by Anjum Shah
“Sometimes people hold a core belief that is very strong. When they are presented with evidence that works against that belief, the new evidence cannot be accepted. It would create a feeling that is extremely uncomfortable, called cognitive dissonance. And because it is so important to protect the core belief, they will rationalize, ignore and even deny anything that doesn’t fit in with the core belief” (Fanon, 2008)
Black Skin White Masks is one of Frantz Fanon’s two famous books that focuses on racism for black people under French colonial rule. Two threads of thought reoccur throughout this work: the first is that racists fail to recognise their prejudice, ignore and subdue its existence and fabricate reasons to mask it. The second is that some victims of racism internalise racist beliefs about their ethnic group and aim to distance from these through a process of whitewashing.
As a reader, Fanon’s discussion on internalisation is striking, witty and potent. Fanonian thought on racism tells us that cognitive dissonance exists within the racist and the victim as well.
For social work, Frantz Fanon is situated as a black psychiatrist, a revolutionary but not philosopher or a man of ideas. When compared, this is a stark contrast to the likes of Emanuel Kant or John Stuart Mill, both European white males and the adopted fathers of social work philosophy.
A figure limited to the postcolonial struggle and studied only by fringe social work academics, very little attention has been paid to Fanon’s philosophical work, unlike that of Kant or Mill. Social work philosophy is staunchly Eurocentric with an assumption made that this is sufficient to uphold principles of diversity. Fanonian scholars would call this “epistemic colonialism” (Gordon, 2015).
While much has been said about Fanon in psychology, which isn’t surprising since he was a practicing psychiatrist, little has been written about him in social work. He has generally been used to give credibility to research showing causes of higher rates of mental health problems in BME service users.
The explanation tends to follow the idea that alienation, an identity crisis and a subsequent mental health crisis are likely in a racially hostile society. While this is true, the limited scope of his work is a part of the problem on how we view Fanon; he’s only known in conversations about race and less in ethics.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Fanon was a key figure in inspiring radical movements like the early Black Panthers, which contrary to common belief sought social change for blacks. In this realm, Fanon inspired free breakfast clubs within poverty stricken American neighbourhoods and free education programmes for the poor. Black Skin White Masks became a text that was discussed at every level of the organisation and to hear Fanon quoted at the grassroots was normal occurrence (Zeilig, 2012).
Fanon and his ideas have since departed from the grassroots and are now commonly seen in postcolonial studies departments. Unfortunately, he has been appropriated to a discipline that was crystallised in the ivory towers of academia after his death and has been boxed as a black leftist revolutionary.
The man of ideas has been reduced to his biography of revolution.
Although some marginal work has been done to develop Fanon the philosopher, much is yet to be done. His ethics and call to revaluate our conception of humanity make him an authentic figure to deal with the themes of social work.
Fanon was a philosopher, activist and humanist who wrote while deeply immersed in human suffering. A victim of racism, a WW2 veteran and active psychiatrist during the Algerian War of Independence, his work grapples with modernist thought, race, class and oppression, all dominant themes in traditional social work discourse.
Until now however, in social work knowledge, it is white thinkers that provide theory and black thinkers that provide experience for the former to explain.
More needs to be said to broaden the philosophical landscape of social work where research tends to focus on the utility of practice methods instead of theory. In an age of austerity the focus has shifted to “evidence-based practice” and not enough time is being given to understanding what evidence is or the politics that underpin it.
Proposals to explore theory for the sake of theory would generally be unwelcome because it would fail to have an immediate visible effect.
Fanon, a contemporary of Jean Paul Satre, has been overlooked in ethics unlike the latter whose work has been the basis of the influential Existentialism and Social Work (Thompson, 1992).
Though Fanon’s short life produced less written work than Satre, within it is the basis for a rich humanist philosophy perfect for the principles of traditional social work that is inclusive. As soon as it is acknowledged that the gap remains, and Fanon stands as a means of critique to the cognitive dissonance at the knowledge base of social work, there remains hope.