A pervasive illusion of American racial discourse is that we are not and have not been talking about race. Two more illusions follow from it. First, if we could have more and more honest conversations about race, somehow things would be better. Second, those of us who are making an effort to overcome what The New York Times calls our “stunted engagement with race” are doing brave, important work. Constantly summoned to talk (or rather, to listen to others talk) about race from institutions like the Times, Americans might well wonder how the subject has not yet been exhausted. If we recall Michel Foucault’s thesis in his History of Sexuality (1976) that activists for “sexual liberation” imagined sexuality had been repressed in order to experience the pleasure of liberating it, we might ask if claims that we have not been talking about race are necessary for a particular kind of pleasure in talking about it.
At least for white people, the pleasure in such incitation to race-talk is masochistic, a longing to be overpowered and violated by aggressive racial others. So argued Frantz Fanon (1925-61) in his first book, Black Skin, White Masks (1952). A certain understanding of the Martinican psychiatrist’s critiques of colonialism and racism have become central to discussions of race in American academia—and are required reading in courses such as those of the University of Chicago’s core curriculum. Yet, just as academia seems to have enthroned Foucault without hearkening to his most provocative claims, so too has it neutralized Fanon, particularly his emphasis on sexuality.
While left-liberal outlets like the Times frame conversations about race as long-repressed, fraught and urgent, critics have tended to describe them as hypocrites and grandstanders—not libidinal agents. Since the mid-1960s, observers from the American right have diagnosed the “white guilt” behind race-talk, a concept today englobed in a more general critique of “virtue signaling.” Both concepts suggest ostentatiously earnest and taboo-shattering conversations about race are akin to religious acts by which individual white liberals bemoan the evils of whiteness, increasing their own status as virtuous haters of sin.
Respectable critics of our contemporary discourse on race seem comfortable claiming that much of it is motivated by moral self-aggrandizement. But in recent years an undercurrent of right-wing thought, mostly online and anonymous, has begun to suggest there is an element of masochistic sexuality in liberal and leftist cultural politics. Since 2015, “cuck,” or cuckold, has become part of the vocabulary of dissident right-wing circles. Many have commented on the “problematic” racial implications of this sexual term—given the popularity of interracial cuckold pornography in which black men have sex with white women in front of their husbands. To accuse a political opponent of being a cuck is to say that they are taking sexual pleasure in both the humiliations of personal defeat and the betrayal of their own side.
Accusations that American culture and politics are saturated with psychosexual fantasies about race are not inventions of a crude and pornographic internet age, or of the right. They emerged in the mid-20th century among left-wing intellectuals in France and the United States. For the young Fanon (25 years old when he wrote Black Skin, White Masks), they seemed an effective means of besmirching the motives of white racists and undermining the authority of white progressives. As allies, critics and foes observed, however, such accusations can turn against those who make them. By the end of his short life, Fanon had not only abandoned this sexualized concept of racism, but also the very idea—so central to our own era—that the subject of race has been a tightly kept secret, one that must be exposed by fearless intellectuals. Tracing his itinerary from the one point of view to the other offers an opportunity to rethink how we talk about race, and how we imagine we talk about it.
In the early 1950s, Fanon was at the periphery of a circle of French intellectuals whose members, leftists of various persuasions, were appalled and fascinated by America. Centered around the magazine Les Temps Modernes—run by Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre—this group regularly translated articles from the American press into French. They kept readers abreast of stories that presented the United States as a reactionary, racist country on the verge of a fascist takeover. Fanon, who had no firsthand knowledge of America, used these articles to create a psychological portrait of white Americans as a complement to his analyses of French racism. One of his most important sources was “Uncle Remus and the Malevolent Rabbit,” which appeared in Commentary in 1949 and was translated into French the following year for Les Temps Modernes. Here Fanon encountered the idea that beneath the anti-black racism of white Americans was an unconscious desire for punishment, humiliation, and suffering.
Its author was Bernard Wolfe, a Connecticut-born, Yale-educated Trotskyist, who (after a several years of earning his living as an author of erotic novels) was trying to position himself as an expert on black culture. In his analysis, Southern folktales about the wily Br’er Rabbit, collected by Joel Chandler Harris in the 19th century, were repositories of black racial animus against whites. Clever and amoral, Br’er Rabbit is a classic trickster character who (usually) outsmarts more powerful enemies. Wolfe argued that black people in the South who told Br’er Rabbit stories were sharing a disguised fantasy of revenge against their oppressors, imagining themselves as Br’er Rabbit and whites as his various animal foes. Why then were such stories so popular in white culture, appearing for example in the 1946 Disney film The Song of the South?
