‘The Fact of Blackness’

‘Blackness’ as a Social Uniform
Theorist Frantz Fanon proposed that ‘blackness’ is not a self-created identity, but one that is thrust upon individuals who are categorized as black people. And, because–at its basic level–“blackness” is determined by the outer appearance of the individual, Fanon describes “Blackness” as a social “uniform” which functions as a means to set apart and ultimately alienate the black man (Ashcroft 2006 et al, p. 292). Fanon characterizes this phenomenon as the fact of blackness. This fact, according to Fanon, means that the black man is not “…the slave…of the ‘idea’ that others have of [him] but of [his] own appearance” (Ashcroft 2006 et al, p. 292). That is, the black man is not given the chance to self-construct an image or idea of himself, but is subject to images and ideas of him that are pre-destined as a result of his social uniform or his blackness. Fanon argues that despite the similar experience of the Jew, “the Jew can be unknown in his Jewishness…His actions, his behavior are the final determinant… [but] He is a white man…he can sometimes go unnoticed…I [however] am given no chance. I am overdetermined from without” (Ashcroft 2006 et al, p. 292).

Images and Imagining
African author and scholar, Chinua Achebe provides some insight into the origin of “blackness” in his 1975 speech entitled An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”. In the speech, Achebe argues that Africa has been “set up as a foil” to the western world; one example being Conrad’s choice of title–”Heart of Darkness”–in which “darkness” refers to the continent of Africa. “Africa,” according to Achebe, has been constructed or, rather, re-constructed by the west as a polar opposite or the “antithesis” of western civilization. Consequently, Africa bears the burden of the negative attributes that have been “heaped upon it” by westerners. Achebe explains that the west’s re-construction of Africa as a place of inferiority enables the west to “go forward” and appear “immaculate”; in other words, by imagining Africa and its inhabitants as lesser than that of Europe, Europeans situated themselves as greater than that which is non-European. This act was then justified by what postcolonial theory refers to as “the ‘difference’ of the post-colonial subject”; that is, that the “most direct and immediate way by which s/he can be ‘othered’” is felt through the “superficial differences of the body and voice” (Ashcroft et al 2006, p. 289). These differences refer to characteristics such as language, dialect, or, in the case of blackness, skin color.

‘The Fact of Blackness’
Similar to Achebe’s argument that Africa functions in western discourse to separate the “immaculate” west from the constructed image of a primitive or inferior Africa, Fanon argues that blackness is also a constructed identity that exists for the purpose of distinguishing between black and white. Fanon explains that because of his blackness, his identity is based, by others, on a “fixed” image (Ashcroft 2006 et al, p. 292). What Fanon is implying here is the idea that, outside of racial discourse, the terms black and white possess no meaning. That is, a person who is black is not black by nature (for example, black people could have easily been called pink if that had been the word chosen to describe them) but, instead of being an innate identity, such a person has in fact been blackened by the society in which the individual lives. Ultimately, Fanon argues that the social absorption of black as a negative term has led to the association of blackness with negativity. As a result, people of African descent, or those categorized as black, adsorb—via their skin—those same negative images or ideas, and are forced to wear the “uniform” of blackness. Therefore, their identity has been fixed or established, thus making their blackness a fact—this is what Fanon means by ‘the fact of blackness’.

Becoming Black
Although the black other has existed for some time, discourse concerning the construction of the black other is relatively new. In Becoming Black (2003), Michelle M. Wright explores the historical emergence of the black other in Western culture. Wright suggests that the black other is as old as the western white self. Wright argues that the black other was constructed as a means of self-identification for whites. By creating the image of the inferior African/black other, whites forged a superior image of themselves. Wright suggests that the image of the inferior black other was established in two major processes, “other[ing] from within” and “other[ing] from without”.

Gobineau: Othering from Within
The other from within is viewed as capable of functioning in European/white society at a limited capacity, but always requires the supervision of whites to maintain the established social order of white supremacy as well as prevent the decline of white civilization that would occur from racial mixing. According to Gobineau’s Essai sur l’inégalité des races humaines “the Negro lacks the discipline, determination, and drive of the Aryan” but does possess “grossly powerful energies” that can serve a valuable purpose, i.e. slave labor (Wright, 17). The practice of othering from within situated blacks within western societies as “animal-like” subjects, useful but incapable of reasoning on a particular level. In fact Gobineau states that among the three racial categories addressed in his Essai—Negroid, Mongoloid, Caucasoid—“the Negro lags behind at the bottom of the scale…The animal character imprinted on his brow marks his destiny from the moment of conception. He will never evolve…” (Wright, 17).

