Black Skin and White Mask: language and power in modern world

Article Posted in: Research Articles

Language and Power: In modern world and Black Skin White Mask

By – Alpana Khobra (February 2017, Vol.III, Issue.XXV)


“Yes, I must take great pain with my speech,

Because I shall be more or less judged by it.

With great contempt they will say of me,

“He does not even know how to speak French.”

( Fanon 1952)

Language can be considered as a system of group of letters and/or words corresponding to a meaning and vice-versa. It enables one to get acquainted with the world at the level of one’s understanding of words and sentences. In other words, it can be remarked that the use of language contributes towards bridging the gap between a person and the world. The study of language gives an insight into philosophy, anthropology, psycholinguistics, socio-linguistics and so on and so forth. It leads to a realisation of one’s existence in the world because the moment one speaks, a social circle circumscribes him or her. The Cartesian”I think, therefore I am”gets transformed into”I speak, therefore I am.”Thus, it is this social circle that determines one’s social identity. Sociolinguistics is one branch which deals with not only a mere study of language as a broad canon but also contemplates how a linguistic form is related to social realm and the relation of social interaction with the linguistic interactions. It believes that individual’s linguistic variation is actually a result of social differentiation, social identity and interactions. If one attempts to sum up this relation of the social and the linguistic in one line, it can be said that a person’s position in the social hierarchy is determined by his use of language. This is how the concept of power comes into the picture.

Power in a social realm is exercised through ideology and the ideological workings of language. The whole concept of ideology was brought in light by the twentieth century French Marxist philosopher Louis Peirre Althusser in his essayIdeological State Ideology and Apparatus”. He wondered how a small number of the colonisers could rule over a large number of the colonised. This is achieved through ideology which involves rule by consent and not force. Althusser throws light on how people internalise the dominant ideology and abide by the set of ideas which support the capitalist class’s dominance. This is called rule by hegemony. However, this entire system of ideology is actually accentuated by the use of language. For instance, consider the use of English language on World Wide Web. It is a European language that is predominantly present on this network despite the fact that a huge percent of world population in bereft of this language. This is because of the discourse created by English language which shapes the power relations. Through the concept of discourse, one gets a glimpse of how closely power and language are linked to each other. A conversation of two scientists will make no sense to a layman. This is how language creates a discourse around it beyond whose boundary it appears indecipherable yet powerful. Power of language can also be felt in a normal day-to-day conversation. Person A holds certain opinion about something and person B says to him,”I am not being a killjoy or spoilsport but I don’t agree with what you say.”in the very act of saying”I am not being a killjoy or spoilsport”person B is asserting that he is right and the other person is not. This is how use of language in a certain way leads to the building up of a hierarchy. One also witnesses trickery involved in advertisements, media, etc. coaxing the viewers to watch a particular show or buy a particular product. Media in fact serves as a powerful site for producing and maintaining dominant discourses. One sees how different news channels carry different headlines for the same event or incident. Power lies in a group of people who decide what has to be shown and what has to be censored.

“Knowledge  is power.”

(Bacon 1597)

The power of knowledge is also exercised with the help of language. For example, consider a meeting of a doctor and patient.In this binary, the former is knowledgeable in a particular field and it is because of this knowledge that latter comes to seek help. Hence, the knowledge of medical science perpetuated through language creates a hierarchical relation between the two. One also sees how ideology is involved because of which the patient abides by what all that the doctor suggest. A similar binary of teacher-student exists in the discourse of an educational institution. The exercise of power in discourse is all about how the powerful controls the voice of the non-powerful in such a way that it appears so legitimised and that is why nobody dares to challenge/ question it. One also witnesses the use of rhetoric in day-to-day life. The Oxford English Dictionary defined it as “the art of using language so as to persuade or influence others; the body of rules to be observed by a speaker or writer in order that he may express himself with eloquence. Thus, the picture of connection between language use and unequal relations of power consequentially becomes quite clear here. The need of the hour is to increase consciousness of how language contributes to the domination of some people by other because “consciousness is the first step towards emancipation.”

