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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 imagination.  This new
history de nes 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 de ciencies of Merleau-Ponty’s corporeal
schema.  Second, the narrative highlights the way in which phenotypic or so-called
“racial” di erences—as negatively interpreted by the dominant group in a given
historical epoch—close o or a least severely hinder the possibilities of freedom, as
well as personal and cultural transformation for the oppressed group.   Hence, Fanon
o ers 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
di erences, has become xed, ossi ed 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
xed, 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, di erence.” [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 e aced and replaced with the facticity of esh.  The colour of skin
now appears to be intrinsically signi cant.  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 Di erence of Phenomenology,” pp.
174-75).

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

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

November 20, 2009 / Frantz Fanon, Michel Foucault, Postmodernism, Race Issues, Social Justice /
Black Skin White Masks

Part I: Fanon’s Descent Under the Burden of


the White Gaze
In his book, Black Skin, White Masks, Frantz Fanon challenges Merleau-Ponty’s
inclusive notion of a corporeal schema and
substitutes his own schemata, rst an historical-
racial schema, and second an epidermal racial
schema.  Brie y stated (and more on this later),
Merleau-Ponty’s corporeal schema describes the way
in which the body’s agency makes manifest the
historical world.  For Merleau-Ponty, our bodies are
not objects in space, rather they inhabit space and
through them we experience the world and the
other.  In so far as the body is able to participate in
and transform its historico-cultural horizon, it is
free; in so far as its capacity for expression and its
ability to alter its own history and given context are denied, it is not free.[1]

With this background in mind, we turn to Fanon’s text in order to understand why
he substitutes his historical-racial schema and epidermal racial schema for Merleau-
Ponty’s notion of a corporeal schema.  Fanon argues that a phenomenology of
blackness—the experience of skin di erence and of being the black other—can only
be understood in the encounter with whiteness or more precisely, the white
imagination.[2] That is, in a mostly black community in the Antilles, Fanon was
“content to intellectualize these di erences”; however, once he entered the white
world and felt the weight of the “white gaze,” he experienced his otherness and
became aware of pre-theoretical racial attitudes which up to that point had not
existed for him.[3] In his chapter, “The Lived Experience of the Black,” Fanon
recounts his experience on a train of being “ xed” by a white other—an other which
happened to be a child who had already been habituated to see blacks as de ned by
the white imagination.  As the child’s refrain, “Look! A Negro!,” 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.

I cast an objective gaze over myself, discovered my blackness, my ethnic


features; deafened by cannibalism, backwardness, fetishism, racial stigmas, slave
traders, […]  Disoriented, 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 my self, and gave myself up as an object.  What
did this mean to me?  Peeling, stripping my skin, causing a hemorrhage that left
congealed black blood all over my body.  Yet this reconsideration of myself, this
thematization, was not my idea.  I wanted simply to be a man among men.[4]

As Fanon takes up the white view of himself, he experiences its all-encompassing


reach.  That is, his becoming a white-de ned 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 xed by the white
other, but his past is xed as well.  The child’s unison refrain gives rise to polyphonic
lines of “cannibalism, backwardness, fetishism” and the like.

A few paragraphs before his description of the train episode with the child, Fanon
mentions Merleau-Ponty’s corporeal schema, highlighting the di culties that a
black person experiences in a white-scripted world because of his skin color and the
various meanings that have been given to these and other embodied di erences.  In
Merleau-Ponty’s account, the reciprocal and tting relation between body and the
world gives rise to the possibility of a mutual constructing and transforming of both. 
The body is not a mere object in space, but rather is our way of being in a spatio-
temporal world; it is the background “always tacitly understood.”[5] With his
corporeal schema, Merleau-Ponty emphasizes the body’s free agency in its ability to
both disclose and transform the historical world.[6]

Fanon, however, is not satis ed with this generic schema and thus introduces his
historical-racial schema, which is imposed on him by the white other.  For Fanon,
Merleau-Ponty’s inclusive, universal rendering of the corporeal schema through
which the self and world emerge does not account for the disparity of experience
between whites and blacks with regard to their ability to actively participate and
transform themselves and the world.  As Jeremy Weate explains,

