Unmasking the “Orient’s” White Masks: Remembering Fanon

Karim Sharara

Colonialism perpetuates itself by keeping the colonials on an inferior basis, ever-striving to “rise” to the level of the colonizers. Frantz Fanon’s life was transformed due to the damaging effect of French colonialism on his home country and on Algeria, which led him to conduct a psychoanalytical study on its effects, and how the dispossessed can free themselves.

Identity is a fickle thing. It is dynamic, subject to change. It can grow stronger, grow weaker, become more fragile, take on new elements and do away with the old. That’s not to say that taking in outside or foreign elements is something that is always fruitful, particularly in cases when such elements run counter to basic human dignity.

Such is the case of European colonialism. The only way for colonialism to uphold itself and preserve its foothold in the colonies to reap economic benefits was through the propagation of its ideals, whereby it would maintain its cultural superiority. This wasn’t just a tool at their disposal, they came to affirm their own knowledge of the “Orient”, the “Orient” that was of their own construction, as part of their own beliefs. Their “knowledge” of the Orient only came to be substantiated by their own confirmation biases. Balfour’s speech on June 13, 1910, in the House of Commons, demonstrates this quite perfectly:

“We know the civilization of Egypt better than we know the civilization of any other country. We know it further back; we know it more intimately; we know more about it… Look at all the Oriental countries. Do not talk about superiority or inferiority.”

Indeed, this is not a question of superiority or inferiority, as self-government, according to Balfour (and Orientalists like him), is inherent to the West…it is the necessary labor the West has taken upon itself to educate lesser nations; it is a burden that Balfour has had to withstand because the more developed nations have a burden towards lesser nations:

“Is it a good thing for these great nations—I admit their greatness —that this absolute government should be exercised by us? I think it is a good thing. I think that experience shows that they have got under it far better government than in the whole history of the world they ever had before, and which not only is a benefit to them, but is undoubtedly a benefit to the whole of the civilized West. . . . We are in Egypt not merely for the sake of the Egyptians, though we are there for their sake; we are there also for the sake of Europe at large.”

French colonialism

This is not unique to British colonialism, the French themselves were no strangers to such thought. France’s missions to West Asia, Africa, and the Antilles allowed them not only to perpetuate their own ideas and ideals among the native populations, but the fact that these ideas were backed by military force is what allowed them to persist.

The peoples of those regions were not only forced to endure inhumane treatment, but were continuously put down and suppressed, either through the ideas colonization had tried to perpetuate or through military power. To be beautiful was to be white, to be intelligent was to be white. You must learn the language of the white man, his methods, and adopt his mannerisms and policies in order to be better. Their identities became more fragile, and so they were forced to adopt the white man’s identity to “rise”.

The colonized were placed in a loop: you can speak like a white man, speak for the white man, even live like the white man in his own cities, learn from his knowledge, but their skin was forever tainted with the curse of being non-white, thus making them strive evermore for the recognition they would never receive. They would never be the white man’s equal, try as they might.

Black Skin, White Masks

This was the basis for Frantz Fanon’s work. Fanon was a native of Martinique (which is still a French territory) and had seen and experienced firsthand the French occupation’s treatment of the people of the colony. He went to Lyon to study medicine and would specialize in psychiatry, using psychoanalysis in order to demonstrate how the French invite the people of the colonies to become “truly French” (i.e evolved), while at the same time making it impossible for them to do so, in his first book Black Skin, White Masks.

How is this impossible?

Quite simply because a black (or brown) man does not grow up as a white man. A white man does not have fingers pointed at him and does not learn (through news, cartoons, radio, TV, and movies) to associate blackness with crime, evil, and inferiority. This leaves the black man, or any other colonized race for that matter, forever dealing with inferiority and trying to dissociate himself from his own culture.

Fanon’s psychoanalytical approach in the book led him to believe that the way to liberate oneself from this inferiority lay in complete dissociation from the past. He would not seek the white man’s satisfaction or look into black history in order to find vindication that would in fact prove that the black man is truly the white man’s equal. The key to the black man’s freedom for him lay in inquisitiveness. After all, the black man is trapped in his blackness, and the white man in his whiteness, and only those who learn to question can be free of the trap.

The Wretched of the Earth

In examining the question of identity, Morteza Motahhari does not include the main makings of identity as being language, history, or geography, but rather the common plight shared by a group of people, their shared dreams, and objectives. He believes that this is what can truly bind a people and unify it under one banner, and that would also help explain how people from different parts of the world can identify with a struggle in a distant geography and choose to join it.

Fanon was one such case. The Fanon of “The Wretched of the Earth” was a changed man. By then, he had been employed in a psychiatric hospital in Algeria, where he began treating Algerian victims that had been tortured by French troops, and also the torturers themselves who had begun to suffer adversely from their actions.

As the Algerian Revolution broke, he joined FLN (National Liberation Front) and took on a number of clandestine and military activities. By then, Fanon’s ideas had radically changed, and he came to regard struggle, particularly violent struggle for national liberation, as being part of national culture. The colonized must learn to stop addressing the colonizers and address their own people, producing what he called “combat literature.”

Although Fanon passed away from Leukemia at the young age of 36, he had been transformed into a symbol of struggle against colonization, of national and supranationational struggle. He influenced a number of revolutionaries like Malcolm X, Che Guevara and Ali Shariati, who left a mark on history through their struggle: their acts of resistance created culture. They addressed their own people and helped shape their revolutionary identity through this struggle.

Resistance as a culture

Resistance is by no means a one-dimensional act. It is not restricted to military activity. Resistance, rather, is a military action that adds to an individual and a people’s collective identity. It builds national culture when the struggle is national and creates a unique transnational culture and identity when the struggle is transnational.

The struggle for liberation not only empowers people against their colonizers but also lays the basis for a stronger common identity among the dispossessed of the region. Resistance is a binding, unifying culture that can have significant regional geopolitical repercussions — repercussions that will impact the collective worldview of the dispossessed, and how they perceive their colonizers. It will allow them to be free of the psychological shackles of inferiority thrown upon them and view themselves as human beings on their own merit.


– Said, Edward W. “Orientalism. Reprinted with a new preface.” (2003).

– Fanon, Frantz. Black skin, white masks. Grove Press, 2008.

– Fanon, Frantz. The wretched of the earth. Grove/Atlantic, Inc., 2007.