Per Caritatem

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.

Notes


[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.

 

.KantA commenter recently asked a good question related to this post on Fanon.  The person asks whether Kant’s categorical imperative might militate against Carter’s accusation that Kant manifests a “possessive-tyrannical disposition” in his writings.  Since this is a natural question that anyone who has at least some familiarity with Kant might raise, I have decided to post my (slightly edited) response

I assume you have in mind Kant’s formulation of the categorical imperative which states that we must always treat human beings as ends and never as means.  On the surface, of course, this sounds great. However, when you place it within Kant’s larger philosophical schema, it is problematic (at least for the Christian who rejects racism and all forms of racialized essentialism). As Robert Bernasconi has shown, Kant’s hierarchical view of race, in which whites are superior and all other “races” inferior to various degrees, does not sit well with his cosmopolitanism, unless one is willing to admit that the only true, fully autonomous and hence free individuals are a particular group of white males. Also, the Christian claims that humans ought not to be instrumentalized because they are created in God’s image, which is of course a claim based on divine revelation. Neither in prelapsarian paradise nor in the eschaton are human relationships characterized by domination.  Slavery, then can be understood as something that comes about due the Fall.   In his text, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant speaks of the “kingdom of ends,” which refers to the moral universe created by rational humans willing the moral law. (The moral law is willed from “pure reason”). Kant claims that in this moral universe/kingdom of ends, each rational person is equal and sovereign. People are equal in so far as they will the moral law in accordance with reason, and they are sovereign because by doing so, they each contribute to the building of this “kingdom” or “moral universe.” From this idea of a kingdom of ends, Kant comes up with a variation on his first formulation of the categorical imperative. This version reads as follows, “For all rational beings come under the law that each of them must treat itself and all others never merely as means, but in every case at the same time as ends in themselves.”  Here Kant explicitly articulates the sovereignty and dignity of the (rational) individual, and he states that we are always to treat others as ends not as mere means. Again, on the surface this sounds great.  After all in this formulation of the categorial imperative, Kant declares that we must never use other people or treat them as tools for our purposes because to do so is to disallow their participation as equal, sovereign individuals in the moral universe and likewise to deny their dignity. Yet, in Kant’s writings on race he indicates that Indians, Africans and more or less any non-European (white) ethnic group can in fact be used as tools. According to Kant’s estimation, American Indians are “uneducable,” the “race of Negroes can educated, but only to the education of servants,” Hindus are “educable to arts and not to sciences. They will never achieve abstract concepts”; however, “the race of whites contains all motives and talents in itself” (of course he means white males of a certain sort) [Menschenkunde 1781/82].  In short, Kant’s problematic views on race are in serious tension with his cosmopolitanism and his ethical views, and the more I study the literature “from the underside of modernity” the more I believe his position as a whole to be un-salvable.  For an excellent theological critique of Kant’s view of race, see chapter two of J. Kameron Carter’s book, Race: A Theological Critique.