The Black Lives Matter movement first began to take shape in the hearts and minds of black activists after the 2103 acquittal of George Zimmerman, the man who shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. The movement then exploded into public consciousness after the police killings of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio — both in 2014. But it was the graphic, excruciatingly long asphyxiation of 46-year-old George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota, that has proven the watershed moment of the movement. Now, after nearly a month of mass protests following the police killing of George Floyd, the movement is truly global.
Filmed by bystanders and disseminated across the globe, Floyd’s death has sparked a series mass demonstrations across the world against racial injustice and the seeming impunity with which violence can be inflicted upon black bodies. Here in Australia, Indigenous protestors too have mobilised to once again demand an end to Aboriginal deaths in custody — of which there have been 437 since the Royal Commission concluded in 1991.
The spectacle of these protests — held at the height of a pandemic and facing violent state repression in many instances — ensured that the struggle against racial inequality dominated our screens and social media feeds for the last month. But as the news cycle fades, one of the challenges now confronting Black Lives Matter is how to maintain momentum and fortify the longer-term struggle for liberty, justice and freedom.
Perhaps one of the more modest efforts is the anti-racist reading lists that have proliferated on social media. Calling on people to do the work needed to sustain the struggle against racism and racial injustice, activists around the world have urged us all to develop deeper, more historicised understandings of black oppression and ant-racist struggle. Books like Ibram X. Kendi’s How to be an Antiracist, Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility, and Ijeoma Oleu’s So You Want to Talk About Race currently sit atop the New York Books Bestseller List. In Australia, Anita Heiss’ Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia and Ruby Hamad’s White Tears/Brown Scars are recommended reading for people wanting to understand and fight white supremacy.
The idea that reading can help to combat racism has a long and noble history, with the first anti-racist reading lists compiled by two black women librarians, Charlemae Rollins and Augusta Baker, in America in the 1940s. Grounded in the belief that reading makes us better people, there is evidence that reading can promote empathy, a willingness to understand the perspectives of others, and prosocial behaviour. Yet just as anti-racist reading lists have themselves proliferated, so too have critical reflections on them. What is the value of sharing book recommendations while others are putting their bodies on the line? Is the anti-racist reading list merely a vanity project, a way to make us feel like we are doing our part without having to change structures and systems?
As a university lecturer who teaches the sociology of race and racism, I have followed the debate with intense interest. I’ve done this in part because it’s my job to stay up-to-date with current developments in anti-racist practice. But it’s also because I am a strong believer in the value of reading for my students. In my classes, I’ve explicitly sought to share readings that foreground a range of voices and perspectives on race, and not just the semi-detached and often dry prose of traditional academic texts. One of the voices I prioritise in my teaching practice has been that of Frantz Fanon (1925–1961), the Martinican psychiatrist, philosopher, and anti-colonial revolutionary whose two books, Black Skin, White Masks (1952) and The Wretched of the Earth (1961), are enormously influential in postcolonial studies, racial and ethnic studies, and critical theory.
Black Skin, White Masks is a mainstay on many anti-racist reading lists. A quick search online will locate no shortage of commentaries on the continued relevance of Fanon’s thought for contemporary struggles against race and class divisions. Based on Fanon’s rejected doctoral thesis, Black Skin, White Masks is a treatise on the “lived experience of the black man” (unfortunately, Fanon quite literally only focused on men). As the son of a middle-class family who fought with the French Army in the Second World War before travelling to France to work as a doctor, Black Skin, White Masks is a deep reflection on the trauma of being black in a society normatively coded as white, confronted with the false promises of liberté, égalité, fraternité offered to French colonial subjects and the reality of everyday racism in mid-twentieth-century France. As Nigel Gibson suggests, Fanon’s interest is to illuminate how the inherent dehumanisation of racist and colonialist oppression means that “the Black suffers in his body in a quite different way than the White.”
Last year I conducted a little experiment to see how reading Fanon might shape my students’ thinking on race and racism. With their generous consent, we read aloud a short passage of Fanon’s work in class before discussing it together. Students were then invited to complete a short survey detailing how they experienced both the reading and discussion. The selected passage was from “The Fact of Blackness” — arguably the best-known chapter in Black Skin, White Masks, involving its most seminal imagery: the encounter between Fanon and a white child on a train in France, which begins with the refrain, “Look a Negro!”
In detailing this encounter, Fanon takes us deep into the psychoaffective experience of racism, how it feels to be reduced to an object under the white gaze. Juxtaposing what he calls his corporeal schema or general bodily awareness — the simple fact of navigating one’s body through space, having one’s self constituted as merely a body in the world — with his racial-epidermal schema — the externally imposed meanings attached to the fact of his black skin — Fanon recreates the splintering and fracturing of the self that occurs in the moment of racial interpellation, where one is simultaneously rejected and forced to see oneself as inferior:
I discovered my blackness, my ethnic characteristics and I was battered down by tom-toms, cannibalism, deficiency, racial defects, slave-ships, and above all else, above all: “Sho good eatin.”
As the weight of the manufactured histories and cultures of blackness thrust upon him by French colonial society dislocates his sense of self, Fanon rallies against his objectification at the hands of the white world, but finds himself fixed in unequal relation to it. His body was given back to him “sprawled out, distorted, recoloured, clad in mourning that white winter day.”
