Peau noire, masques blancs [Black skin, white masks]

The story of Black rioters burning down a historic church near the White House – like many stories – isn’t true. According to CBS News, citing The Washington Post:

A fire broke out late Sunday night in the basement of the historic St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., the city’s fire department said.

The flames were quickly put out by firefighters who arrived with a police escort and apparently didn’t cause any significant damage, The Washington Post reports. It wasn’t clear how the fire started.

It did seem strange to me that a demographic of renowned churchgoers would torch a temple of the God whose prophetic word is on the lips of so many of their civil rights leaders. Then again, it isn’t clear how these protests turned into riots either. And who the instigators are. And why some of them are apparently wearing earpieces – as even rightwing jocks admit.

Since Jean Baudrillard’s 1991 deconstruction of the Gulf War, it has been clear to critical thinkers that we are living in what the murdered dissident Rumanian professor Ioan Culianu called “the Magician State”. Culiano contrasts this with “the Police State”, where might is right and everyone is in lockdown (I’m paraphrasing).

The lynching (let’s call it what it was) of George Floyd and of so many young Black men by White men in America is as much a physical reality as the killing of countless Arab civilians in the Middle East Oil Wars – which Baudrillard never denied but Big Oil does at least in terms of motivation (isn’t it interesting that there’s a mention of Venezuela?) – and that lynching was clearly was carried out by US police.

However the key difference between the Police State and the Magician State is that the former runs on physical power and the latter on symbolic power. The instruments of lethal power utilised by the former State are the bodies of its agents (badged or not) and their ropes, knives, injections, gas and guns. The latter State uses the microphone and the camera. That’s the State we’re in.

Because the Magician State absorbs the events of the Police State the way a spider sooks up (good Scots phrase) a fly. The meaning, the value of an event gets distorted. Spiders spin. Police police. Magicians? They manipulate all the media at their disposal – and when they have a lot of disposable income, that’s a lot of media power!

When Dr Frantz Fanon wrote Peau noire, masques blancs [Black skin, white masks] in 1952 he used his professional psychiatric experience of treating both the African colonised and the European coloniser in French Algeria, as well as his personal experience of growing up Black in French Martinique. He describes treating the tortured and the torturers – and his insights into the psychopathology of racism are still valuable today.

Part of this pathology is the deep-seated fear that many White men have for Black men, a fear fed by ignorance, suspicion, envy and desire. The Black response is similar as both relate not to each other’s reality but to the mental projections of the other constantly reinforced by the racist culture. Each wishes to appropriate the power of the other but whereas such Black men want White men to accept them, such White men want to overpower them – or to be overpowered. This is a part of Fanon’s critique that is heavily censored today – as are his remarks about Black women “raising the colour” (anyone who doesn’t know about that doesn’t know much about the Black Americas). It’s not cool to say that anyone desires either (as comments from White people, of both sexes, make clear).

Developed during modern European colonialism, and instrumental in projecting images to cast the colonisation of Africa, Asia and the Americas in a good light, the proliferation of the magic lantern show was a significant step in the installation of the Magician State. Not only could the envious White public eagerly read of the exploits of daring White “explorers” (trespassers) of “undiscovered” lands – now they could assuage their desire to see it all for themselves! It was also useful in mesmerising Black people about the merits of their great White “saviours” – and the deference they were due.

Fanon’s controversial genius was to diagnose that, whereas the Black men he describes were driven by their colonised super-ego, the pathologically racist White men he treated were driven by their colonising id. It’s not enough to simply dismiss this insight as outdated or patronising or homophobic. Early psychoanalysis in general and Freud in particular are certainly problematic in terms of their many heterosexist assumptions but, even as imagery, the controlling voice of ambition and the compelling voice of forbidden desire may be at work in the psyche.

And who knows if the defining quality of the Magician State is not to make visible the unseen. Perhaps White men lynch Black men not only in the vain attempt to extinguish their own psychic shadow but also because, letting hate into their hearts through the door of fear, they have opened themselves to the ancient and baleful influence about which all true good prophets have warned.

The desire of Black men to be accepted by White men, and the desire of White men to overpower them, are not equivalent. The former may have facilitated the rise to highest office of the first Black president; the latter, clearly, compelled a sworn guardian of the law to stoop to publicly lynching a Black citizen.

Black people don’t burn down churches. Not when they have sat in them, Sunday after Sunday, listening to these words:

“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this world’s darkness, and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (Ephesians 6:12)

May George Floyd, and all other Black men lynched by White men, rest in peace and rise in glory. May their names be remembered and the names of their killers blotted out. May we White men attempt the hard emotional labour of knowing ourselves so that we STOP allowing our basest instincts to control our actions, with lethal effect.



Thanks to Piotr Siedlecki for releasing his image Face of a Man into the Public Domain.



One thought on “Peau noire, masques blancs [Black skin, white masks]

Comments are closed.