Masks” is the psychological injury from colonialism, racism, and gender inequality, an injury that will escape recovery, unless the black psyche conquers its inner white demons and alienate all that alienates him/her. Fanon writes from the experiences and psychiatric analyses of the black skin and the white masks that black people don. He describes a girl who is afraid of black people: “…it is at this age that the Negro as savage and cannibal makes his appearance. It is easy to make the connection” (Fanon 184).
This fear for the black skin is also emphasized and criticized in the painting “How Do You Like Me Now” (1988) (fig. 1) by David Hammons. This fourteen-by-sixteen-foot painting shows political leader Jesse Jackson with blond, wavy hair, blue eyes, pink cheeks, and white skin. The title is also a song of a popular rapper Kool Moe Dee. This painting can be interpreted from different perspectives. Barnwell and Buick argue that white viewers can see the painting from their perspective, wherein they are challenged to see through their biases and consider voting for a black man, now that he is “whitened. At the same time, the painting “asks black viewers whether they would support Jackson if he were white,” say Barnwell and Buick. On the other hand, the interpretation of the paintings also changes with the race of the artist. Barnwell and Buick explore the changes in meanings of the artwork, if Hammons race is changed from black to white. This painting has been attacked ten black men, who thought that it was racist and insulting, and they used sledgehammers to assail it and take it away from its scaffolding.
Barnwell and Buick wonder if the black group would have still destroyed the painting, if they knew that the painter was black and that he was merely satirizing the color lines that enslave people’s minds. Clearly, blackness and whiteness release the innermost values and emotions of the people. The reactions can reflect the anger and despondency of the subjugated black race. “How Do You Like Me Now” (1988), as seen by the violent response of some people, has clearly marred the colonized. Colonialism has injured the black psyche to the extent that violence has been etched into it too. Colonialism has stripped black people of the right to define their identities, by caricaturing their existence and purpose in life. Colonialism, like slavery, skews the black people’s right to humanity and power. Violence, however, can regain this loss of power and replace the sense of loss.
Through violence, the gap between power and powerlessness can be filled again. “How Do You Like Me Now” (1988) also remarks on the damage of colonization and racism to the colonizer. From the racist white perspective, this blonde man is a person who has greater potential for being a president. If faced with a black person, with black eyes and curly hair, the racist white would be offended with the overarching blackness. It will feel, like Fanon’s little girl who is afraid of black people, that they are being assaulted.
The size of the painting also asserts power. But since colonial and white America would not consider any immense power from the black people, it is important to wear the white mask. With the black person masked as white, he will be accepted and he will have power. This is the same critique of Fanon of colonizers. The colonizers have forgotten that the black people also have their own identities. The whites see no black individuality and power, but only their whiteness. This seeing of whiteness on blackness marks another neurosis from the side of the whites.
What is it about their whiteness that they have loved themselves too deeply and too irrationally? Following the analysis of Fanon, having power and asking for too much of it dehumanized the white race of the colonial times. That power is white has been embedded in their mind, an embedding that has been too violently engraved that to remove it also means to aggressively remove a part of them. Thus, the colonized is psychologically damaged too. But as the black people who hammered away “How Do You Like Me Now” (1988) showed, it is not acceptable to be a non-human being.
It is not acceptable to be colonized and still feel like a normal human being. There must be catharsis. There must be freedom from all alienations. The painting “Wives of Shango” (n. d. ) (fig. 2) by Jeff Donaldson captures the liberation from three fronts- liberation of race, liberation of gender, and liberation from one’s own struggles. In this painting, three black women are adorned with bullets and money. The two are not looking back at the viewers, but have superiority in the way their chins are turned up.
The middle woman at the back dares to look back at the viewers. But the expression is fierce, and it makes viewers look away. This painting is an image of power. This image breaks away the “comparaison” that Fanon talks about. Fanon argues that blacks are in the state of “comparaison,” wherein: “…he is constantly preoccupied with self-assertion and the ego ideal” (185-186). This preoccupation is about blacks being “always dependent on the presence of ‘The Other’” (Fanon 186). “Wives of Shango” (n. d. ) is interpreted as the shedding away of this “comparaison. It does not have a drop of submission or weakness.
The women symbolize the power of their gender and race. They are willing to pay and kill to exert power. They are willing to dominate their personal struggles too, by fixing it through money and blood. But the means of money and violence, on the other hand, can also be interpreted as the product of the white gaze. Is it possible that these women are also still being white, by using the same arsenals of the white race? The white race entered and conquered through violence and money.
Are the black people going to fight back with the same kind of brutal force? In doing so, they are “being white” too. Fanon argues that to be black, black people should also accept their whiteness. Fanon says: “I am French” (179), which includes being part of the white French culture. Fanon argues that the black people could not annihilate the whiteness in them. In the same way, white people can also not demolish the blackness inside them.
White and black have mixed already, and this merging of two races and cultures cannot be ignored. Though the white demon has seeded inferiority complex in the black psyche, Fanon suggests that the way to recovery from the white’s subjugation is accepting “that which is white” in them. The alienation that black people feel is another problem, as it has divided the black psyche into numerous conflicting dimensions. Fanon says: “That this self-division is a direct result of colonialist subjugation is beyond question” (17).
The alienation renders unspeakable psychiatric damages as it injects “compound, ambiguous, and unsettling results, both internally and externally” (Brown-Guillory 35). Fanon recommends a white mask, but not all people can wear it. “Wives of Shango” (n. d. ) detaches itself from the white mask. It stresses the power of the black psyche that can be hung outside in full glory. This black psyche might be afraid though, even when it is confident. The women wear symbols of violence and fighting. They know that re-locating their positions in power centers can have drawbacks, and they are prepared with ammunition.
Alienation has corrupted the mind completely that fear has been entrenched in the actions and beliefs of the black people. This is where Fanon makes sense. Fear that alienation has created can only be undone through accepting the whiteness. It is also about mending the anger with peace, not with violence. The white mask does not represent another form of oppression. It symbolizes the feeling of safety and trust with whiteness. It signifies the end of domination of the black, because anytime, that mask can be removed.
And fundamentally, it is still a white mask. Fanon makes several strong points. Racism, colonialism, and sexism have maimed the psyche of the white and black people. They are divided within, because of these oppressive experiences. But the blacks can recover from this damage, as long as they can handle wearing the white mask. At the same time, they must remember that the white mask is only a mask. It is important for the black people to also find their black identities and revel in the dignity of wearing it inside and out.