Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin White Masks and the Social Sickness of Racism

Miguel Morrissey

Racism is rampant and unspoken, denied and obvious. In a country of diverse terrain, we nonetheless remain connected via media, social utterances, and responses to certain events. It is easy to say “I am not a racist” or to believe in the choice of not being a racist. One sees an embarrassing figure on a news outlet and claims “I am not that! I am not a racist.” But what if it’s not as simple as choosing? At the sight of the structures that be—the disproportional numbers concerning incarceration, the far too many murders committed by our protectors, the lack of infrastructure in communities of color—it is obvious that the state of things is profoundly racist. Yet to admit to oneself anything of the sort meets a resistance equally profound. Perhaps it is a resistance of psychological significance. Perhaps our society as such suffers an unconscious ailment. Unfortunately, the people marginalized due to this illness too frequently remain the objects of cathartic violence. The situation Frantz Fanon depicts in —through the personal retelling of traumatic objectification and through analysis of the productive and reproductive effects of collective catharsis—is by no means a situation simply of the past; it is but one manifestation of a social psychosis whose traumatic impulse is the repetition of the narrative of domination and submission.

The Traumatized Object

Objectification is achieved literally. Beginning with the most personal, Fanon points out “In the white world the man of color encounters difficulties in the development of his bodily schema. Consciousness of the body is solely a negating activity. It is a third-person consciousness.”[i] The external stimulus of a child who says “Look, a Negro!” has compelled a physical reaction for the objectified person. One becomes disoriented, and one has to evaluate one’s own “bodily schema.” Most importantly, one sees their own body as an object, free floating in space, a separation between self and world. This hyper-awareness of one’s body produces traumatic effects. It produces a self-objectification, where one feels oneself as an object, and the more this is repeated the more objectification seems an acceptable thing. This is the daily ontological crisis experienced by bodies lacking ‘presence.’ In Fanon’s situation, the experienced lack is of whiteness. As a parallel, for the woman, the experienced lack is of the penis. The significance of this lack is completely imagined. But for the traumatized object, it is felt as a reality. “Look, a Negro!” is akin to saying ‘Look, a monster!’ or better yet ‘Look, a funny picture!’ In being forced to confirm his own bodily presence, Fanon is forced to ask himself, ‘Am I really here?’ Yes, one sees oneself as present, yet one concurrently feels empty of the qualifications to experience being through others. One is stripped of everything but a bodily schema.

Furthermore, when one seeks a psychoanalyst for treatment, the method is to trace the symptom back to the trauma. But Fanon shows us the reverse. He shows us trauma that produces a symptom that reproduces more trauma. Objectification is thoroughly achieved, inside and out. Fanon continues: “…assailed at various points, the corporeal schema crumbled, its place taken by a racial epidermal schema. In the train it was no longer a question of being aware of my body in the third person but in a triple person.”[ii] His play on words is important here. There is a difference in experiencing oneself in the third person and experiencing triple consciousness. The traumatized object is not only objectified literally but is broken into different modes of being. Consciousness is split. One must exist in a sense for oneself, yet differently in another sense, as seen by an opposing world. And, thirdly, one must exist to fulfill the other’s idealization of them. One can imagine the dissociative effects of this daily double-trauma. How can one know oneself if one has to constantly relive a shattered existence? To see oneself as a broken object in the distance, to begin to accept this position of nothingness, is the tremendous accomplishment of a psychotic society whose obsessive compulsion is domination.