Hegel: Othering from Without, From Within
Othering from without also promoted the image of the ever-inferior black other and—despite their dissolved ties to a “homeland” due to European colonization and forced relocation—emphasized the separate/foreign-ness of blacks. Furthermore, as Wright demonstrates through Hegel’s Philosophy of History, that practice of othering from without provides no space for black assimilation—much less integration—into western society. However, Wright argues that the black Other from without “nonetheless functions from within…” (Wright, 13). Hegel’s philosophy argues that “the world is ruled by reason and cites the development and progress of philosophy in ancient Greece as evidence that Europe is both the birthplace of [reason]…and the only geographical region that is propelled and dominated by reason” (Wright, 6). Hegel then argues that because blacks are incapable of reason they remain outside of the State (or government) as non-citizens, irrelevant.

(Above) *Chinua Achebe discusses Africa and Colonialism.

However, as Wright emphasizes, Hegel’s theory contradicts itself. Wright states that, “Theoretically speaking, Hegel has created an Other-from-without who nonetheless functions from within: officially irrelevant to the European subject, and yet unofficially and in praxis central to the definition of the European nation and subject” (Wright, 13). That is, Hegel is only capable of allotting certain qualities to the European subject by creating a black other who lacks those same qualities. This confirms Achebe’s argument that the image of the “immaculate” European is not the result of a natural process but is actually a deliberate social construct. As Wright explains, “…Blackness only became a racial category with the forced removal of West Africans to the Western Hemisphere” (Wright, xii-xiii). Therefore, the image of the European subject and black other were established by force via a dual-process; that is, stripping blacks of a history and then resituating blacks within European history as an inferior other possessing only—as Fanon argues—the attributes adhered to them by western societies.

The United States
In Black is a Country, Race and the Unfinished Struggle for Democracy (2004) Nikhil Pal Singh discusses the perpetuation of the United States as the ideal nation-state. This image is sustained, according to Singh, despite instances of evidence that there is still progress to be made in regards to racial inequality in the young nation. “…contemporary affirmations of the United States as an exceptional and exemplary nation,” according to Singh, “have returned to the old habits of downplaying the enduring power of racial domination in shaping U.S. social and political history ” (Singh, 32). Singh suggests that “By failing to acknowledge or to assess the articulations of race and nation, [which are] racism and nationalism, [then] reiterations of American universalism [will merely continue to] evade the issue” (Singh, 33). According to Ien Ang’s theory—‘inclusion by virtue of othering’—racism remains but is now viewed as outdated and the racist has become a demonized figure (Ang, 39). “It is based on the assumption that when all intolerance has finally been purged the non-racist tolerant utopia will be realized” (Ang, 39).

Consequently, in countries like the United States, it has become common practice to criticize anyone who reminds a society of its racial past. Singh explains this new mindset as follows: “No longer do the racial practices of the dominant society [in America] deform the lives of peoples of color it is said, but their own single-parent households, lack of work ethic, criminal tendencies, and welfare dependency are to blame. Blacks need to stop crying racism and pull themselves up by their bootstraps just as wave upon wave of Americans have done” (Singh, 31). While such sentiments appear to incorporate blacks into the national narrative and offer equality, that is the opportunity to “pull themselves up…as wave upon wave of Americans have done,” this statement simultaneously constructs a black other categorized by an immoral nature that consists of “[a] lack of work ethic, criminal tendencies,” etc.

This image of the immoral black other is essential as it allows America to project itself as a progressive nation while maintaining inequalities between races. This statement suggests that racism is no longer an obstacle for blacks, blacks are their only obstacle; and, blacks have open-access to the same opportunities as their fellow Americans—if only they would go out and claim them through hard work. However, as Singh suggests, such arguments ignore the “…’possessive investment in whiteness, which continues to limit equal access to housing and labor markets…’ (Singh, 31). A similar process of ‘inclusion by virtue of othering’ occurs in the nation-state of Malaysia where the national theme bangsa Malaysia coexists with bumiputera ideology, the former advertises unity while the latter propagates Malay racial dominance (see National Consciousness and the Postcolonial State).


Image Sources:
1. http://www.fondationfrantzfanon.com
2. http://www.brown.edu
3. http://www.bibliovault.org
4. http://www.bibliovault.org

*All videos obtained from YouTube.

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