In the interracial encounter, the White is able to participate in the


schematization of the world, whilst the Black may not, for his skin di erence
closes down the possibility of free agency.  A white mythos inserts itself between
the black body and its self-image, becoming the ‘elements used’ in a re exive
understanding of black subjectivity.  In contesting the terms of Merleau-Ponty’s
account of bodily freedom, Fanon provides a genealogy of the existential
unfreedom of the black body in the racialized encounter.”[7]

Notes

[1] Admittedly, I am speaking of the body in a rei ed way; however, body should not
be understood as a res, but rather as a crucial aspect of the psychosomatic whole,
which constitutes a human being.

[2] Weate, “Fanon, Merleau-Ponty and the Di erence of Phenomenology,” p. 171. 


See Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, p. 89.  In addition to Merleau-Ponty, Fanon
perhaps also has Hegel and Sartre in mind, particularly the former’s dialectical
understanding of recognition and reciprocity.  See Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, pp.
191–97.  For an analysis of Fanon’s re ections on Hegel’s master-slave dialectic, see
Turner, “On the Di erence between the Hegelian and Fanonian Dialectic of Lordship
and Bondage,” in Fanon: A Critical Reader, ed. Lewis R. Gordon et al., pp. 134–51.

[3] Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, p. 90.

[4] Ibid., p. 92.

[5] Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, p. 115.  Elaborating his notion of


body schema, Merleau-Ponty explains, “[b]odily space can be distinguished from
external space and envelop its parts instead of spreading them out, because it is the
darkness needed in the theatre to show up the performance, the background of
somnolence or reserve of vague power against which the gesture and its aim stand
out, the zone of not being in front of which precise beings, gures and points can
come to light.  In the last analysis, if my body can be a ‘form’ and if there can be, in
front of it, important gures against indi erent backgrounds, this occurs in virtue of
its being polarized by its tasks, of its existence towards them, of its collecting together
of itself in its pursuit of its aims; the body schema is nally a way of stating that my
body is in-the-world” (Ibid., p. 115).

[6] Fanon describes with ironic overtones Merleau-Ponty’s account as follows, “[a]
slow construction of my self as a body in a spatial and temporal world seems to be
the schema.  It is not imposed on me; it is rather a de nitive structuring of my self
and the world” (Black Skin, White Masks, p. 91)

[7] Weate, “Fanon, Merleau-Ponty and the Di erence of Phenomenology,” p. 172.

November 17, 2009 / Frantz Fanon, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Race Issues / Black Skin White Masks,
Lived Experience of the Black / 3 Comments

Other-Rei cation and Racism


In his article, “Racist Variations of Bad
Faith:  A Critical Study of Lewis Gordon’s
Phenomenology of Racism,” Bart van
Leeuwen argues that the racist not only
rei es him/herself but also rei es the
other.  The racist of course sees him/herself
as belonging to the essentially “good” or
positive group (the ingroup); whereas the
outgroup is a member of the essentially
“bad” or negative group, whose essence is
inherently awed.  As van Leewen explains,
“other-rei cation” characterized the
“antiblack racism that de ned the historical context of slavery and racial
segregation during the Jim Crow era in the United States” (58).  Not only was the
black slave “invisible to the white person,” his or her very subjectivity was denied,
refused, unacknowledged.  Sallie Bingham o ers a vivid description of the way in
which African Americans were treated as mere objects:   they were “invisible to most
white people, except as a pair of hands o ering a drink on the silver tray” (58).[1]
This objecti cation and reduction of black individuals to mere tools in the service of
whites exhibits the refusal on the part of whites to acknowledge blacks as genuine,
human subjects.  To illustrate how whites endeavored to destroy black subjectivity,
van Leeuwen turns to a phrase coined by bell hooks, “white control of the black
gaze.”  In many if not most instances, a black person was not permitted to make eye
contact with a white person while serving him or her.  In fact, “black slaves, and later
manumitted servants, could be brutally punished for looking, for appearing to
observe the whites they were serving.”[2] A second example, comes from Jean-Paul
Sartre, who re ecting on the condition of African Americans after his visit to the
United States in 1945, observed:  “they serve you at the table, they shine your shoes,
they operate your elevators, they carry your suitcases … they attend their tasks like
machines, and you pay no more attention to them than as if they were
machines.”[3] As van Leeuwen points out, this reduction and dehumanization of
blacks to a mere “pair of serving hands” or functional “machines,” was intimately
connected to hooks’ notion of “white control of the black gaze.” Blacks were forced
to develop a habitus of avoiding direct eye contact with whites.  This other-
rei cation by the ingroup (in this case the antiblacks) has the potential to foster a
third rei cation wherein the victims begin to view themselves as objects.  Here van
Leeuwen turns to a passage from Frantz Fanon’s, Black Skin, White Masks,

