I’m re-reading Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks this week, and thinking about my own work in critical whiteness and myth. Fanon, experiencing life in a black, male body, writes from his particular situated experience. From my different positionally, I want to look at white skin, and the invisibility that it offers to wearers.
I experience life in a body that is read by others (and myself) as white. By read as white, I often mean not read at all. When I meet someone new, I rarely feel the need to describe myself as white: by not describing my skin tone at all, it’s taken as expected, or the norm, most of the time. Thomas Nakayama and Robert Krizek explain how whiteness “is a relatively uncharted territory that has remained invisible as it continues to influence the identity of those both within and without its domain. It affects the everyday fabric of our lives but resists, sometimes violently, any extensive characterization that would allow for the mapping of its contours. It wields power yet endures as a largely unarticulated position” (p. 291). My whiteness affords me significant privilege.
Fanon claims in Black Skin, White Masks that, essentially, a person of color becomes whiter (and, Fanon claims, closer to being a “real human being”) with mastery of the colonial language (French in his case, but also can be applied to English). “A man who has language consequently possesses the world expressed and implied by the language. What we are getting at becomes plain:” continues Fanon, “Master of language affords remarkable power” (p. 18).
This sort of claim refers us to the title of the book: individuals who are read as black (in Fanon’s writing, primarily men – see Madison’s angry love letter for more) want to be read as white, or more white. So the ‘solution’ proposed for black skin is to mask it with whiteness. And often, oddly enough, that whiteness does not always have to do directly with skin color. Whiteness has become a signifier for power, for the center (not the margins). So to put on a mask of whiteness is to act white, whatever that means. For Fanon (who I agree with in this case) it often comes down to language.
Discourse is powerful, and like Fanon claims, it affords remarkable power. Mastery of dominant languages (like Standard English for much of the world today) is related to whiteness as they both signify access to positions of power.
White skin doesn’t need a mask: it functions more like an invisibility cloak. The implications of this argument, for me, lie in the way that white bodies approach privilege.
In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry receives an invisibility cloak that had belonged to his father:
“He had to try it, now. He slipped out of bed and wrapped the cloak
around himself. Looking down at his legs, he saw only moonlight and
shadows. It was a very funny feeling. Use it well. Suddenly, Harry felt wide-awake. The whole of Hogwarts was open to him in this cloak. Excitement flooded through him as he stood there in the dark and silence. He could go anywhere in this, anywhere, and Filch would never know.”
Like an invisibility cloak, whiteness allows bodies to move unfettered in many ways. And as Peggy McIntosh claims, the first step in dealing with the systemic inequalities related to whiteness is to recognize them – to make them visible.
Fanon ends the book with a prayer: “O my body, make of me a man who always questions!” (p. 232)
Fanon’s prayer is poignant, and perhaps an even more relevant call to white bodies. If we listen to voices like Hegel and W.E.B. DuBois who elaborate a master/slave dialectic and a double consciousness respectively, perhaps black bodies are always called to question. What does it mean for a white body to always question? What does it mean to question linguistic and racial privilege from within?
What it means is complicated. Artist Jamie Kapp created a cartoon explaining white privilege, and then basically left the internet after her comic went viral and set off both praise and death threats, claiming that “Education is NOT where oppression ends, it’s where change begins.”
While I don’t have the answers, it is important to consider how to talk about white privilege in ways that don’t have to re-inscribe it.
So here is my prayer: Oh my body, make of me a being who questions and reflexively situates myself and responds to the being and positions of the other.
Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. New York: Grove Press, 2008. (Amazon: Black Skin, White Masks)
Madison, D. Soyini. “Performing Theory/embodied Writing.” Text and Performance Quarterly 19, no. 2 (1999): 107-24. doi:10.1080/10462939909366254. [Scene III: An Angry Love Letter to Frantz Fanon]
McIntosh, Peggy. “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” Peace and Freedom, July/August 1989. (See it here.)
Nakayama, Thomas K., and Robert L. Krizek. “Whiteness: A Strategic Rhetoric.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 81, no. 3 (1995): 291-309. doi:10.1080/00335639509384117.