Part II: Fanon’s Descent Under the Burden of the White Gaze

The history of black people, as mentioned previously, is simultaneously erased and re-written by the white Frantz Fanon imagination.  This new history defines what a black person is—intellectually inferior, in need of a (white) master, incapable of contributing positively to (white, European) society and culture.  The black person does not create this narrative, but is scripted into it and constructed by it.  Nonetheless, a time comes when a black person is confronted with the white mythos by way of a particular, concrete and often painful encounter and thus begins to accept and internalize the mythology.  In Fanon’s words, “[d]isoriented, incapable of confronting the Other, the white man, who had no scruples about imprisoning me, I transported myself on that particular day far, very far, from myself, and gave myself up as an object.”[1]

Fanon’s dramatic re-telling of the train episode and the pre-theoretical, racial assumptions apparent in the child’s remarks about Fanon serve a two-fold function.  First, the narrative calls attention to the deficiencies of Merleau-Ponty’s corporeal schema.  Second, the narrative highlights the way in which phenotypic or so-called “racial” differences—as negatively interpreted by the dominant group in a given historical epoch—close off or a least severely hinder the possibilities of freedom, as well as personal and cultural transformation for the oppressed group.   Hence, Fanon offers his historico-racial schema as a corrective.  Yet, his account also includes the racial-epidermal schema.  Whereas the historico-racial schema brings to light the historical contingencies and mythological narratives imposed upon blacks, the racial-epidermal schema speaks to the sedimentation of the so-called “black essence.”   In other words, once the new narrative of what it means to be a black person, which includes the various meanings that have been assigned to phenotypic differences, has become fixed, ossified and even naturalized in the social consciousness and cultural and legal practices, the black essence has been successfully created.[2]

Once we transition to the racial-epidermal schema, the all-pervasiveness of the white gaze—here understood broadly as the white mythos as manifest in the cultural consciousness and systematically expressed in the cultural institutions and practices of a given society—functions like a Panopticon, keeping the black person under constant inspection.  Though speaking of the incarcerated, Foucault’s description applies quite well to the black person’s situation vis-à-vis the white, European other, “he is the object of information, never a subject in communication.”[3] Once the racial-epidermal schema has come to fruition and the black essence has been fixed, the requisite racial machinery has likewise been established to ensure “proper” social boundaries and to keep the white mythology unchallenged.  In a way similar to the Panopticon’s ability to “disindividualiz[e] power” and distribute it through various socio-cultural and legal structures, institutions and people, Fanon’s schemata points to the systemic racial structures of colonized Europe.  These racialized disciplinary practices, though not identical to the disciplinary practices Foucault describes, nonetheless share close family resemblances with “a machinery that assures dissymmetry, disequilibrium, difference.” [4] The racial-epidermal schema, broadly construed to include these systemic, disindividualized power structures, enables even the most vulnerable and innocent members of society—the child on the train—to be an instrument of and even operate the racial machinery.

Notes


[1] Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, p. 92.

[2] On the movement and interpretation of Fanon’s schemata, I follow Weate, who views the racial epidermal schema as “a later stage in psychosomatic disintegration and alienation” (p. 174).  Weate describes the movement to the epidermal schema as Fanon’s attempt to trace a “genealogy of racial essentialism” (p. 173).  As he explains, “[t]he epidermal marks the stage where historical construction and contingency is effaced and replaced with the facticity of flesh.  The colour of skin now appears to be intrinsically significant.  With the outset of epidermalization, we are at the edge of being-for-others sedimenting into an essence, a ‘fact’ of blackness.  Fanon is therefore demonstrating that essentialism is a discourse derived from a perversive repression of history.  By marking the two stages of the ‘historico-racial’ and then the ‘racial-epidermal’, he is therefore contesting the view that essentialism, and in particular black essentialism, is grounded in a biological problematic.  For Fanon, the essentialization of blackness is the product of a concealed perversion of history. It is only once this concealment is consolidated (through epidermalization) that questions concerning the biological ground of race arise.  The distinction he makes between the two stages of schematization or epistemic enframing therefore allow biologistic discourses around race to be seen as phenomena derivative upon a prior perversion of history that is subsequently concealed” (“Fanon, Merleau-Ponty and the Difference of Phenomenology,” pp. 174-75).

[3] Foucault, Discipline and Punish, p. 200.

[4] Foucault, Discipline and Punish, p. 202.