Color and Agency: Hegel’s Master/Slave Dialectic in the Lens of

Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks

N’kenge Feagin

 Most scientists agree that the difference between the DNA of humans, chimpanzees and bonobos (our two closest great ape relatives), is less than between 1% and 2%. Even more remarkably, the genetic difference between individual humans is less than .1%. Yet, much has been made about the .1%. That difference has been used as a way to deny the humanity of some groups, while, if following one of the main tenets of Hegel’s master/slave dialectic, paradoxically (and unwittingly), denying the humanity of all.  Despite what we can assume Hegel’s position might be on applying the master/slave dialectic to colonial slavery (based on his writings on Africa and Islam), the reasons such a fit is problematic goes beyond the stunted development and cannibalistic ways of those from “the Dark Continent.” While it seems universal that “self-consciousness exists in itself, in that, and by the fact that it exists for another self-consciousness; that is to say, it is only by being acknowledged or ‘recognized’” (Hegel, 178), Frantz Fanon argues that such a recognition cannot occur within the framework of a colonial system of oppression. Fanon theorizes that the basic structure of colonial racism prevents the application of many of aspects of Hegel’s master/slave dialectic to history’s largest example of the master/slave relationship.

Fanon scholar Nigel Gibson writes that “Fanon’s introduction of race into the master/slave dialectic is a profound though largely overlooked original contribution developed in the context of the postwar ‘Hegel’ renaissance…”(Honenberger, 155). I will use excerpts from Black Skin, White Masks to concur with Fanon on two main points in relation to Hegel’s master/slave dialectic (M/S D). One, while we are to take the Hegelian master/slave dialectic as allegorical, one of the biggest obstacles in applying it in a racial context is the issue of skin color. Two, central to the inability to apply Hegel’s arguments about the master/slave relation to a racialized colonial sphere is the fact that the colonial slave, both as a literal and symbolic figure, has no agency in his own representation in the typical M/S D dynamic.

I would posit that this is, in some part, due to the visceral reaction that the visual of skin color evokes in the colonizer. “A central reason for the divergence, according to Fanon, is the way in which racism functions, within the colonial context, to prevent the possibility of fully reciprocal recognition” (Honenberger, 153). As Fanon discusses in “The Lived Experience of the Black/The Fact of Blackness,” chapter of Black Skin, White Masks, for people of color, this gaze does not come from within, nor does it permit the man of color to move freely. The space is imposed, almost instantaneously, by the color of his skin. A black man has black skin and is thus is black, immediately and permanently. As Fanon explains it, “the glances of the other fixed me there” (109).

 This is, thus, one of the challenges that emerges when Hegel’s M/S D is applied to colonial relationships. For as Hegel writes: “Self-consciousness has before it another self-consciousness; it has come outside itself…First it has lost its own self, since it finds itself as an other being; secondly, it has thereby sublated that other, for it does not regard the other as essentially real, but sees its own self in the other“ (Hegel, 179). For the person of color within a colonial system, there is not a moment when the master “sees” himself “in the other.” The “other” becomes black, the black object. The marked difference is that immediately there is recognition of the differences in skin color and that color (and, as Fanon describes, the “historicity” that accompanies it) blocks any avenues for reflection. “You are not like me,” the colonial system implies, “because I see, and will use your color, to immediately differentiate myself from you.” Or, to quote Fanon, “not only must the black man be black; he must be black in relation to the white man” (110). Thus, why would the white master seek recognition from someone that he is immediately reminded is not him? Paraphrasing Fanon, Charles Villet states: “Because the black slave is, according to the colonial master’s racism, not even fully human, it would be absurd for him to seek recognition from the slave” (Villet, 43).

 It is impossible not to see the visceral reaction to darker skin as being not only the initial fissure between a racialized construction of the master slave/dialectic, but also one of the most prevalent and influential. As cited in Vesla Weaver’s article “The Electoral Consequences of Skin Color: The ‘Hidden’ Side of Race in Politics”: “Study after study has documented a strong association between phenotype and negative perceptions and these results always go in one direction—darker-skinned, less Eurocentric-appearing blacks and Latinos are perceived as being less intelligent and attractive and more lazy, poor, and prone to violence“(Weaver, 160).

