Torn Identity

A few years back, I was assigned to read Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth, and have now been seeking to learn more about the anti-colonial/post-colonial struggles. Much of Wretched… and Fanon’s other popular work, Black Skin, White Masks, refers to and centers around the split identity that racism, colonialism and oppression create.

In Black Skin… Fanon tells the story of a young black man viewing a Tarzan film in a theater.

We recommend the following experiment for those who are not convinced (Jake: OF THE SPLIT IN IDENTITY): Attend the showing of a Tarzan film in the Antilles and in Europe. In the Antilles the young black man identifies himself de facto with Tarzan verses the Blacks. In a movie house in Europe things are not so clear-cut, for the white moviegoers automatically place him among the savages on the screen. This experiment is conclusive. The black man senses he cannot get away with being black.

At first, as any film goer does, he (and we) identify with the protagonist. We are pulled by the narrative into the film and hope the hero beats the villains and overcomes. However, when the villains are black (often times purely because they are black and not for any moral lack or evil intent), the viewer begins to sense something shift. The general course of narrative is now causing a disconnect between the regular ask,”Follow the hero,” and the viewer who sees himself aligned with those at odds with the hero. He is thrown in with the crowd of villains, against his will. When in the European theater, the black man is aware of the crowd around him and their viewing of the film and him. On screen the see black villains and when they look down and see him, some of that villainy is transferred from the screen. They are the same color as the hero while he is the same color of the evil. This continues into other areas besides Tarzan (see language around The Great White Hunter, The Dark Continent etc.)

Fanon was also a psychiatrist and in Wretched… chronicles the actual mental impact that colonialism had on its victims (both the oppressed and oppressor). We see , in the presence of colonialism and racism, the very real influence and separation of self. The splitting of oneself, while wholly outside and involuntary, begins to sneak inside, internally impacting how we see ourselves.

WEB DuBois, American Prophet, and author of The Souls of Black Folk (one of the greatest American texts) echoed these ideas (years before) and comments on the split of identity.

After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world, –a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness,–an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.

The black woman sees herself in two ways. She sees herself as herself (her own consciousness) and she sees herself as the dominant and power classes see her, always wondering how she will be perceived. She watches her step, her mouth and her appearance, always looking outside of herself to wonder how and when a white person will interact with her. How am I seen? When one is regularly seen as other and lesser, one begins to see oneself in the same way. The double identity is insidious.

John Berger mentions these same ideas in his book, Ways of Seeing, however there he refers to the plight of women (not race). Sadly, but rather expectedly, we see the same power differential. According to Berger, “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.” Women view themselves in a similar double-consciousness. 1) How do I see myself? 2) How does the man see me? Always wondering about sex, appeal, the wrong kind of attention, am I attractive to him/them, are they ogling me, am I an object?

Are we as humans, and some of us as Christians, taking part in splitting peoples identities? Are we dominating in  ways that cause divisions in people?

Is the American Protestant theology inviting to brothers and sisters of color, or does our narratives echo Fanon’s experiment? Does a black man sitting in our white churches see himself as relating to the “white” hero in the personhood of the created “white” Jesus? How horrific is people walk away with a further division of their identity.

Are women invited in? Do they see themselves as whole and able to drop, even or a few minutes, the double awareness? Do they feel the male gaze or the support of sisters and brothers?

As a hopeful Christian, I understand that part of our call is to bring wholeness to the world. This to avoid brokenness and to fix it where it is found. Sadly, the churches endorsement and co-opting of colonialism has led to huge populations and nations reeling in our wake. Are we the cause of a split and an assistance in the healing?



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