Socially Constructed “Blackness” and (Hegelian) Racialized Refrains “Out of the Mouths of Babes”

In Black Skin, White Masks, Frantz Fanon recounts his experience on a train of being “fixed” by a white other—an other which happened to be a child who had already been habituated to see blacks as defined by the white imagination.  As the child’s refrain, “Look! A Negro!”[1] crescendoed forth and came to a close with a fearful questioning of the “Negro’s” next move, Fanon not only experienced the gaze of the white other, he also began to see himself through the white gaze.[2]Tracks

I cast an objective gaze over myself, and I discovered my blackness, my ethnic characteristics—and they burst my eardrums with cannibalism, backwardness [l’arriération mentale], fetishism, racial defects, slaves and above all, and above all:  “Y a bon Banania.”  On that day I was disoriented, incapable of existing outside with the Other, the White man, who mercilessly imprisoned me.  I carried myself far away from my Dasein [de mon être-là]—very far away—and constituted myself as an object.  What was this for me, if not a separation [décollement], an uprooting [arrachement], a hemorrhage which congealed with black blood over my entire body.  Nevertheless, I did not want this reconsideration, this thematization of myself. I wanted quite simply to be a human among other humans.[3]

As Fanon takes up the white view of himself, he experiences its all-encompassing reach.  That is, his becoming a white-defined black other involved more than his present encounter with the child on the train; in essence, he entered into the white erasing and re-scripting of black history.  Not only is his present fixed by the white other, but his past is fixed as well.  The child’s unison refrain gives rise to polyphonic lines of “cannibalism, backwardness, fetishism” and the like.

Even if it is the case that the child, because of his lack of cognitive development, is an unwilling or non-culpable participant in furthering racism and racial discourse; nonetheless, the effect—un-reflective racism in children—is a reality that confronts the black other on a daily basis and forces him to experience his phenotypic differences as conceived by the white imagination.  As Fanon explains, “I am overdetermined from the outside.  […] The white gaze, the only valid one, is already dissecting me.  I am fixed.  Once their microtomes are sharpened, the Whites objectively cut sections of my reality.”[4] Fanon’s body, particularly his ever-present, always uncovered black skin, brimming with manifold white-determined meanings, takes on a life of its own.  This second-self is created through discourse—a socially constructed subjectivity—a kind of reverse shadow whose form creates a path upon which Fanon must walk. As the encounter with the child continues and the refrain sounds once again, “Look, a Negro!  Maman, a Negro!”, the boy’s mother, somewhat nervously, cries, “Ssh! You’ll make him angry.  Don’t pay attention to him, monsieur, he doesn’t realize you’re just as civilized as we are.”[5] As Kant, Hegel and other Western philosophers have asserted, the Western tradition, for which white European culture becomes the surrogate, is the standard for determining whether a nation has a culture or could possibly become cultured and civilized, and thus enter into world history.

Kant, paving the way for Hegel, claims that true history begins with the Greeks and that non-Greek peoples are validated only through contact with the Greeks.  On Kant’s estimation, the (non)histories of non-Greeks are simply “terra incognita,” an amorphous X, lacking (Western) form and thus unable to appear as intelligible.  He then turns to the Jews to illustrate how a nation may enter a state of historical and cultural recognition.

This happened with the Jewish nation (volk) at the time of the Ptolemies through the Greek translation of the Bible, without which one would ascribe little credibility to their isolated records.  From that point forward (if this beginning has been properly ascertained) one can pursue its narratives.  And thus with all the other nations (Völkern).[6]

In his lectures on the philosophy of history, Hegel takes up this same line of thinking; however, in order to justify his position, he provides an elaborate narrative in which Geist’s presence or absence indicates whether a nation has historical, cultural or socio-political significance.[7] One might go as far as to claim that the mother’s remark to Fanon has its own genealogical history which is consonant with the Western philosophical tradition; her awareness of this history matters little.  Approached in this manner, echoes of Hegel’s depiction of Africans as cannibalistic can still be heard in the child’s cry, “Maman, the Negro’s going to eat me”.[8]

All of these discourses—whether philosophical, pseudoscientific, or everyday chatter on a public train—comprise the many pieces of Fanon’s “black” self, woven together by the white other.


[1] The French reads, ‘tiens un nègre’, which can also be translated, ‘Look! A Nigger’.  Perhaps various English translations have presented a kinder, gentler version, thus concealing the ‘sting’ produced by the child’s repeated utterance.

[2] See also Bart van Leewan, ‘To What Extent is Racism a Magical Transformation?’ Journal of Social Philosophy 38 (2007), 296 ff.  Van Leewan discusses the ‘gaze’ from the perspective of the racist in order to give an account of the motivational structure of racism.  In addition, van Leeuwen’s essay offers several practical anti-racism strategies (see especially, 303–5).

[3] My translation.  Fanon, Peau noire, masques blancs, 90-1.

[4] Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, 95.

[5] Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, 93.

[6] Immanuel Kant.  ‘Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Aim (1784)’, trans. Allen W. Wood, 107–120, at 118. Anthropology, History and Education. Ed. and trans. Günter Zöller and Robert Louden.  (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2008), 118.

[7] Robert Bernasconi has devoted several manuscripts to the study of Hegel and his Eurocentrism.  See, for example, Bernasconi, ‘With What Must the Philosophy of World History Begin?  On the Racial Bias of Hegel’s Eurocentrism’, Nineteenth-Century Contexts 22 (2000):  171–201.  See also, Bernasconi, ‘Hegel at the Court of the Ashanti’.  In Hegel After Derrida, ed. by Stuart Barnett, 41–63.  London:  Routledge, 1998.

[8] Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, 93.