Rationalization in a sick society can only be a failed attempt. Fanon confesses the cyclic series of psychological self-realizations he encounters. Faced with the task to defend himself against hate, he rationalizes but soon realizes he faces the insurmountable. He writes: “I had rationalized the world and the world had rejected me on the basis of color prejudice. Since no agreement was possible on the level of reason, I threw myself back toward unreason.”[iii] Rationalization is met with the irrationality of racism, and the colonists in this situation will go through pseudo-intellectual and pseudo-scientific hurdles to defend themselves from an intellectual attack and from any level of self-critique. The racists are irrational as a means of defense against their own inhumanity. One cannot argue with an other that cannot argue. Regardless, rationalism cannot triumph an ignorance of self-infliction, a repression on the side of the oppressive psychotics. Further, through Fanon’s heartfelt “regression” to unreason, Fanon finds himself reinforcing “the Negro Myth.” Now, he functions as the exotic, poetic, spontaneous, emotional child for the white man to savor and to save. Now, the white man’s reason triumphs unreason. A ridiculous cycle of domination, where the traumatized object, both intellectually and ethically, can never be right. Fanon continues: “Thus my unreason was countered with reason, my reason with ‘real reason.’ Every hand was a losing hand for me. I analyzed my heredity. I made a complete audit of my ailment. I wanted to be typically Negro—it was no longer possible. I wanted to be white—that was a joke.”[iv] Through a more profound and multi-faceted achievement of rationalization, Fanon seeks to carve out his own space for activity, to come into being and to resolve the ontological crisis of what it means to be a black man. But every victory is met with laughter. Even the empowerment through historical material, is met with “real reason.” The racism of colonial presuppositions is not founded on any history but its own. And now we return to the terrific irrational defense against the reality of colonized people. It is a lose-lose scenario for the traumatized object. Every stroke of brilliance is met with collective hysterical laughter. Too loud to be heard.

Sublimation is prohibited. The empowerment of a creative realization of self for the traumatized object is met with profound resistance. Fanon quotes Sartre: “negritude as an antithetical value is the moment of negativity…that it is intended to prepare the synthesis or realization of the human in a society without races. Thus negritude is the root of its own destruction, it is a transition and not a conclusion, a means and not an ultimate end.”[v] To hear this from a revered ally is nothing short of devastating for Fanon. Today, with the advantage of living a number of decades after this statement was written, the proposition of the universal as the answer is suspect. Does blackness have to connote a passive negative component in a larger process of history? Or is there room for an active difference, with agency, where one’s conclusion does not have to be “overdetermined?” The black person by this logic is overdetermined. As an antithesis, s/he does not get sublimation. And s/he does not get an existential crisis. S/he does not become anything. But best case scenario, the world does not care about race anymore. Viewing negritude and such movements as this “negative moment” is in direct opposition to creating a liberating space for a different type of human being, to the sublimating empowerment of a different self-knowledge. This logic is a product of the very same sickness of self-affirming sameness and othering. Is the utopian ideal of a universal “world without races” not an impossible tyrannical nightmare?[vi]

To close the chapter, Fanon invokes an example of an amputee who advised him to accept his victimhood. He writes: “I am a master and I am advised to adopt the humility of the cripple. Yesterday, awakening to the world, I saw the sky turn upon itself utterly and wholly. I wanted to rise, but the disemboweled silence fell back upon me, its wings paralyzed. Without responsibility, straddling Nothingness and Infinity, I began to weep.”[vii] Blatantly and perhaps subconsciously, Fanon rejects functioning as an object of sympathy, castrated into an overdetermined, fixed objecthood. Standing at the edge of a cliff, in losing oneself to the ‘night of the soul,’ one realizes something beautiful. The future has yet to be decided. The traumatized object’s attempt at a liberating sublimation is met with the utmost resistance. Perhaps such a resistance signals a frantic anxiety. A step towards the psychotic society’s treatment. “…straddling Nothingness and Infinity,” Lack and Presence, Destiny and Freedom, one thing is absolute: the idea of a differently empowered human cannot be tolerated.