I came into the world imbued with the will to nd a meaning in things, my spirit
lled with the desire to attain the source of the world, and then I found that I
was an object in the midst of other objects […] The movements, the attitudes,
the glances of the other xed me there, in the sense in which a chemical solution
is xed by a dye.[4]

This sense of being xed by the other was so overbearing that it produced in Fanon a
desire to be invisible, to exist as the anonymous one (59).  “I slip into corners, I
remain silent, I strive for anonymity, for invisibility.  Look, I will accept the lot, as
long as no one notices me!”[5] All of this leads van Leeuwen to conclude that the
racist does not view the other as an absence or empty place in being, but rather as a
“surplus of being.  So the basic dynamic of racism must be understood as an escape
from the human lack of being (le néant) to the order of things (l’être), a solidi cation
of freedom into total ethnic security” (59-60).  If I understand van Leeuwen here
(and I may not given my lack of knowledge of Lewis Gordon and Sartre, so I welcome
correction), the “human lack of being” is not absence for Sartre, rather nothingness
(néant) is a constitutive element of a human consciousness.  As van Leeuwen
explains, “nothingness (néant) as a technical concept denotes a lack of properties,
and is opposed to being (être)” (53).  Nothingness is thus closely tied to freedom or
what Sartre calls “transcendence,” whereas being speaks of xity, in Sartre’s
vocabulary, “facticity.”  In our human existence and being-in-the-world, we
struggle to embrace and live authentically within the constant interplay of freedom
and facticity, and this freedom/facticity ambiguity is unbearable for the racist.  In
viewing him/herself as well as the other as having xed essences (where each
essence possesses certain inherent capacities and limitations de ned by the
ingroup-e.g., the racist’s essence is perceived as good and the other’s essence bad,
awed or de cient), the racist in e ect is engaged in a ight from freedom, from
transcendence, from the néant that cannot be xed, determined, and controlled.

As I mentioned, I haven’t read Gordon’s work yet (but I look forward to doing so), so
I cannot evaluate van Leeuwen’s claims concerning Gordon’s use of Sartre; however,
I did not sense that van Leeuwen failed to appreciate the many insights of Gordon’s
work.  Rather, his focus was on Gordon’s use of Sartre’s categories in his explications
of the phenomenology of racism.

Notes

[1] Cited in bell hooks, Black Looks:  Race and Representation (Boston:  South End
Press, 1992), p. 168.

[2] hooks, Black Looks, p. 168.

[3] Cited in van Leeuwen, Jean-Paul Sartre, “Return from the United States,” in
Gordon (ed.), Existence in Black, pp. 83-89, p. 84.

[4] Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, p. 109.

[5] Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, p. 116.

January 24, 2009 / bell hooks, Cultural theorists/critics, philosophers of race and social activists, Frantz
Fanon, Free Will/Freedom, Lewis Gordon, Race Issues, Social Justice / bell hooks, Black Looks: Race and
Representation, Black Skin White Masks, Frantz Fanon, Lewis Gordon, Other-Rei cation,
Phenomenology of Racism / 10 Comments

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