Tuesday, 4 January 2011

'Nothing to Say': 'Black Skin, White Masks' and Gender

Excerpt from academic essay entitled 'Dismantling The Master's House: Strategies of Resistance in Post-Colonial Feminist Writing', 2010

Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks is an excellent example of a powerful critique of colonisation which nonetheless replicates the rigid colonial attitude in his negating of gender differences. In the chapter entitled ‘The Woman of Colour and the White Man’, Fanon uses his criticism of Capecia to generalise about all women of colour. Unlike his careful consideration of the psychology of the native man, he is resolutely rigid and simplistic regarding that of the native women: ‘It is because the Negress feels inferior that she aspires to win admittance into the white world’.[1] There is a dogmatic fatalism to this statement which suggests that, for Fanon, native women cannot transcend either their inferiority or their desire to assimilate. It must be compared to the native man who, whilst also under great pressure to assimilate into the white world, can produce modes of resistance:

If the white man challenges my humanity, I will impose my whole weight as a man on his life and show him that I am not that “sho’ good eatin’” that he persists in imagining (my emphasis).[2]

It should be noted here that my analysis does not aim to re-inscribe Capecia’s particular dialectic as a feminist one, ‘immortalised as the lamb at Fanon’s sacrificial altar rather than victim of the sexploitive, anti-black colonial condition’.[3] However, it is the way Fanon uses her position as indicative of all women of colour that I deem highly problematic. It seems that he cannot help but use the insufficiencies he finds in Capecia’s texts to make a universal statement on women of colour: ‘For, in a word, the race must be whitened; every women in Martinique knows this, says it, repeats it’ (emphasis mine).[4] By refusing to problematise his use of Capecia as representative, Fanon not only bypasses any discussion regarding how gender differences operate within the psychology of colonisation but also subsumes that very difference into what he calls his ‘concentrat[ion] on the psychic alienation of the black man’.[5]

Indeed, Fanon’s consideration of the native women is understood ultimately as nothing more than either a barrier or an aid towards the native man’s struggle towards agency. The idea that native women would have their own particular struggle towards agency- other than desiring to become white- is foreclosed. When writing on Fanon, Bhabha’s relegates this issue to a short note at the end of his essay. Anne McClintock argues that this choice defers women ‘to a nowhere land, beyond time and place, outside theory’.[6] More specifically, in regards to Fanon’s work, Bhabha’s ‘note’ has the effect of implicitly legitimising Fanon’s sexism by explaining it away as a desire for locating ‘a shared origin’[7] between sexual and cultural differences. As I have argued above, the way in which Fanon disregards the native female is far less innocent than this. Ultimately, there is no shared origin because the issue of gender is simply not as pressing for Fanon as the liberation of the colonised man. In fact, it is seen as almost entirely irrelevant to his decolonising project. Furthermore, Bhabha’s curious insistence that a discussion of gender in Fanon ‘goes well beyond the scope of my foreword’[8] only further reveals an acceptance of the patriarchal terms of Fanon’s dialectic. Here, Bhabha also perpetuates Fanon’s disregard for gender by implying that gender is not important enough to be included in his foreword aside from a brief note. By suggesting that any charge of sexism would be ‘facile’, he mimics Fanon in his avoidance of gender and how it impacts the native’s identity formation. Essentially, his comprehensive discussion of Fanon does not view gender as integral to any project of decolonisation. He either fails or simply refuses to highlight that such a glaring omission can only hinder the liberating effects of Fanon’s work. As bell hooks crucially points out, ‘there can be no freedom for black men as long as they advocate subjugation of black women. There can be no freedom for patriarchal men of all races as long as they advocate subjugation of women.’[9]

In fact, Bhabha’s praise for Fanon takes on far more resonance when applied to colonised women: ‘the colonial subject is always “overdetermined from without”, Fanon writes. It is through image and fantasy- those orders that figure transgressively on the borders of history and the unconscious- that Fanon most profoundly evokes the colonial condition’.[1] Under the Spivakian double-bind, it is clear that no one has been more ‘overdetermined from without’ than the native female. As well as the Manichean discourse of the colonisers, they also find themselves codified within the patriarchal discourse of native men, whether through the nationalist trope of mother-land or decolonising projects like Fanon’s that, whilst denouncing Manichean colonisation, continues to perpetuate its own binary logic in regard to gender. Moreover, some work by Western feminists on ‘third-world women’ has had the unfortunate effect of employing ‘various analytical categories and even strategies which codify their relationship to the Other in implicitly hierarchical terms’.[2] In these cases, western feminist discourse is also guilty of homogenising native woman, establishing themselves as the normative referent and continuing a binary didactic. It becomes self-evident then that native women are positioned within a matrix of intersecting power structures.

© 2010 Emma Mould

[1]Fanon, Frantz, Black Skin, White Masks (London: Pluto Press, 2008), p. 42

[2] Ibid., p. 178

[3] Sharpley-Whiting, T. Deanean, ‘Engaging Fanon to reread Capecia’ in Fanon: A Critical Reader ed. by Lewis Gordon, T. Deanean Sharpley-Whiting and Renee T. White (London: Wiley-Blackwell, 1996), p. 161

[4] Fanon, p. 33

[5] Ibid., p. 34j

[6] McClintock, Anne, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Context (London: Routledge, 1995), p. 363

[7] Bhaba, Homi, ‘Remembering Fanon’ in Colonial Discourse and Post-colonial Theory, ed. by Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994) , pp. 123

[8] As above, pp. 123

[9] hooks, bell, Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism (London: Pluto Press, 1982), p. 117

[10] Bhabha, pp. 115

[11] Bulbeck, Chilla, Re-Orientating Western Feminisms: Women’s Diversity in a Postcolonial World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 15

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