Fanon, Lacan, and Racial Identification

Fanon was Lacanian

Frantz Fanon was an anticolonial writer who died in 1961, probably best-known for praising violence. “Concerning Violence” is a great documentary about that aspect of his work.

It’s less well-known that he was a Lacanian. Black Skin, White Masks has a long footnote that uses the mirror stage to discuss the identification of black people with white people’s point of view (but not the other way around):

On the basis of Lacan’s concept of the mirror stage it would be certainly worthwhile investigating to what extent the imago that the young white boy constructs of his fellow man undergoes an imaginary aggression with the appearance of the black man. Once we have understood the process described by Lacan, there is no longer any doubt that the true “Other” for the white man is and remains the black man, and vice verse. For the white man, however, “the Other” is perceived as a bodily image, absolutely as the non ego, i.e., the unidentifiable, the unassimilable. For the black man we have demonstrated that the historical and economic realities must be taken into account…

Every time there is delusional conviction there is a reproduction of self. It is above all in the period of anxiety and suspicion described by Dide and Giraud that “the Other” intervenes. So it is not surprising to find the black man in the guise of a satyr or murderer…

Furthermore, for those who are interested in these findings, we recommend reading the French compositions by ten- to fourteen-year-old Antilleans. On the subject “impressions before going on vacation” they reply like genuine little Parisians and time and again the following phrase is repeated: “I like going on vacation as I can run through the fields, breathe in the fresh air, and come home with pink cheeks.” It is obvious we are hardly mistaken when we say that the Antillean cannot recognize the fact of being black…

It might be argued that if the white man elaborates an imago of his fellow man, the same should be the case for the Antillean, since it is based on a visual perception. But we would be forgetting that in the Antilles perception always occurs at the level of the imaginationLet us say it one more time: it is in reference to the essence of the white man that every Antillean is destined to be perceived by his fellows. In the Antilles as well as in France we encounter the same stories. In Paris, they say he is black but very intelligent. In Martinique, they say the same.

The word “imagination” is being used in the sense of Lacan’s 3 “registers“: the imaginary, the symbolic, and the real. A major Lacanian concept is that the symbolic comes from outside ourselves, it can never fully express the real, and there’s something inherently alienating about expressing ourselves through language.

The process of racial identification

Racial identities are acquired, not innate. Fanon discusses racial identification as a process, in a series of quotes:

A normal black child having grown up with a normal family, will become abnormal at the slightest contact with the white world.
I was not mistaken. It was hatred; I was hated, detested, and despised, not by my next-door neighbor or a close cousin, but by an entire race. I was up against something irrational…I personally would say that for a man armed solely with reason, there is nothing more neurotic than contact with the irrational.
There were some who wanted to equate me with my ancestors, enslaved and lynched: I decided that I would accept this. I considered this internal kinship from the universal level of the intellect–I was the grandson of slaves the same way President Lebrun was the grandson of peasants who had been exploited and worked to the bone.
At the age of twenty…the Antillean realizes he has been living a mistake. Why is that? Quite simply because (and this is very important) the Antillean knows he is black, but because of an ethical shift, he realizes (the collective unconscious) that one is black as a result of being wicked, spineless, evil, and instinctual.

Against racial identification

“The collective unconscious” isn’t the language we’d use to explain things anymore, but it’s often true that even black people are prejudiced against black people. The effect has to do with absorbing associations from the prevailing culture (pdf). A Lacanian would emphasize that we’re stuck with these symbols and associations, but we aren’t helpless:

But I believe that it is useful to recognize the distinction between the formative experience of being subjected to a preexisting structure of meanings on the one hand, and our subsequent capacity to participate in the shaping of that order on the other. The fact that we begin our lives in a position of helplessness with regard to the symbolic Other should not be taken to mean that we will never be able to gain agency in relation to it. That is why I have sought to demonstrate that even if our initial encounter with the signifier is devastating in that it causes lack and alienation, the signifier at the same time grants us access to structures of meaning-production that we can subsequently use to cope with this alienation…

Psychoanalysis could be argued to be a practice of negotiating the inevitable tension between being a subject (being subjected to the symbolic order) and being a unique individual (having a singular identity that somehow surpasses the parameters of that order). We are of course always both at once, but it is only as individuals that we feel fully engaged in our lives…Strangely enough, although the Other does not possess answers to our life-defining questions, the significatory resources that the Other makes available to us enable us to devise the kinds of answers that we can–always tentatively and provisionally–live with. One could in fact say that the process of becoming a person, from a distinctively Lacanian point of view, is first and foremost a matter of knowing that even though the question of the “sovereign good” is from the outset closed, questions that sustain us as singular creatures–questions pertaining to desire, creativity, and the passion of self-actualization, for example–are ones that can only be closed by our own (non)actions.—Mari Ruti, A World of Fragile Things: Psychoanalysis and the Art of Living

Speaking as a “tragic mulatto,” it’s absolutely true that race feels like an annoying burden imposed from the outside. I’ve experienced “whiteness” in the sense of not needing to think about race very often, and it’s nice. It has a lot to do with how much my parents stressed that I must speak like a white person. As a Lacanian, it’s obvious that Fanon would put language at the center of everything:

The problem we shall tackle in this chapter is as follows: the more the black Antillean assimilates the French language, the whiter he gets–i.e., the closer he comes to becoming a true human being. We are fully aware that this is one of man’s attitudes faced with Being. A man who possesses a language possesses as an indirect consequence the world expressed and implied by this language. You can see what we are driving at: there is an extraordinary power in the possession of a language.”

Several pages later, he says that “there is nothing more sensational than a black man speaking correctly, for he is appropriating the white world.” I think this quote is hilarious:

When a black man speaks of Marx, the first reaction is the following: “We educated you and now you are turning against your benefactors. Ungrateful wretches! You’ll always be a disappointment.”

Fanon supported nationalist resistance to colonialism, but he strongly discourages racial identification. If blackness is defined as something bad, respectability politics is never going to get anywhere:

…we are witness to the desperate efforts of a black man striving desperately to discover the meaning of black identity. White civilization and European culture have imposed an existential deviation on the black man. We shall demonstrate further that what is called the black soul is a construction by white folk.

The educated black man, slave of the myth of the spontaneous and cosmic Negro, feels at some point in time that his race no longer understands him.

Or that he no longer understands his race.

He is only too pleased about this, and by developing further this difference, this incomprehension and discord, he discovers the meaning of his true humanity. Less commonly he want to feel a part of his people. And with feverish lips and frenzied heart he plunges into the great black hole. We shall see that this wonderfully generous attitude rejects the present and future in the name of a mystical past.

Finding the “solution” to life’s problems in incomprehension and discord is a very Lacanian thing to do:

…the awakening of character can be acutely disorienting. This may be why Lacan asserts that, at the end of a training analysis, the analysand “should know the domain and the level of the experience of absolute disarray (1960, 304)…At this stage, it is enough to observe Lacan’s position, namely that the subject who has completed analysis…should be able to tolerate a relatively high degree of anxiety. Such tolerance, rather than “happiness” in the usual sense of the word, could be said to be the goal of Lacanian analysis. In this way, Lacan, like Lear, invites us to accept unexpected breakdowns as an essential component of our psychic destinies. –Mari Ruti, The Singularity of Being: Lacan and the Immortal Within