Blackface, white mask: Racism as psychosis

What the blackface scandals in the US tell us about the state of white supremacy.

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam is under fire for a racial photo that appeared in his college yearbook [File: Steve Helber/AP]

One more time, as if we needed any more evidence, the depth of the incurable racism at the heart of American society, culture and politics has come on full display. The Democratic Governor of Virginia, Ralph Northamrecently acknowledged he appeared in an old yearbook photo showing one man wearing a Ku Klux Klan (KKK) costume and another donning blackface.  

The governor did not elaborate which one would have been more offensive to human decency – to pose as a member of the racist KKK or to mock and ridicule the victims of the KKK.

He, however, is not the only high-ranking Democratic Party official with such illustrious racist history. Shortly after Northam scandal erupted, Mark R Herring, the attorney general of Virginia and a member of the Democratic Party, also admitted that he had worn blackface at a college party.

Although both Northam and Herring apologised, there are quite a few American politicians who see nothing wrong with blackface. For example, when former Democratic New York State Assemblyman Dov Hikind faced criticism in 2013 for wearing blackface and an Afro wig at a Jewish holiday Purim party, he called it “political correctness to the absurd”.

But it’s not just the American political class that has a penchant for racist costumes, Hollywood too enjoys featuring them in its films. There is a long list of Hollywood productions in which blackface has figured prominently: from “Birth of a Nation” (1915), all the way to “Tropic Thunder” (2008).

Indeed, the United States as a whole has a long history of white men wearing blackface to mock, ridicule, and denigrate black people which goes back to the 19th century and which, as we see, is still perfectly alive and well.  

But its present-day form and resurgence demonstrate not only the persistent racism within the American society, but also the existential crisis white supremacy is going through at the moment.  

Black, brown, red skin

In Black Skin, White Masks (1952), anti-colonial writer Frantz Fanon offered a classical critique of the dehumanising effect of racism operating at the roots of a colonial conquest and its contingent cultural domains. He analysed how western colonialism and racist power relations have compelled people of colour to see themselves through the lens of white supremacy – ie donning a “white mask”.

Identifying this dangerous tendency, he called for liberation from this destructive self-image: “The black is a black man; that is, as the result of a series of aberrations of affect, he is rooted at the core of a universe from which he must be extricated. The problem is important. I propose nothing short of the liberation of the man of color from himself.”

In my Brown Skin, White Mask (2011) I extended Fanon’s argument to look into the fate of brown immigrant intellectuals who put themselves at the service of a dysfunctional empire and become its native mis/informers. Instead of adding any momentum to the progressive politics of their adopted countries, these comprador intellectuals side with the ruling ideologies of reactionary, racist, and predatory imperialism.

Later in his Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition (2014), Canadian scholar Glen Sean Coulthard challenged the very idea of “recognition” of the indigenous peoples in liberal politics. In between the state and indigenous peoples, Coulthard proposed, a mere acknowledgement of the terror settler colonialism had perpetrated on First Nations not only amounts to very little but in fact derails a more substantive reconstruction and redeployment of denied and denigrated cultures towards a progressive politics.  

These two and other works go back to Fanon’s originary idea: “I am a man and what I have to recapture is the whole past of the world, I am not responsible only for the slavery involved in Santo Domingo, every time man has contributed to the victory of the dignity of the spirit, every time a man has said no to an attempt to subjugate his fellows, I have felt solidarity with his act.”

That is, the struggle for liberation from the bondage of racism and slavery is geared towards the liberation of the entirety of the human soul, not just its native location. In this sense, Fanon is as much responsible for the liberation of Iran as I am for the liberation of the Caribbean and Coulthard for the liberation of Palestine.

This is also what American author and activist James Baldwin meant when he said: “When you try to stand up and look the world in the face like you had the right to be here, when you do that, without knowing this is the result of it, you have attacked the entire power structure of the Western World.”

But this self-universalisation, while being liberating for the person of colour, is seen as threatening by “the white man”.

Reinventing white power

It scares “the white man” for by historical habit he considers himself the epicentre of the universe, and the rest of humanity being there only to corroborate this delusional centrality. For him, this is a struggle for existence. It is either him or the rest of the world. 

Used in racialised habits, practices, and assumptions, “black” is a social construct, not a factual colour. By donning blackface and engaging in a variety of other racist acts, the “white man” seeks to erase that social fact and turn the colour into a marker of imagined inferiority. In this way, he anxiously seeks to secure the power hierarchy of his world and reaffirm his centrality in it.

Immanuel Kant, the father of “Western Enlightenment”, the very author of “Answering the question: What is Enlightenment?” (1784), captured this racist anxiety succinctly in his short treatise “Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime” (1764). There he wrote about a black carpenter having said something worth considering and then readily dismissed it: “It might be that there was something in this which perhaps deserved to be considered; but in short, this fellow was very black from head to foot, a clear proof that what he said was stupid.”

Kant’s racism was not accidental to his philosophy. It was and remains definitive to it. No person of colour could be anything but stupid for Kant, for, if he were to be recognised as a knowing subject, that would dismantle his entire philosophical project. 

Thus, “the white man” must stage himself, from his philosophy to his fashion, from his theatre to his cinema to his art and culture, in the denigration and ridicule of the man of colour in order to believe himself.  

Therefore, that blackface being still a persistent feature of US or European culture demonstrates not only that “the white man” is still celebrating his presumed racist superiority, staging the power to mimic, the permission to mock, in order to cross-authenticate his delusions, but also that he is dead worried about the loss of his inexplicable and unwarranted privileges.

The myth of “the white man” was coterminous with the rise of European colonialism and the subsequent spread of American imperialism around the globe. After generations of anti-colonial struggle and critical thinking, the ideological foregrounding of that racist assumption has now crumbled. “The white man” is increasingly aware he has been riding a delusional dragon, that he is the pathological myth of the colonial settler ruling from the Americas to Palestine. And this is scaring him witless.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.