Black skin, white masks: Trump, race and power

Black skin, white masks: Trump, race and power
Comment: Revolutionary and writer Frantz Fanon theorised the psychology of race. Today, we are witnessing the neurosis of race that he addressed, amplified by social media, writes Laith Saud
7 min read
13 Dec, 2016
After the first prime-time presidential debate hosted by FOX News and Facebook [Getty]

"The colored man enslaved by his inferiority, the white man enslaved by his superiority alike behave in accordance with a neurotic orientation." – Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks

Last week marked the 55th anniversary of the death of Franz Fanon. We are lucky he came to this world, for he penetrated a fundamental part of the human condition, which had up to that point been overlooked: The psychology of race. 

Until then such psychology had largely been ignored; for Freud, suppression of sexuality determined who people are, for Jung, mystical archetypes. It was Fanon who bluntly observed that it was people who made people; the way humans perceive one another affects the way they perceive themselves – and this includes race. 

Wrapped up in the trimmings of culture and race is an existence that is oppressed and screaming for freedom, but languages, customs and laws simply do not understand the language of true freedom, thus the scream is silenced or at least unheard. 

Today, chaos abounds and the neurosis of race that Fanon addressed has been amplified by social media and is now suppressing true freedom in new and unnoticed ways. 

Neurosis in the air               

It is a truism that social media played a crucial role in the election of Donald Trump. Many have noted that the circulation of "fake news" within social media consolidated certain voting blocs for Trump, but to simply fixate on the "fake news" phenomenon would be short sighted.  

A host of factors have been converging over the last fifteen years, cultivating the conditions wherein Trump became not only electable, but also perhaps inevitable. Broadly speaking, it has been the convergence of events and new media of communication; this convergence has fundamentally altered the way we read, write and communicate.  Meanwhile, these events have not only been laced with racial and ethnic themes, but drenched with them. 

The neurosis of race that Fanon addressed has been amplified by social media and is now suppressing true freedom in new and unnoticed ways

In order to illegally invade Iraq in 2003, the Bush administration diligently cultivated a "clash of civilizations" worldview in American media, assuring that the average American could not tell the difference between Iraq and Afghanistan or a secular scotch drinker like Saddam Hussein and an ultra-pious militant like Osama bin Laden. 

In spite of Bush's abhorrent record, the rise of Trump, has led some writers to argue that they "miss Bush;" Bush was "earthy," whereas Trump is crass, Bush carefully differentiated between Islam and terrorism, while Trump wants to just "ban all" Muslims. 

To be fair, these writers are employing a rhetorical device, by saying "I miss Bush," they are emphasising how bad they think Trump is, but consider the following passage:

By saying 'I miss Bush,' they are emphasising how bad they think Trump is

"This isn't to idealise Bush, who did his share to coarsen political discourse: impugning his opponents' patriotism, exaggerating intelligence to lead the country to war, and building the false case that Iraq was behind the 9/11 attacks.

But even Karl Rove's underhandedness seems almost quaint compared with today's brutality" [i.e. the Republican primary], wrote Dana Milbank in The Washington Post.

Note the un-ironic use of the words "quaint" and "brutality". George W. Bush inaugurated the endless War on Terror. To borrow a passage from the Quran, if the world's trees were pens and her seas ink, we may still not be able to exhaust the definitive list of crimes and horror wrought upon millions upon millions of people whose names will never be known. 

To this day, young men in Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan run for cover on hearing a buzzing sound, out of fear that a drone - remotely controlled from hundreds or thousands of miles away - may murder them only yards in front of their homes.

This is to protect our "homeland". So we are told. Who misses human rights as people languish in Guantanamo Bay, without charge? What else could describe the comparable approval of Bush, in spite of his actual actions, to the indignant rejection of Trump according to simply his rhetoric, other than cognitive dissonance and neurosis?

There is no doubt in my mind that much of the indignation directed at Trump is projection and transference, the displacement of 15 years of frustration heaped upon a man

When Milbank refers to Bush's legacy as quaint and the Republican primary as "brutal," he reveals not only his priorities, but his very existence.

As Americans or westerners, these writers are invested in the processes of democracy; free press, free speech, analysis reflects their talents, constitutes their discussions at dinner parties and expresses their achievements to family and friends. This holds for me as well. 

But we are not all simply westerners. I was born in Baghdad, Iraq. My aunt Aasir was killed within the first few days of the war by a bomb, leaving my cousin motherless at too young an age. A few years later, my cousin Nimr was senselessly killed amid the chaos that engulfed Iraq, he was twenty-three years old and so handsome, leaving my aunt Aymen childless. (She, ironically, fled to Syria.)  I could add to these two names six more from my family and hundreds of thousands more from my countrymen. That is brutality.

Yet, this was all quite quaint to some Washington pundits.  And it is the culture that constitutes them that makes them feel this way. Fanon said of the coloniser that he "does not alleviate oppression or mask domination. He displays and demonstrates them with the clear conscience of the law enforcer."

Even in the relatively innocuous statements of these writers looms the successful legacy of the War on Terror and its "clash of civilization" underpinning.    

The Iraq war was made legal through congressional approval and was carried out by the coordination of American institutions; martial, civil, economic and cultural, this rendered it absolvable, even though it was wrong. We are a democracy Goddamn it!

As a generation came into adulthood, they were raised gazing upon a cosmic war of apocalyptic proportions

Meanwhile, Iraq was ruled by just one man, and since Iraq was ruled by only one man, it became only one man in the eyes of the average American – and remains so to this day. 

The hundreds of thousands killed and millions displaced never existed in the first place. I, as an Arab-American, am shifted into a different kind of existence when I read Milbank's words; I realise that aspects of the apparatus of American culture is against me. 

My blood and kin have no value (which means neither do I) while the spectacle of American political debate, if rude, horrifies the spectator, because that is his freedom on stage! 

There is no doubt in my mind that much of the indignation directed at Trump is projection and transference, the displacement of 15 years of frustration heaped upon a man too vulgar to evade it. But what else is projection other than neurosis? 

Trump, race and power

It is also obvious that Trump's own words do not allow us to extend the same courtesy to him as some of these authors have to Bush, even though Bush's actions have (so far) been far worse.

But this illustrates the issues of identity that Fanon addressed. The President of the US reflects who Americans are to the world. During the Bush era and since, we as Americans were able to hide behind the President's pleasantries and, as I said, the fact the war was approved by congress. 

None of that prevented the inevitable racialisation of the war on terror, however. As social media surged during the early 2000s, the context of the war on terror was too potent to not inform notions of identity, civility, to be western, Christian and white. This is the world Trump inherited and found advantageous.

As a generation came into adulthood, they were raised gazing upon a cosmic war of apocalyptic proportions, East vs West, Islam vs Christendom. As millions of white Americans in Middle America were convinced that the end of the world was nigh, they began looking for a saviour. 

It could not have been otherwise. In addition, convinced that their lives were more valuable than others, millions of Americans were able to look at campaigns like Black Lives Matter with hostility. Another indication of neurosis; where we are so trapped within our notions of identity we cannot even extend humanity to other human beings who simply look different. 

Trump was elected for many reasons, but in part, white and establishment neurosis blinded us to the things going on in people's minds. Perhaps if Fanon was around, he could have warned us.            

Laith Saud is a writer and scholar. He is currently Visiting Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at DePaul University and co-author of An Introduction to Islam for the 21st Century (Wiley-Blackwell). Follow him on Twitter: @laithsaud

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.