It remains a devastating passage. It is also unlike anything my students are used to. Moving between politics, psychiatry, literature, and philosophy, Fanon’s writing resists easy disciplinary categorisation; his writing style is multi-layered, passionate, highly rhetorical, and richly allusive. Its varied rhythm, tone, and pace make it akin to a spoken word performance (one of Fanon’s biographers, David Macey, even claims that Fanon dictated his writings as speeches to his wife, Josie). It is thus a text that is interacted with in a very different way than your standard academic text. Rather than scanning for answers, information or correct interpretations, Fanon’s writing style invites the reader to become part of the text and imagine a world. Students reported that the reading challenged them and, at times, frustrated them. But it is striking that they also found it more “truthful” because it compelled them not just to think but also to feel: “everyone felt something and that made it easier to understand,” one student noted.
The meanings they took away from the passage were quite different. For a few, the central role played by the child in Fanon’s self-disintegration was a commentary on the tragedies of intergenerational racism. They felt sad that a child could speak in such terms and angry that the child’s mother could sit idly by, finding the situation reminiscent of when the Indigenous footballer, Adam Goodes, was called an “ape” by a 13-year-old girl. However, when asked whether there were any sentences that stuck out for them, they were near unanimous on two.
“Not only must the black man be black; he must be black in relation to the white man.” For my students, it was this sentence that captured how race is socially constructed and how racism is grounded in systems that construct whiteness as the norm. They rallied at how the colour of Fanon’s skin constrained and limited who he could be in the world, the injustice and unfairness of a system wherein blackness is seen in terms of a deficit in relation to whiteness. They understood that racism means that the black man’s body is very often not his own and the exhaustion of having to constantly see oneself through the eyes of white society.
“All I wanted was to be a man among other men. I wanted to come lithe and young into a world that was ours and help to build it together.” Implicitly, students understood that an aspect of the injuries of race is that racialised people are excluded from fully belonging, and that racism is about desire and hope and rejection as much as it is about injustice. This sentence helped my students to articulate the machinations of racial dehumanisation as the refusal to allow certain categories of people to partake in the world equally. It helped them to understand that the fundamental drive underlying anti-racism and black liberation movements is the desire to be recognised as human and for deeper, richer understandings of the human condition that draw from a wider variety of human experience.
Their positionality shaped how they experienced the reading to a significant degree. Sadly, students of colour intuitively grasped what Fanon was communicating about racism, which they said felt familiar and relatable for them. However, they also found some solace in that they felt their experiences were recognised on the page; “it makes me feel good just to know that I’m not alone,” wrote one. White students, most of whom were female, found it confronting and several had a sense that the social privilege of their whiteness afforded them some measure of culpability. But what it opened up for them was how much they didn’t know, and for this they were immensely grateful. Many had never read first-hand accounts like this. Fanon offered them a window into an experience they would likely never have, and in doing so allowed them to reflect on how their racial identity — so often unspoken by virtue of its normality — affects and shapes their ways of being in the world.
These differences in experience were reflected in the classroom discussion, where students of colour — a minority in the class — took up the majority of the floor, while white students for the most part sat and listened. Many students of colour spoke about their own experiences and how they’d felt what Fanon had; they wanted others to know what they had been through. When white students did speak, they asked questions, they pondered, they deferred when they were uncertain. The boundary between self and other was blurred, but not in that relativist, free-floating way of equivalent differences so often favoured in postmodernist discourse. Instead, Fanon formed a bridge between students’ experiences, forcing them to reckon with their inherent relationality even as they were acutely aware of how the reality of white dominance positioned them differently. His focus on bodily experience encouraged them to reflect on what their bodies meant in the world and how they impact the way they move within it. Women, in particular, found some resonance in the feeling of being forced to confront what their bodies represent in the world — whether by virtue of a catcall or a shadowy figure down a dark street — even as they acknowledged it was different for them depending on their skin colour.
Did reading Fanon matter? Did it change anything? Certainly, in that moment in class, it felt like we had reached that transitional space Cristina Vischer Bruns describes, where literary reading “simulates a reworking of the usually fixed boundary between self and world producing a more responsive way of relating across that boundary.” Such moments are, of course, fleeting and their longer-term implications for behavioural or attitudinal change remain unclear. Still, something happened: we had an open, honest discussion about racism that was grounded in a commitment to human experience and united in its opposition to racial oppression.
No, anti-racist reading lists won’t change the world. But reading writers like Frantz Fanon can open up little worlds — fleeting as they may be — that prefigure the types of politics demanded by movements like Black Lives Matter and which may lay the ground for its longer-term success. And I think it is perhaps the experience of reading together that can be particularly transformative. If George Floyd’s life — and those like him — is to matter for more than just a little while, we must find these moments where we can and embrace them.
Rachel Busbridge is a Lecturer in Sociology at the Australian Catholic University, Melbourne. She is the author of Multicultural Politics of Recognition and Postcolonial Citizenship: Rethinking the Nation and Commissioning Editor of the journal, Thesis Eleven: Critical Theory and Historical Sociology.