White audiences flocked to tales of Br’er Rabbit, Wolfe insisted, because the defiant lawlessness of a character who represented black people thrilled them with unspeakable delight. White Americans had created an image of blackness that combined animality, childishness, bodily prowess, and lawlessness. They had repressed these traits (the antithesis of middle-class respectability) in their own personalities but continued to unconsciously desire them—and, in a further complication, to desire punishment for craving such objectionable things. Having constructed a black stereotype, they spurned it, sought it out, and hated themselves for seeking it.
For Fanon, this idea of white masochism was a revelation, capable of explaining why white people did not simply oppress black people, but also seemed to exhibit a strange longing for them. He had already concluded (on what he claimed was the basis of personal experience and psychiatric practice) that overt white racism toward blacks—or negrophobia—had sexual origins. White women who fear the supposed sexual danger posed by black men actually long to be violated, Fanon wrote in Black Skin, White Masks: “isn’t this fear of rape, in fact, a demand for rape? Just as we say that there are faces that are begging to be slapped, can’t we say that are women begging to be raped?” White male racists are “repressed homosexuals,” begging for the same thing. White people invented a myth of black male sexual superiority, symbolized by the black penis (which, Fanon insisted, is in fact no larger or more pleasurable than other varieties). They dream of being penetrated by it and, horrified by their desire, accuse black men of being rapists.
This line of analysis, which frames hostility toward black people as pathological fear of one’s own sexuality, anticipates claims that homophobia (a term invented in the 1960s) is rooted in repressed sexual desire. It also anticipates certain kinds of postmodern analyses that disconnect discourse from reality and to deny agency to nonwhite people. Fanon seems to dismiss the possibility that stereotypes about black male aggression, virility, and sexual danger might have some source in the realities of white women’s “lived experience” of black men rather than in repressed sexual longings. White stereotypes about black people, in this vision, are not composite pictures built up from interpretations of experiences of black people’s behavior. Rather they are images invented for the pleasure of whites, and imposed, in totalizing and inescapable fashion, on black people. Indeed black people hardly exist as agents outside these stereotypes. As Fanon says, whites “have woven me from a thousand details.”
White fantasies structure every aspect of black existence and of black-white relations, Fanon argues. With Wolfe’s notion of white masochism, he could discover latent sexuality not only beneath the surface of white hostility, but also behind whites’ apparently benevolent and progressive interest in black people and black culture. Why, after all, did whites (even in the 1940s) watch movies or read books about suffering black heroes, racist white villains, or even innocent white victims? Why did whites read books like Wright’s Native Son (1940), a sympathetic portrait of a black man who murders a white woman? Why did whites listen to the blues and jazz? Why did they watch black athletes? Fanon argued that whites sought out opportunities to consume, from a safe distance, black “aggression.” They “justify and prize this aggression, and turn it toward themselves, reproducing the classic schema of masochism.” From the white woman afraid of sharing a twilight sidewalk with a black man, to the white hipster singing along to a black musician’s song, white attitudes toward black people are saturated with masochistic desire.
In the years following the publication of Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon became one of the most globally prominent members of the anti-colonial revolution in Algeria (then a French colony). He spent much of the 1950s writing propaganda on behalf of the National Liberation Front, justifying its increasingly violent tactics against white civilians. At the moment of his death, in 1961, his book The Wretched of the Earth, with appeals to systematic violence against colonizers, was published in France and soon in translation throughout the world. Jean-Paul Sartre, who died 40 years ago this week and whose intellectual circle had inspired Fanon, supplied the preface. Sartre defended Fanon’s endorsement of violence in terms even more brutal than those of Fanon himself. All white people, whether they lived in settler colonies or back in Europe, were colonial “exploiters,” he insisted. There was no distinction between the guilty and the innocent. All deserved violence at the hands of anti-colonial insurgents. In an infamous line from the preface, Sartre claimed that “shooting a European” was a liberatory act after which “there remains a dead man and a free man.”
Sartre’s preface was a key text in what is known as “Third Worldism,” the turn of European leftist intellectuals away from the Soviet Union and toward revolutionary regimes in Algeria, Cuba, and elsewhere. It briefly earned Sartre the praise of intellectuals throughout the Arab world, until it became apparent that he was not going to extend his endorsement of violence against colonial settlers to the case of Israel. Sartre is still under fire from radical left-wing activists like the notorious anti-Semite Houria Bouteldja, who has regretted that Sartre, being dead, cannot be shot. Sartre’s preface was also attacked at the time, and ever since, by the French right. The late French journalist Jean Daniel, founder of the Nouvel Observateur, dismissed the preface as masochistic masturbation. Alain Gourdon, close to the New Right of Alain de Benoist, likewise expressed disgust at Sartre’s “manifestations of masochism.” Catalyzed by reactions to the preface, the notion that leftism has a masochistic streak was picked up by prominent intellectuals such as François Furet and Pascal Bruckner, becoming a trope of French political discourse.
