Fanon, imagination and racism
The idea that White people’s fantasies play a central role in the perpetuation of racism and oppression is not a new one. Sixty years or so ago, Fanon had already proposed the notion of ‘overdetermination from without’ which described the way in which Black people are imprisoned by the White gaze. A gaze which contains and performs a long history of racial oppression, its associated colonial discourses and stereotypes. This led Fanon to describe the ‘inescapability’ of Blackness for people with black skin. That Blackness does not only objectify, it precedes our very essence. In summary, Fanon proposed a richly and negatively loaded irrational Blackness that exists independently of who we are, what we do and, which forces black bodies into racist fantasised worlds.
There seems to be renewed interest in the impact of racial fantasies onto social inequality from both social justice activists and theorists/academics. Claudia Rankine, for example, has recently posited that the failure of White people to ‘police their imagination’ is a reason why so many encounters between Black people and the police are turning deadly, stating : ‘when White men are shooting Black people, some of it is malice and some, an out-of-control image of Blackness in their minds. Darren Wilson told the jury that he shot Michael Brown because he looked “like a demon”…Blackness in the White imagination has nothing to do with Black people.’
Many innocent and unarmed Black men, women and even children have indeed been described as dangerous monsters, wild beasts, evil/inhumanly strong beings capable of inflicting injuries or death to those confronting them, even when the latter have been armed with state-sanctioned power, weapons and uniforms. However extreme or ludicrous those depictions may seem, and despite the fact that the terror described may be difficult to reconcile with the objective circumstances of the killings, it is important to remember that for the majority of cases*, those accounts of overwhelming fear by officers were absolutely believed by jurors and, led to non-indictments.
Melanie Klein and the ‘paranoid-schizoid’ position
What is at stake here thus, is not only the ways in which the Black body is represented as both subject and object of the White gaze but, how or why such fantasised representations may come to be activated during police encounters. And, perhaps the more primitive defences they may lay bare. Most texts which investigate the psychology of oppression and racism examine how they become internalised and structured in the psyche of the oppressed eg. the inferiority complex or internalised oppression. And, though relevant models generally make use of psychoanalytical ideas, the particular mechanisms which are believed to be employed are not always clear and of course, ‘classic’ psychoanalytical theory has disregarded issues of race and racism. The problem with this is, firstly, the process by which oppression and racism affect the psychology/psyche of dominant groups has escaped much needed scrutiny, analytically. The point of interest – which incidentally reproduces the White gaze – has tended to be Black or oppressed individuals’ psyche. More critically also, we are left rather impotent in terms of preventing the activation of potentially deadly fantasies in the imagination of those who hold power, often of life or of death over us.
Fear and stress tend to make people revert to more primitive modes of relating to others and, to regress to less sophisticated forms of apprehending the world. High levels of anxiety are believed to arouse infantile aggressive (and libidinal) impulses and to evoke unconscious ‘phantasies’. In Kleinian theory, the ‘paranoid-schizoid position‘, would be of particular interest here. This mental state, which occurs early in infancy, is posited to be dominated by disintegration and by splitting of both self and objects (objects here are basically mental representations of people) into good and bad, with little to no integration between them. Phantasies are thus ,according to Klein, the means by which infants can process the external world and relate to it through projections and introjections. As infants – or arguably when we regress to this infantile stage – these phantasies are interpreted literally. This is because we cannot apprehend the objective reality in the ‘paranoid-schizoid’ position. As infants, we are not capable of integrating whole objects (with both good and bad aspects) or more importantly here, we do not understand that the representation (s) of the object is not the object itself.
Though object relations theory is not universally accepted amongst analysts, most psychoanalytic theorists would probably accept that people often perceive reality through the lenses of unconscious fantasies. The above analytical ideas seem to me to be quite useful in formulating police interactions with black people and particularly, the role imagination can play in the same. The possibility of regression taking place when police officers interact with people who they suspect often through stereotypes – which may be akin to micro fantasies here – to have committed an offence, would make supernatural descriptions of Black suspects much more ‘befitting’.
From experiencing to strategising fantasies
Being unable to separate the fantasy situation from the objective situation, would mean experiencing high levels anxiety and a heightened sense of threat or danger when dealing with Black people and thus rendering an escalation in the real or objective situation much more likely. It then becomes relatively easy to formulate how the reality of the interaction, particularly in the most anxiety prone officers, may quickly become fantasised to the point where in the eyes of the officer, he/she may be dealing with a devil like creature. It must be noted that the escalation of such situations would require BOTH anxiety AND unacknowledged or disowned racist fantasies.
The potentially litigious and inflammatory context within which Police killings of Black people must be examined and investigated, the possible consequences of any finding of negligence, incompetence or premeditation add another layer of complexity. The blurring between reality and fantasy may then become strategised. So, it is likely that even if/when officers become able to objectively appraise the circumstances of their actions, assuming some do eventually become able to establish a firmer boundary between what happened in their imagination and what happened in the real world, that more problematic defences may be used by the officers and/or their representatives to ensure officers are not indicted or not found guilty, if indicted.
To discharge psychic anxiety and, protect officers and police forces’ positions, at best, cliches and negative stereotypes are used to defend the police’s actions. Often, character assassination is employed to help reduce both the public and jurors ’empathy and compassion for the victim. At worse, victims continue to be dehumanised and depersonalised so that the fantasy of their monster-like appearance and demeanour is actively exploited. One may argue, jurors’ racist imagination is now intentionally evoked and that they are actively invited to collude with the fantasy, unconsciously. Of course such collusion can only occur if jurors themselves hold fantasised (and racist) notions about black people. A process of collective splitting and projection may be envisaged. The Black victim can no longer be appraised for what/who they are, instead they become a representation of projected aspects of jurors, the police officer(s) involved and an amalgam of their fantasies. Though this article may make for gloomy reading, I do believe, this analytical take on police violence against Black people brings with it the possibly of addressing those pre-verbal dimensions of policing. I am hoping to do so in the second part of this post.
* I am mainly making reference to the US since Black deaths at the hands of the police is more frequent there and, relevant cases and their details are more freely available.
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