Black Skin, White Masks: Frantz Fanon Fifty Years On

Reflecting critically on our successful book/video, This is Youth Work,  found me questioning its emphasis on individual change. In response I  started to wonder about whether a sequel might redress the balance by focusing much more on collective change, youth work’s support for the growth and development of autonomous young people’s groups. Thinking about this led me to my dusty disorganised boxes of material from the past. In particular I was looking to dig out stuff related to the the flowering of young women’s and black young people’s groups out of the late 1970’s and into the 80’s. However I was diverted by finding some scribbled notes about Frantz Fanon, which, I think, were to inform a session  addressing racism on our part-time youth work training course in Wigan. And I was immediately struck by the fact that it is fifty years since his tragically early death from leukaemia.

Back in the late 70’s I was part of a white, male-dominated youth service, which was in upheaval. Our colonial and patriarchal mentality was at last being questioned.  At that very time Gus John was pursuing his research into local government youth policy. which culminated in the seminal study, In the Service of Black Youth. Within its pages he challenged the taken-for-granted social-integrationist outlook of the youth service. Black young people were not waiting to be ‘civilised’ by their white betters. All of this made all the more sense as I discovered Fanon and immersed myself in his pioneering, Black Skin, White Masks, wherein he explores the psychological impact of racism on both the oppressor and the oppressed, the coloniser and the colonised. Struggling with Fanon was positive. He wanted me to be responsible, but not guilty. He imagined an inclusive humanism beyond capitalism, within which the hegemony of the powerful in whatever guise would be overthrown.

Back then Fanon’s work began to appear on the reading lists of many youth and community work courses. I wonder if today he gets a mention. And, if not, it’s hardly because his critique has been overtaken by events. In a recent blog Nishma Doshi argues in,

The racism of tram woman is only the tip of the iceberg

In all the liberation movements since, little has been done to tackle the deep cultural imperialism that is rooted in our scientific, sociological and political structures. The language of the right dehumanises the Other, seeing them as unwanted leeches sucking away their wealth. The language of the left still resonates with concepts of ‘progress,’ with little (or no) revision as to what that actually means. So while People of Colour are allowed to work, to vote, and by law face the same ‘privileges’ of their ‘white’ peers, in actuality they are still seen as ‘backward’ and denied the same confidence and sense of belonging that goes along with being ‘white’.

In 2011 you might disagree with this perspective, but,  if you are involved in youth and community work, are you, at the very least, having these arguments?

It would be  refreshing to hear your thoughts.

I will leave the last word to this formidable thinker and activist, Frantz Fanon,

“I, the man of colour, want only this: That the tool never possess the man. That the enslavement of man by man cease forever. That is, of one by another. That it be possible for me to discover and to love man, wherever he may be.”

One comment

  1. I first found out about Franz Fanon from a placement student from the YMCA George Williams college. So he’s still being discussed in at least some of the courses! As far as discussing these issues… I’d say that arguing about / discussing racism is one of the main things we spend our time doing in street-based youth work, but we need to discuss it as workers too, and outside of training and education I wonder if this happens. Also I’m interested in how/whether workers in mostly-white areas manage to make space for these discussions?

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