Collective Catharsis

The social sickness begins with repression. Fanon elaborates on the infantile dimensions of the phobic: “In the phobic, affect has a priority that defies all rational thinking. As we can see, the phobic is a person who is governed by the laws of rational prelogic and affective prelogic: methods of thinking and feeling that go back to the age at which he experienced the event that impaired his security.”[viii] By “prelogic,” Fanon is commenting on the irrational presuppositions of racism that are produced through the regression to childish modes of thinking and feeling. The psychotic racist is confronted with a body that is different from oneself, and in the colonial situation, s/he repeats the “prelogic” of a traumatic infantile state. The colonizer returns to a state before repression as a defense because racism is not rational. If the family unit is a model for the social, that is to say, if the authority of the father is transferred to the authority of the country, an impairment of security and a repression at an early age must manifest in some way in the presence of others. Here, the black man becomes the object of a transfixed phobia due to a repression at a ‘prelogical’ phase. But what is the nature of the repression? In a chaste, white patriarchal society, perhaps it is oedipal. The father’s prohibition against incest is an unnecessary and traumatic “discourse-desire”[ix] that continues as a vicious cycle through generations. This fantasy recreates itself through the collective unconscious. Fanon continues: “The white man who ascribes a malefic influence to the black is regressing on the intellectual level…Is there not a concurrent regression to and fixation at pregenital levels of sexual development? Self-castration? (The Negro is taken as a terrifying penis.) Passivity justifying itself by the recognition of the superiority of the black man in terms of sexual capacity?”[x] The stereotype concerning penis size undoubtedly remains today. The evoking of imagined attributes is not as simple as a mere scapegoat complex for an early impairment of security. A level of guilt is involved. Fanon points out the paradoxical masochism from the oppressor who participates in “self-castration.” In other words, the white man regresses to a state of submission, quite possibly a repression concerning the fear of castration from his father. Whatever the origin of this genital fixation, a sexual repression is realized in the regression to a ‘prelogical’ absurd and imagined drama of penis-envy.

The cathartic symptom of repression manifests as the projection of “the Negro myth.” Fanon writes: “The civilized white man retains an irrational longing for unusual eras of sexual license, of orgiastic scenes, of unpunished rapes, of unrepressed incest…Projecting his own desires onto the Negro, the white man behaves as if the Negro really had them…the Negro is fixated at the genital; or at any rate he has been fixated there.”[xi] The meaning of this absurd genital drama becomes clearer. The black man and woman are hyper-sexualized. They function as props, substitutive objects of a certain symbolic impotence that is merely imagined. The black man is a giant penis, and the white man’s desire to create a drama of penis-envy is projected on the black man’s body to validate a collective phobia of merciless othering. The exotic fantasies the colonist projects onto bodies functions both as a defense to sexual trauma and a defense to their own ruthless inhumanity.[xii] Furthermore, the colonial collective catharsis of projected and reinforced fantasy goes deeper. Fanon continues: “…without thinking, the Negro selects himself as an object capable of carrying the burden of original sin. The white man chooses the black man for this function, and the black man who is white also chooses the black man. The black Antillean is the slave of this cultural imposition. After having been the slave of the white man, he enslaves himself.”[xiii] The consequences of cathartic projection become palpable. It produces an infernal cycle of self-renunciation and self-loathing. ‘To be white is to be good; to be black is to be bad.’ becomes ‘To be good is to be white; to be bad is to be black.’ This is the violent force of collective catharsis. Something deeply repressed explodes with the impulse to recreate, to force a traumatic situation. Half-aware of the devastating effects, horrified yet unsatisfied. The result is not just for the black man and woman to embody lack but to embody evil itself. By means of a violent projection, the psychotic phobic creates a psychotic society.

More specifically, the projection of “the Negro myth” is an unconscious repetition automatism to recreate a master/slave relation; mimesis is the means of domination. Fanon writes of the white man: “As soon as possible he will tell me that it is not enough to try to be white, but that a white totality must be achieved. It is only then that I shall recognize the betrayal.”[xiv] The betrayal of which Fanon speaks is the promise of the colonizer—bearer of enlightenment, beauty, purity of the soul, becoming—that assimilation is possible, and if one submits, one can have these things too. The colonized person must live like the colonizer, but one is never fully assimilated and respected by the homogenous group. There is always a discrepancy that distinguishes who is master and who functions as ‘naturalized’ slave, serving as the mirrored lack to affirm white identity, to affirm presence, presence of whiteness. ‘I have it and you don’t.’ What is disguised as a dependency complex is only a falsely ethical defense towards the repetition automatism to recreate this traumatic domination scenario. Fanon writes:

