“Racism and Culture” by Frantz Fanon

Sep 6, 2021
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African anti-racism activists in France proliferated pleas for black empowerment which fuelled the Negritude movement. Seeking to deconstruct and scrutinize the apparent oppressive power structures of their time was their stern mission, to eliminate racial prejudice and discrimination, their vision of the future society that breeds camaraderie and egalitarian values. One of the distinguished speakers against racism was the Francophone intellectual Frantz Fanon who pioneered theoreticals on the psychopolitics of racism in the context of French discrimination against Africans. While many of his works followed the motif contextual motif of the black man in a French society, his essay “Racism and Culture,” presented to the First International Conference of Negro Writers and Artists in Paris on September 1956, engages in a broadened scope beyond the racism against the blacks; Fanon spoke also for the oppressed Jews, Chinese, the Oriental - racism in general. He argued that racism is less so rooted in biological differences, than it is in the matters of the intellect - technological developments and, most importantly, aggressive inculturation. Fanon rigorously discusses the general patterns in which dominant power structures, at the time headed by European colonizers, implement a systematized discrimination of “inferior” groups of people by way of depowering the image of the those peoples’ cultures and empowering that of their own, after which he concludes with a call that racially oppressed groups break free from the destructive cultural influence of the colonizers to advance to an all-encompassing culture of brotherhood and acceptance. While Fanon’s vision, optimistic as it is, encapsulates a goal that would end the vicious cycle of racial prejudice, it lends itself to the possibility of continuing that same cycle.

The argumentation set forth in “Racism in Culture” signifies a growth spurt of Westernized education among Africans, many of whom sprung from their learnings, their insights to develop their criticisms against the oppressive racist structures of their time. Such rigor is the core of Negritude literature; prominently with some being writers, awareness of the situation became the sought-after weapon to dispense among the oppressed blacks and their empathizers with the ultimate goal of establishing a unified front to abolish institutionalized racism. 

Fanon’s essay, among many others, exemplifies this - in fact, the essay argues for this. Fanon posited that technical superiority was a general hurdle for the colonized to cross; yet, he and other Negritude writers recanted such a hurdle and bridged the supposed gap between the colonizer and colonized. As what Fanon forwarded, matters of physicalities and biology bear little concern - now, same does intellectual and mental disparity. Superiority, the very foundation on which institutionalized racism builds its structure, crumbles. Racism is reduced to a matter of culture. Its danger lies in how it does not crack like a rock as the idea of superiority does. Racism has become the chameleon that continues to persist in a malignant forest. Fanon put it that

Racism has not managed to harden. It has had to renew itself, to adapt itself, to change its appearance. It has had to undergo the fate of the cultural whole that informed it.

This alludes to the creeping viscosity of racism, flowing into shape based on the culture dominant at the time. This viscosity, malleability, even, becomes perilous within the very doings of the Negritude movement. Suppose the success of the oppressed to wrest control from their European oppressors over their own lands; suppose, too, that the once oppressed now have control over their former oppressors. Suppose that the oppressed become the oppressors . Racism is commonly perceived with the image of the dignified white man over the savage black, yet it is also with the image of the white man over the Oriental, of the Oriental over black, of the Oriental over Oriental. The universality of racism stems not from a perceived sense of superiority, but from the dominant culture. For brevity, the impending peril is this: if the oppressor takes control from the oppressed, he will become the oppressor.

“We killed the king, but we did not cut off his head” - so says Michel Foucault on the vicious cycle of power structures. Stagnation - at best, momentary triumph - comes to those whose mission is to simply oust the oppressor. What must be removed is not the ruler; what must be removed is the system which placed the ruler. Constituents of the Negritude movement had a critical responsibility, to eliminate the racial prejudice not by removing the colonizers but by removing the system of colonization. The significance of Fanon’s essay lies in not only disseminating the mode of operation by which the oppressive institution works. It forewarns, not only his fellow Africans but also others who have been victims of institutionalized racism, about the vicious cycle. Hence, Fanon ends the essay as so:

… universality resides in this decision to recognize and accept the reciprocal relativism of different cultures, once the colonial status is irreversibly excluded.

Amid the relativities, a single universality must stand. Errantly, in its place is the group who believes in superiority through institutionalized racism. Justly, what should be there is acceptance of disparity and, most importantly, the absence of the inherently oppressive system of colonization. Fanon speaks to his fellow oppressed not to rid the oppressors from themselves, but to rid the oppressive system itself for good.

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