 In “The Lived Experience of the Black/The Fact of Blackness,” Fanon states: “I sit down at the fire and I become aware of my uniform. I had not seen it. It is indeed ugly. I stop there, for who can tell me what beauty is? “(Fanon, 114).   The uniform of which Fanon speaks of is his skin, his blackness. So profound is the effect of melanin upon the colonial viewer that Fanon cites two examples of attempts to “denegrif[y]” (110) the black skin. One is through the use of technology as scientists try to create a way “for the Negro to whiten himself and thus throw off the burden of corporeal malediction” (Fanon, 111). In another example, Fanon cites from a mid-20th century book where the underlying message is “whiten the race, save the race” (Fanon, 46) though miscegenation. Implicit in Fanon’s argument is that it is the visual of dark skin which causes a rupture that for most colonizers is impossible to move beyond. In other words, “The master/slave dialectic breaks down in the absence of divergent skin color because it immediately predisposes an interaction between the two groups” (Wortham, 165) which an acknowledgement of skin color prohibits.

 While Fanon doesn’t explicitly mention skin color as one of his issues with positioning Hegel’s master/slave dialectic within a colonial framework, he does directly address another core concern. In the colonialist application of the M/S D, the slave is only allowed to participate in the exchange of recognition once he is recognized initially by the master. Thus, this bestowing of allowance by the master to the slave is ultimately merely a reflection of the master as he wishes to be seen and not a true reflection refracted back from the slave.As Bruce Honenberger notes, “…according to Fanon, there has never been a true struggle between colonial master and slave” [Thus]…the Hegelian dialectics of recognition have never really been set in motion in the colonial context” (154).

 What happens when self-consciousness is bestowed? Can the “master” truly receive recognition when it was the master who has decided that the other will be allowed to start “their” gaze?   Fanon laments, “One day the white master, without conflict, recognized the Negro slave. But the former slave wants to make himself recognized” (Fanon, 217). This difference between these two has a profound implication for Hegel’s idea of the relationship between the master and the slave. In Fanon’s distinction, the slave has been denied agency in the creation of his own representation. Thus, under these conditions, beyond being a gaze of reciprocity, it is instead merely a mirror. As Wortham states: “Fanon suggests that to the extent that the ‘Negro’ has been liberated from slavery without having to engage in mortal combat for his freedom, the grounds of the relationship between the two have not fulfilled their Hegelian destiny” (165). Thus, there cannot be a true exchange of the reflected images because one side of the M/S D has been granted permission to execute its gaze. This is problematic because “…the “Negro” has neither properly cast off the shackles of slavery nor acquired anything more than a paltry semblance of mastery. In the process, the ‘White Master-‘ attains a certain personhood by recognizing the other without entering into full conflict but lacks genuine consciousness of his true self “(qtd. In Wortham 165).

In other words, the slave has been denied the most basic principle of the Hegelian master/slave dialectic: “Self-consciousness becomes aware that life is as essential to it as pure self-consciousness. In immediate self-consciousness the simple ego is absolute object, which, however is for us or in itself absolute mediation, and has as its essential moment substantial and solid independence” (Hegel, 189). Fanon posits that had the slave taken his right to be considered equal through self-assertion rather than merely being allowed to, then Hegel’s statement that “Consciousness exists…and has self-existence only in the self-existence of the other. Each is the mediating term to the other…” (Hegel, 184) would be rendered true.

Though obviously familiar with, and perhaps influenced by Hegel and the dialectic, Fanon “implies that the relations between “black” and “white” are not reducible to the master-slave dialectic; indeed, that the state of affairs we call colonialism arises in circumstances that are, in essence, not defined by original combat of the internecine kind that founds the possibility of the master-slave relations. (Wortham, 165). Central to Fanon’s discussion in Black Skin, White Masks is the argument that the history of the colonial slave challenges many of Hegel’s ideas presented in his master/slave dialectic. While Wesleyan history professor Ethan Kleinberg, argues that “in his [Fanon’s] attempt to distance the colonial slave from the Hegelian slave, Fanon actually parallels Hegel’s movements” (Honenberger, 154), the reverse is actually true. It is by highlighting the discrepancies within Hegel’s master/slave dialectic that Fanon demonstrates his understanding and competent challenging of the dialectic.

 Works Cited

 Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. New York: Grove Press, 1967. Print.

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. “The Phenomenology of Mind “Independence and Dependence of Self-Consciouness: Lordship and Bondage.” Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. The Phenomenology of Spirit. 1807. Electronic.

Honenberger, Philip. ““Le Nègre et Hegel” Fanon on Hegel, Colonialism, and the Dialecticics of Recognition.” Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge (2007): 153-162. Electronic.

Villet, Charles. “Hegel and Fanon on the Question of Mutual Recognition: A Comparative Analysis .” The Journal of Pan African Studies (2011): 40-51. Electronic.

Weaver, Vesla. “The Electoral Consequences of Skin Color: The ‘Hidden’ Side of Race in Politics.” Political Behavior (2012): 159. Print.

Wortham, Simon Morgan. “After word: Impossible Divisions.” South Atlantic Quarterly (2013): 163-170. electronic.