Moving ahead from this relation of language and power in modern world, this essay now embarks on journey leading to the further exploration of this relation in the world of colonisation. To elaborate, Black Skin White Masks by Frantz Fanon has been brought into discussion. Black Skin White Masks (Peau Noire, Masques Blancs): The Experiences of a Black Man in a White World is a study of the status of blacks in a colonised domain at a psychological and psychoanalytical level. Frantz Omar Fanon was born in 1925 in Fort-de-France, in the French colony of Martinique. His father was descendant of slaves and mother of mixed French parenthood. Black Skin White Mask was written in a 1952 and translated into English in 1967. The readers associated the idea of black consciousness with it for it was the first book which brought into light the psychology involved in colonialism. Moreover, it appears appealing because the author himself has had many instances of personal experience. In Fanon’s words, it is comprised of “uncomfortable truths and naked honesty”. He primarily focuses on the internalisation of the black colour, i.e., “epidermalisation” and the diametrical opposition between whiteness and blackness.

Frantz Fanon in Black Skin and White Masks has explicitly elaborated how language acts as a major and most essential site used by the colonisers to subjugate the blacks. When the relationship of language and power is construed in the context of colonisation, the language gets laced with many profound connotations.

“To speak is to exist absolutely for the other.”

(Fanon 1952)


When a person speaks, the presence of an “other” is quite self-evident. However, it depends on the Eurocentric yardstick to decide whether what the person actually speaks is worthy enough to be called a “language” or not. It might be completely brushed aside as a “violent babble of uncouth sounds”as Joseph Conrad describes in Heart of Darkness or a mere “jabber” as Fanon calls it in his book, Black Skin White Masks. As a result, the use of language inevitably draws a dividing line between the self and the other leading to a certain hierarchy. It is this binary of the self and the other that the whole idea of colonisation foregrounds. T S Eliot once remarked, “We are certain of everything relatively and of nothing –positively.” So a person is a slave only in the presence of his master. This can be related to the post- structuralist theory of difference as stated by Jacques Derrida. According to this theory, an entity gains meaning by virtue of being different from other entities. For example, a pen is called a pen because it is not a pencil, eraser, and so on and so forth. This is how meaning takes place and hierarchical binaries emerge. But this division is not just confined to the coloniser and the colonised, rather the colonised witnesses a split within himself as well. A Negro’s way of behaving with his fellows is different from the way he behaves with a white man. This implies that colonisation is not just a case of invasion but also a driving force behind bringing change within the psychology of the colonised. It is this psychological charge which Fanon tends to explore.

“Mastery of language affords remarkable power.”

(Fanon 1952)


In the chapter called “The Negro and Language”, Fanon describes why a Negro feel overtly inclined towards learning French, a European language because it has certain power and authority attached to it. As opposed to French, Negroes consider their language powerless, thus, ignoring the very fact that loss of one’s language is equivalent to loss of one’s cultural identity. This is because language is not just about words, phrases or sentences, rather it has a certain cultural baggage attached to it. But in the eyes of the colonisers, no such thought of”culture”, “civilisation” or “standard” exists because, as Fanon puts it, there is no “long historical past”.

“I shouted a greeting to the world and the world slashed away my joy.

I was told to stay within the bounds, to go back where I belonged.”


The plight of the blacks which Fanon wants to convey is quite evident in theses above quoted lines. A”long historical past’ implies a well- documented/ recorded history which is laced with a grandeur of legacy which is absent among the blacks. This is the reason why blacks feel inclined towards learning a European language. It is believed to give them a sense of being more “civilised” and “closer to the white man”. It is considered to be a tool to break the shackles of colonisation and seek “emancipation”. However, unwittingly, they are further intensifying the whole concept of colonisation because it is the fact that at any cost they cannot come out of their blackness. It seems quite unsound to see how they set their color as the measuring tool that has already been belittled by the colonisers. This can be summed up in Fanon’s following statement,

“Wherever he goes, the Negro remains a Negro.”