Accusations that Sartre was being masochistic are not unfounded, or without analytical value. He begins his preface by telling white readers that Fanon “speaks often of you, never to you.” Europe has no moral authority, no centrality in the new story of global politics: “the Third World finds itself and speaks itself.” And yet, the preface turns precisely on the question of what Europeans ought to do, how they ought to regain moral authority. “Europeans,” Sartre urges, “you must open this book.” And they must listen to Sartre: “as a European, I steal the enemy’s book, and out of it I fashion a remedy for Europe.” Pretending to long for the violent disintegration of the white Western self, Sartre is in fact acquiring new legitimacy for it. Seeming to move out of the limelight and lift up the voices of people of color, he recenters himself. He only seems to give up control so that he can more effectively wring pleasure out from the temporary illusion of his debasement. He tops from the bottom.
Fanon accused whites of using racism and apparent anti-racism alike as vehicles of masochistic pleasure; French conservatives accused his collaborator Sartre of supporting him for the same purpose. One might even accuse Fanon, who married a white French woman (Marie-Josèphe Dublé) and was described by his female assistant as a “sadist,” of projecting his own proclivities onto whites. But the ease with which such psychoanalytic accusations can be turned on any target should not blind us to the fact that there is indeed something masochistic about many kinds of political and racial discourse. Fanon’s observations about white consumption of images of aggressive, vengeful black masculinity certainly seem pertinent in understanding the success among whites of cultural products from gangster rap to Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. And Sartre-esque performances of masochistic narcissism are a staple of what passes for commentary on race, appearing for example in discussions of Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” and “Formation”. Nonblack women, both white and nonwhite, fell over each other to declare that they understood this music was not “for them.” Here, this time as farce rather than tragedy, the left-liberal ego, craving punishment but above all attention, proclaims its commitment to silencing itself. Fanon would not be surprised.
Perhaps anticipating the ways that talking about race could become a kind of theater for the perverse energies of narcissistic psyches, Fanon began to move away from his psychosexual account of racism within two years of writing Black Skin, White Masks. In 1954, taking a break from the clandestine activities he had begun for the Algerian revolutionaries, he gave a paper, “Racism and Culture,” at a conference of black writers in Paris. He announced that a shift was taking place in the Western world. Abandoning arguments about racial difference based in biology, white elites were now embracing a politics of anti-racism, filling the world with “films on race prejudice, poems on race prejudice, messages on race prejudice.” All of these present racism as a psychological problem affecting individuals who have absorbed unconscious biases from their environments. Such biases are the legacy of our racist past but, elites assure us, they “will disappear” in time. What must be done now is to reveal the hidden racism within individuals and banish it through education.
This is nonsense, Fanon countered. Racism is not a “hidden, dissimulated element.” We are constantly talking about racism, spending ever more energy to uncover what is in plain sight. This allows us to imagine that prejudice is the cause of injustice. But this is to reverse cause and effect. Racism and anti-racism are both simply justifications for economic exploitation, alibis by which we are distracted from the stark, evident inequalities and violence of our societies. In the era of biological racism we imagined that these inequalities were justified because of scientifically proven racial differences. Now we imagine that injustice is caused by a nebulous, ubiquitous, and shadowy racism, something that must be revealed and educated away by moral experts. This search keeps us busily looking for far-off and complicated causes to the otherwise obvious and “shameless exploitation of one group of men by another.” Having contributed so much to the idea that racism must be tracked in the psyche, Fanon now dismissed such approaches as “mystification.” The pleasures of masochism were over.
From the perspective of Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon would have little difficulty diagnosing much of our current discourse on race as masochistic display. So too, from the perspective of “Racism and Culture,” could he identify our obsession with having more and better conversations about race as a neurotic dodge from the real problems confronting us. He might ask in order to avoid noticing what are we summoned to talk about the intricacies of appreciating “Lemonade.” “Racism and Culture” suggests that the analysis of microaggressions, implicit biases, and other forms of racism imagined to be subtly at work in our culture and in our unconscious thoughts is a tool of the powerful. In that respect, it’s normal that elite institutions from The New York Times to Fortune 500 companies assure us of their anti-racist bona fides and warn us to be vigilant against racism. Whether understood as a pursuit of hidden pleasure or as an ideological cover for elite interests, what we often call “white guilt” appears in Fanon’s analysis as something deeper and more dangerous than a bad conscience.
Blake Smith, a contributing writer at Tablet, lives in Chicago.