The eye is not merely a mirror, but a correcting mirror. The eye should make it possible for us to correct cultural errors. I do not say the eyes, I say the eye, and there is no mystery about what that eye refers to; not to the crevice in the skull but to that very uniform light that wells out of the reds of Van Gogh, that glides through a concerto of Tchaikovsky, that fastens itself desperately to Schiller’s Ode to Joy, that allows itself to be conveyed by the worm-ridden bawling of Césaire. The Negro problem does not resolve itself into the problem of Negroes living among white men but rather of Negroes exploited, enslaved, despised by a colonialist, capitalist society that is only accidentally white.[xv]
The psychotic phobic seeks a “crevice” in the skull of the other. The eye is not a mirror for the phobic but an emptiness to project fantasy upon and into. This is the means for the phobic’s attempt to fill themselves through the imagined “crevice” of the object. S/he does not see a “correcting mirror” in the different eye because the feared object must serve as lacking in this presence to justify enforced mimesis. But the eye of the other cannot be reduced to a “crevice” for brutal self-affirmation. It offers a striking difference that creates a space for self-correction, for ‘reflection.’ To experience being through others does not have to be a relation of lack and presence. We are sick to formulate it in these terms, and the enactment of mimesis with its means of noninclusive assimilation cannot be justified ethically if the phobic sees “that very uniform light” in the different eyes of a different human. Further, with the works of art Fanon enumerates in this passage, there is a genuine respect for that which we do not know. That possibility for difference that is met with resistance. It is resisted because the relentless repetition automatism, that continues to reinforce itself at every margin. There is us and others, winner and loser, an economy of sameness forever by its very ‘monetary’ nature only concerned with stratification, the end circumstance, by this traumatic metric, this neurotic defense from the untraceable prehistoric master, remains domination. At another vulnerable moment Fanon writes: “I can imagine myself lost, submerged in a white flood composed of men like Sartre or Aragon, I should like nothing better.”[xvi] In a psychotic world, it hurts to experience being through others. But such is the paradox of difference.

Lastly, it is necessary to address the justification of violent projection by ‘Nature.’ Fanon writes: “Jung locates the collective unconscious in the inherited cerebral matter. But the collective unconscious, without our having to fall back on the genes, is purely and simply the sum of prejudices, myths, collective attitudes of a given group.”[xvii] Violence as “inherited cerebral matter” involves a lot of washing one’s hands of responsibility. The same genetic model can be used in reverse. Such logic can be used to validate that the stereotypes for black people and “the Negro myth” are true and verifiable. It can be used to inscribe false determinants. ‘Nature’ justifies the domination of women. ‘Nature’ justifies the non-inclusion of trans and queer people.

‘Nature’ justifies ongoing white supremacy. It justifies cathartic projection. With the black athlete, the smart asian, it is easy to say, ‘They are like so by nature.’ If one seeks to find the most blissful ignorance, look to the many misconducted scientific revelations. Fanon continues: “[In Jung’s view] the myths and archetypes are permanent engrams of the race. I hope I have shown that nothing of the sort is the case and that in fact the collective unconscious is cultural, which means acquired.”[xviii] There is nothing natural about our so called ‘human nature.’ There is nothing biological about domination. There are only creatures exposed at the onset to a preexisting contagion. Further, there is nothing inherently aggressive about the libido. It is not a ‘sexual’ drive to dominate but to grow and to exist. This misinterpretation of a ‘natural’ aggressiveness of the libido is an elaborate defense to the paralyzing fact of a traumatic origin that is altogether unrecoverable. Traumatized by the psychotics, enacting the repetition of an imagined relation, an imaginary and presupposed law to the order of things, the winner-loser dream can only destine guilt and discontent.


As his final example in the chapter entitled “The Negro and Psychopathology,” Fanon remarks on one particular instance of neurosis. A young woman experiences certain spasmodic tics due to a trauma during childhood. Her father “an old-timer in the Colonial Service,” a notable detail, would listen to black music involving the playing of the tom-tom drum and percussion past her bed time. As a child, she imagined being surrounded by black savages, and her siblings would tease and scare her for it, reinforcing trauma at the level of the family unit. As a defense mechanism, she imagined vivid circles expanding and contracting as part of her hallucinations. Fanon writes: “…the defense mechanism had taken over without reference to what had brought it on…My presence on her ward made no perceptible difference in her mental state. By now it was the circles alone that produced the motor reactions…”[xix] And so the destructive symptoms remain, ghosts of a traumatic origin, an origin of an infantile and obscured nature, one from the family unit that omens catharsis in the social body. Collectively, a toxic fission, we birth our own destruction.