(Fanon 1952)


Sadly, a Negro often tries to blur the dividing line between to be like and being, and delights in the process of moving closer to the state of human.

Fanon’s main idea that is pervasively present in his books like The Wretched of the Earth and Black Skin White Masks is that the whole concept of colonialism will collapse if the natives refuse to get “coaxed” by the colonisers. His books are leashed with blatant remarks against the colonisers who actually flourish only because of the people they rule over. He wants to uproot the very basis of complexes injected into the mind of the black due to colonial environment. In Orientalism, Edward Said also brings in light the way the settlers tend to “civilise” the native as a part of white man’s burden. Fanon then brings to the forefront the paradoxical stand of the whites towards a Negro speaking in French. On one hand, they rebuke a Negro conversing in French mixed with Creole while on the other hand, if he utters fluent French, he poses a potential threat to the domain of the white. The latter in this case would say, “keep an eye on that one, he is almost white.” In either case, he is abused and scrutinised. On the contrary, he is deified among his fellow men. Fanon states, “he becomes an oracle.” This implies that a change in language leads to difference, a deviation and separation.

“Every dialect is a way of thinking.”

Damourett and Pichon


Clearly, change in dialect means change in perspective. Therefore, in case of a Negro who has just returned from France, it is evident that his mind has undergone “mutation” so as to put in a more convincing scientific term. Fanon further describes it in terms of an “evidence of a dislocation, a separation”. Language being well-knit with power and culture majorly adds to one’s ability to perceive the world. This has been discussed to an extent in the beginning of this essay but in the context of a colonial framework, language becomes quite a loaded term.

In the concluding paragraph, it can be remarked that the very presence of language and power is complimentary to each other. One exists due to the other, thus, being indispensable to their respective propagation in a socio-cultural framework. Both have to sit on the same swing called human society so that it comes into motion. If either of the two moves away, the other is left behind with nobody to push it. As a result, the society flounders. It can also be said that nothing in this world can be called apolitical. Whatever and whenever a person speaks, which involves use of language, it will be scrutinized under the scanner of politics and that is how power functions accordingly. Fanon in Black Skin White Mask has tried to give an explicit detail of the similar scenario. Colonisation has been presented as a tool tearing apart the tapestry of the world of the blacks which at later stages proves to be a double-edged sword for the holder, the coloniser. Fanon puts emphasis on the specificity of this tool being a “double-edged sword” for the white who might get devoured themselves. His words are infilled with such zeal which is actually in compliance with this thought. He blatantly puts in these words,

“I feel my soul as vast as the world,

truly a soul as deep as the deepest of rivers;

My chest has the power to expand to infinity I was made to give

and they prescribe for me the humility of the cripple.”


Fanon’s study of colonialism has obviously been done through a different lens providing an image of unprecedented kind. It is because of such novelty and vigour that he is called “the purveyor of the transgressive and transitional truth” by Homi K. Bhabha. There is an underlying prophetic spirit in his work which makes the reader delve deeper into its meaning.



Althusser, Louis Peirre. 1974,Ideology and Ideological State Apparatus”

Alessandrini, Anthony C. 1999, ed. Frantz Fanon, Critical Perspectives

Conrad, Joseph. 1902,  Heart of Darkness

Davidson, Harreit. ‘Improper Desire-reading”The Wasteland”’

Fairclough, Norman.1989, Language and Power

Fanon, Frantz. 1952, Black Skin White Mask

Thomas, Linda; Wareing, Shan; Singh, Ishtla; Percei, John S.; Thorborron, Jean; Jones, Jason. 1999,  Language, Society and Power.

Introduction to the Author:

Alpana did English Honours and post-graduation in English from Hans Raj College, Delhi University. Societal and politically evolved topics interest her. The literary bent helps her evolve her concepts and ideas about the contemporary world in an intriguing way. Currently, she is teaching English literature at Government National College, Sirsa, Haryana.

Explore More in: Academic Research Paper

Read More Articles: