– Though Fanon’s work was first published in 1952, its language and thinking resonate with modern progressive thought. Critical theorists’ definition of ‘white supremacy’ captures the ingrained psychological and cultural dominance that Fanon identified as products of colonialism. I recognized the striking similarities between the style of writer Ta-Nehisi Coates and Fanon even before I noticed that Coates’ acclaimed biography Between the World and Me borrows its title from a line in Fanon’s work.
– Fanon’s stories of life as a Martinque-born, French-educated black man were both fascinating and appalling. Although he reports no violent encounters and few explicit acts of racial aggression, the rampant casual racism he experienced even among highly-educated, ‘progressive’ elites are indescribably jarring to modern ears.
– Fanon’s observation that racism survives and can be perpetuated not merely by individual prejudices or institutions, but by culture and by deeply ingrained patters of thought is correct and extremely important. Changing laws and even behavior is insufficient to eliminate racism; it needs to be recognized and uprooted at the level of our worldview.
– Though he suggests that racialized thinking is grounded in our ‘collective unconscious,’ Fanon rejects Jung’s idea that the ‘collective unconscious’ is a kind of ‘ancestral memory’ (the existence of which I find dubious) but instead identifies it as our inherited culture. It is not located in “the inherited cerebral matter” but “is purely and simply the sum of prejudices, myths, collective attitudes of a given group” (p. 188).
– Although the book is generally well-written, it not infrequently degenerates into long word-salads which are difficult to parse. At times, the words appear to have been chosen not to communicate meaning, but for other reasons, like having an even number of consonants. A typical example: “Man is not merely a possibility of recapture or of negation. If it is true that consciousness is a process of transcendence, we have to see too that this transcendence is haunted by the problems of love and understanding. Man is a ‘yes’ that vibrates to cosmic harmonies.” (p. 8)
– The overall flow of the book was similarly disjointed. At first, I wondered whether I was simply missing some subtle logical connection between sentences or paragraphs. However, when I began to notice sentence fragments that trailed off in ellipses, I finally concluded that Fanon was aiming for a stream of consciousness rather than structured, sequential, logical arguments with premises and conclusions.
– My main concern is not that Fanon’s thesis is false, but that it is not well-supported by evidence. As I said above, Fanon hits on an important and plausible idea when he observes that racism is often deeply rooted in ideas, culture, and patterns of thought. However, he defends this thesis by appealing almost entirely to his own experience. Moreover, he recognizes that his experiences is not universal. In response to the claim that “there are white men who do not fit [his] description,” he preemptively writes: “the subject of our study is the dupes and those who dupe them…if there are white men who behave naturally when they meet Negroes, they certainly do not fall within the scope of our examination” (p. 31). But this admission makes it difficult to judge exactly how general his conclusions are.
– In the whole book, he offers only one quantitative piece of data to support his conclusion. In a section on “phobia of Negroes” (p. 165), he asks 500 patients to free associate using the word “Negro.” He writes that “almost 60 percent of the replies … brought forth biology, penis, strong, athletic, potent, boxer, Joe Lewis, Jesse Owens, Senegalese troops, savage, animal, devil, sin” (p. 166) Yet this category is unbelievably broad. For example, if 1% of the patients associated “Negro” with “Joe Lewis” and 59% associated “Negro” with “devil,” that is extremely different than if the percentages were reversed. The former supports Fanon’s conclusion about a widespread “phobia of Negroes” while the latter does not. Since Fanon offers no further details, the reader cannot plausibly draw any reliably conclusions from these data.
– Also dubious is Fanon’s heavy reliance on Freudian psychoanalysis and its invocation of sex to explain nearly everything: “In relation to the Negro, everything takes place on the genital level” (p. 157) “when a white man hates black men, is he not yielding to a feeling of impotence or of sexual inferiority?” (p. 159) the Negro “is viewed as a penis symbol” (p. 159) “the Negro is turned into a penis. He is a penis” (p. 170). Similarly, Fanon spends several pages (p. 204-209) describing a woman who is treated by her psychotherapist using “waking-dream therapy” involving hallucinations of tom-toms and angels. I will spare the reader Fanon’s very disturbing (but typically Freudian) claims about the sexual fantasies of white women (see p. 178-9), or his interpretation of several fictional novels to support his claims. The upshot is that his methodology is extremely questionable if one doubts the validity or objectivity of Freudian analysis.
– Because of my skepticism about Fanon’s methodology, I think his work is better received as his own personal interpretation of racism and colonialism in the 1950s France and French Antilles than an objective, systematic, scientific study of this subject. Receiving it as personal testimony carries two dangers. The first mistake is to ignore it entirely, which I think is unwarranted. If nothing else, Fanon gives us a window into his own experiences, which is certainly valuable. On the other hand, I think we can too readily apply his claims universally, failing to take into account his historic circumstances.
– Here, I think the parallels that Fanon draws between racism and anti-Semitism are important. He sees the psychological loathing and fear evoked by both Jews and blacks as very similar, citing Sartre’s work on anti-Semitism extensively. Even if Fanon and Sartre were completely correct that Jews were universally loathed, hated, and seen as sub-human 65 years ago, few people would assume that our situation today is identical. In the same way, the similarities between colonial psychology in the French Antilles to the psychology of an entirely different context (like the U.S. in 2018) needs to be argued, not simply assumed.
– Note, that I think it’s possible to make such arguments. One might start with the work of psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark, although this study, too, is quite dated. However, it shows in principle that the kind of internalized racism described by Fanon can be measured objectively. Another potential example would be implicit association tests, with the caveat that the validity of these tests and their relevance to racism is open to debate.
– Most surprising of all was Fanon’s final chapter, which was completely unexpected. In it, Fanon disavows attempts to live in the past, to stoke anger, or to demand restitution for past offenses as a remedy for racial ills, in language which many progressives would probably find decidedly un-progessive: “In no way should I derive my basic purpose from the past of the peoples of color. In no way should I dedicate myself to the revival of an unjustly unrecognized Negro civilization…I as a man of color do not have the right to seek ways of stamping down the pride of my former master. I have neither the right nor the duty to claim reparation for the domestication of my ancestors…I have one right alone: That of demanding human behavior from the other. One duty along: That of not renouncing my freedom through my choices…” (p. 228-229). This existential, individualistic approach to racial reconciliation is likely to strike a sour note with the modern antiracist movement.
Fanon’s work is valuable as a piece of testimony and offers insight into the degree to which racism can be deeply embedded in our psyche. Nonetheless his methods are highly suspect and some of his claims about female sexuality will strike modern readers as incredibly distasteful. His concluding thoughts offered a surprising contrast with modern progressive ideology, but are consistent with his existentialism.
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