Is domination and submission not a compulsion that reproduces itself through tics in everyday life, such as walking faster on the sidewalk for no apparent reason, or the physical act of talking over someone? To concede, it seems absurd that the father, by nature, dominates the child whom rightfully experiences the fear of castration from him. If we continue, the Oedipus complex would seem an impressive and notable elaboration of such waking-dream-work.[xx] But we continue to make such nightmares real. Racism’s impulse to oppress, and the impulse of oppression itself, are not by ‘nature’ and are not by choice; but by the reality of an inherited illness. Perhaps confronting this social sickness, speaking of it in the harsh terms of domination, fearlessly, without illusions of empty humanism, and with the utmost critical view of ourselves, is the first step to healing.

There is truth to the simplicity of self-work. And perhaps work in this precise sense is my only answer. The phantom of an anxious master who dominates in fear of being dominated will continue to haunt us, so long as we are traumatized at first contact with the structures that cradle us. So long as we forget the embarrassing figure on a news outlet is a mirror of the self. So long as I forget to tell myself “That is me.” And so long as we forget to remind ourselves that our world is sick.

[i] Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. London: Pluto, 2008. Print. p. 81.

[ii] Ibid. p. 84

[iii] Ibid. p. 93.

[iv] Ibid. p. 101.

[v] Ibid. pp. 101-102.

[vi] Today, the vision of our founding fathers[?] here in the United States is honored with the utmost reverence. But, of course, the question arises: democracy for whom? Simply put, there is always an excess to the populace that remains excluded on the basis of difference. Does the adherence to the transcendental beauty of such an ordered, uniform society not seem like a product of the age-old self-justified tyrannical universal, that defends itself against its own injustice with a symptomatic amnesia? A dream of democracy with the nightmare of enslavement?

[vii] Ibid. pp. 107-108.

[viii] Ibid. p. 120.

[ix] Luce Irigaray elaborates on the “seductive function of law itself” as introduced by the father as a “desire for a discourse.” (Irigaray, Luce. Speculum of the Other Woman. Ithaca, NY: Cornell U, 2010. Print. pp. 37-40.)

[x] Fanon, p. 136.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] For a contemporary example, the projection of xenophobic myths onto bodies exhibited particularly by certain white working class populations is a similar double-defense. ‘They’re stealing our jobs and are lazy’ implies a level of insecurity towards one who may do a ‘better job.’ This symbolic impotence is projected both as a defense to insecurity and as a defense to the cruelty of xenophobia. And, the same is the case with homophobia. ‘The way they have sex is wrong’ and better yet ‘Marriage is between a man and woman,’ is a projection of the symbolic impotence, of having sex the ‘right’ way and perhaps of the tradition of marriage itself. Does “Till death do us part” not sound like a terrifying prospect? A repressive contract, to be sure.

[xiii] Ibid. p. 148.

[xiv] Ibid. p. 149.

[xv] Ibid. pp. 156-157.

[xvi] Ibid. p. 157.

[xvii] Ibid. p. 145.

[xviii] Ibid. p. 145.

[xix] Ibid. 162.

[xx] Freud in his early masterpiece includes a number of dreams by children concerning death-wishes for their parents. Though these dreams can be agreed to containing oedipal jealousy, one can also interpret them much more simply as containing a frustration towards a parent’s excessive desire to prohibit. Perhaps seeing an oedipal drama where one does not exist is Freud’s own ‘elaboration.’ (Freud, Sigmund, and James Strachey. The Interpretation of Dreams. New York: Basic A Member of the Perseus Group, 2010. Print. pp. 266-288.)


I am a writer, composer, electronic musician, and pianist. My academic interests include confronting power dynamics through examination of creative works and other cultural materials. I am a scholarship and grant recipient at Berklee College of Music’s department of Electronic Production and Design. Recently, my musical debut album “Big Impressions” was released via Los Angeles record label Tar and named Album of the Month (January 2017) by Mixmag.

Featured Artwork: By Afrank99; M.G.Berberich (modified version of Vollton_halbton_stucki.png) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons