Neuroses of whiteness, white envy and racial violence

‘Don’t you understand that the people who do those things, who practise racism are bereft that there is something distorted about the psyche? It’s a huge waste and it’s a corruption and a distortion. It’s like it’s a profound neurosis that nobody examines for what it is’ Toni Morrison

Neuroses of blackness

‘What does the Black man want?’ In White skin, Black masks , Fanon (1952) asks, in the same way Freud had wondered earlier ‘What does a woman want?’ (Hook, 2004).

For Freud women want to be men. For Fanon, Black men (and Black people more generally) want to be White. The desire for whiteness may for example, manifest in the longing for White sexual partners or, in the mimicking of white people (e.g. assimilation or skin depigmentation). Nonetheless, rather than being the manifestation of some latent intrapsychic mechanism, as was originally postulated in ‘penis envy’, for Fanon, the wish for whiteness is the consequence of power and material inequality, of the on-going cultural and historical trauma and, its resulting alienation in Black people i.e. the using of inferiorasing racist and colonial myths as the basis for self-relating. (The same has of course been argued about penis envy, mostly post-Freud).

It is this wish for whiteness in Black groups (extended to the colonised more generally) that Fanon refers to as the neurosis of blackness. In classic psychoanalytic theory neuroses usually refer to the intense anxiety produced by repressed material that thus cannot express itself directly or consciously. Neuroses of blackness though (contrary to the prevailing Freudian formulation of neuroses at the time) are rooted in the historical and socio-political. They are still however believed to be at least partly, underscored by envy as the oppressed/colonised is theorised to want to be in the position of the oppressor, indeed, to be the oppressor. According to Fanon (1952), the wish to be White is essentially the wish to be seen, the wish to be human and, the wish to self-determine.

In essence, it is power and freedom that the colonised/oppressed envy, having come to believe that only by becoming White, will these ontological aspirations materialise.

Much has been written about the internalisation of racism, of whiteness, of the social order and, its psychological and socio-structural impact on oppressed groups. Comparatively, little has been said about the psychological worlds of White people and the sequalaes of racial oppression, for them and on them. I continue to find this absence troubling. While some may argue that by focusing on Black people’s psyche, we stand a better chance at building their/our psychological or psychic resilience and, at understanding racial oppression, my  view is that such an unbalanced attention continues to place Black people under the (colonial) white gaze at best, and at worse, actively locates the (racial) disturbance in them, arguably reproducing dynamics and discourses of scapegoating, Othering and dysfunction.

White envy

‘White folks are really jealous, and that shit could get a Black man killed’ (Davis, 2017).

A decade or so ago, a ‘mixed’ (cishet) couple was murdered in rural France. The husband was Black. He was a Doctor. He was also one of the few Doctors practising in their village and simply, one of a few Black people. His wife was White. They had, I think, two kids. Everyone was killed. When the killer, a White man was caught, he explained fairly calmly that he simply could not stand seeing the family doing so well and…that looking at the kids ‘always looking nice & well dressed’ was causing him distress.

When this tragic event occurred, I was already living in England, the affair was big news in France. I remember discussing it with my sister who was also living in rural France, whose family was similarly the only Black family around and, who was doing equally well materially. I have occasionally revisited this story as I grappled with understanding envy in racism. I think it struck a chord and had a chilling effect partly because it contained the essence of a dynamic; albeit to its extreme, we recognised and have experienced at more micro and everyday levels.

Klein defines envy as “the angry feeling that another person possesses and enjoys something desirable – the envious impulse being to take it away or to spoil it” (Klein 1984, 176).

Envy is not uniquely the domain of the colonised or the oppressed. Envious racial feelings experienced by white people vis á vis Black people, exist and are central to racism. I would argue, that the (unconscious) envy oppressor groups feel towards the people they oppress is fundamentally or qualitatively different from what has come to be described as envy in the colonised/oppressed. In fact I question the idea that the feelings the colonised experience towards colonialists, are best understood by characterising them as envy. Although it may be tempting to posit that both parties are envious of the other, and therefore set-up an equivalency; there isn’t one, for reasons I will try to explain below.

To be envious is firstly to feel an absence of something in oneself. It is secondly to feel afflicted and/or angry by the existence of that actual or fantasised something in someone else. Thirdly, it is to experience a drive to destroy that something or that someone possessing that something. In other words, it is feeling deeply disturbed that another entity possesses something one desires for oneself, but one that cannot be obtained. Thus envy, at least analytically is more than wanting for oneself a something we identify in others. It is the impulse to obtain it (at all cost) and failing this, to destroy it in the other. One may say it is to seek retribution for that sense of lacking.

To me, the murderous wish to kill an ex-partner who has moved on under the twisted yet common patriarchal thinking ‘if I can’t have you, no one will’ best illustrates the crux of envy. As does the example given above. Therefore, I do not believe this drive to destroy the goodness in others one so desires for oneself, best conceptualises racially oppressed groups’ relationship with White people. Historically and contemporeanously, this cannot be sustained. Not according to a Kleinian definition of envy. This is thus a point upon which I depart from Fanon’s scholarship.

There is an important although subtle distinction between envy and jealousy. If I experience jealousy, I experience a fear of loss or a sense of deprivation which I cannot tolerate, I therefore seek to possess the object triggering the jealous feelings. If one experiences envy on the other hand, there is a sense of being bereft rather than deprived. I am not sure one can obtain what is envied or at least that one thinks one can obtain it, not without doing harm. One therefore makes no move to possess but, to spoil. To destroy. To kill whatever or whomever contains the object of one’s envy. In doing so, one seeks to rid themselves of any trace of that feeling of lacking or absence and, the sense of inadequacy it produces.

This is an important distinction when it comes to racial and colonial dynamics. It is the difference between possession and annihilation.

Neuroses of whiteness

To posit that White people and by extension people with more power can be envious of those they oppress/those with less power may seem counter-intuitive. It is also counter-cultural for, it challenges taken for granted notions of white superiority. In addition, it shifts the location of disturbance onto white bodies by constructing them as lacking or at least as experiencing themselves, at some level, as lacking. This challenges whiteness.

White envy is underscored by the basic psychological defence of projection upon which colonial constructions of the racial Other and of blackness rely. Projection entails splitting off unwanted and intolerable aspects of oneself and, inputting them onto others. Here, the racial Other or the Black body. Projection is therefore a way of sanitising the self by ridding it of those aspects that clash with it’s sense of goodness. ( For those less familiar with this defense mechanism, it may be helpful for them to think about an unfaithful party in a relationship becoming preoccupied with their partner’s ‘inevitable’ infidelity).

In relation to race dynamics and at group level, in a society where ‘rationality’ and reason as the only or superior ways to know and access truth, are overvalued, the emotional and more embodied self will naturally be difficult to tolerate, so… the Black body will serve as a convenient repository of irrationality and bodily impulses. Similarly, if aggression and sexual impulses clash with white (Puritan-Christian) constructions of innocence, purity and bodily mastery then of course, Black and colonised groups will become the carriers of sexual depravity, aggression and impulsivity in the White imagination. White ego structures require these constructions to maintain their consistency and equilibrium.

For Fanon too, Black bodies act as repositories of white groups’ unacceptable desires, drives and wishes, particularly their disowned or repressed sexual urges. According to him, the fear of the constructed unbounded sexual power of Black bodies lead to neuroses in the White man which are rooted in a fear of sexual inadequacy/impotency.

This envy Fanon posits, lays at the centre of colonial relations. In other words, the White man despite claims and behaviours to the contrary, is envious of the Black man’s fantasised ‘primitivism’ and its associated constructed sexual potency. According to Fanon, this envy breeds racial paranoia. Exaggerations and deformations of the Other (and particularly here of his alleged monstrous sexuality) not only lead to sexual anxieties but, to fears of persecution in White groups (e.g. fantasised risks of rape and other sexual violence) which perpetually legitimise the need for violence against Black men (Hook, 2004).

Feeling the absence of what is projected

Using Klein’s conceptualisation of envy, I would propose an alternative but not so distant formulation to that of Fanon. Having so discarded aspects of itself it could not tolerate via projection, the White ego comes to experience the lack and, the absence of these parts; which do indeed belong to it. At this juncture, a psychic conflict or dilemma arise.  White people cannot tolerate or integrate those parts…Thus they cannot allow themselves to ‘take’ or re-claim them yet, simultaneously, long for them. What to do? Destroy them and/or kill the object of envy.

Contrary to White peoples’ ego structure and self-esteem which are to a large extent dependent on colonial constructions and thus, the disowning of part of themselves, Black people have not located at least not at collective or group level, unwanted parts of who they/we are onto White people. I do not believe that they/we are threatened ontologically by the dismantling or reclaiming of colonial projections. If anything such dismantling would free them/us. This is why I do not believe there is really bi-directionality or equivalency in racial envy and why I do not speak of racial envy but of white envy. 

The key difference here I think, is the drive to be the white Other vs the drive to annihilate the Black Other, because being the Black other would entail reclaiming parts of the self that simply remain too intolerable. In other words, when it comes to formulating colonised-colonisers relational configurations, it may be helpful to remember the distinction between jealousy and envy as proposed above. The colonised’ s yearning is primarily rooted in the material and unequal social arrangements, it is a yearning for power. On the other hand one may argue, the colonialist’s yearning is primarily rooted in a self-inflicted intrapsychic dispossession and, the fear of themselves.

Concluding thoughts

Inversing racial configurations in the original tragedy recounted, it may be easier to imagine that the motive for such a hateful crime had the murderer been Black, (and the victims a White family) would well have been robbery or theft. It seems less likely that simply seeing two White children dressed well would have been material in triggering a murderous envious rage, in the absence of material interest. There are other factors of course and other ways to conceptualise white envy. One may think about it more discursively and consider that social resources’ allocation is the raison d’etre of whiteness and neo/colonialism so that white entitlement is a function the racial hierarchisation/stratification. In that sense, one may see the contemporaneous rise in racial hatred, in neo-nazism and the normalisation of racist and xenophobic discourses (under placating expressions such as ‘economic anxiety’) as simply a cover story for white envy. And, as White groups feel collectively challenged in their sense of superiority and entitlement, they are attempting to reclaim power through more socially sanctioned ways of saying, how dare you be above me? My comfort and success should always come first. I am entitled to what you have. And, if I cannot take it from you, I will destroy you. Or at least spoil it for you…

Let’s end on a few important questions raised by Morrison (1993):

‘What are you without racism ? Are you any good? Are you still strong? Are you still smart? Do you still like yourself? If you can only be tall when someone is on their knees, you have a serious problem’

Thank you for reading

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  1. Dear Guilaine, this is a brilliant piece! Thank you. It really helps clarify something I have been trying to articulate, but failing in my argument about whiteness as an expression (or repression and projection) of global colonial violence which is an absent presence in all enactments of whiteness. I have been writing about this in my work through the idea of choreographing whiteness. I also use Fanon to think about whiteness, but similar to Yancy, I use this to think about the ways racial objectification can be helpful when we think about whiteness and when we want to resist being oriented through whiteness.
    The lack of equivalence between positionings in the racialised visual schema is really important here.
    I’m not sure what I think of your notion of a ‘cover story’ for white envy related to economic anxiety, as I see them as fundamentally interlinked ‘economic anxiety’ as an ‘expression of white envy’ – so I think its an ideological expression of whiteness which is fundamentally linked to its affective structure but which is understood in the cultural common sense as something different but related, because in the global capitalist North (at least) we split the economic and the sociocultural. Maybe this is what you’re saying and I’m not following quite. Anyway, I will continue to think and be provoked and encouraged to strive for clearer articulations in my own thinking.
    I have followed your blog with interest and will continue to share.
    I would love to carry on the conversation somehow. I am also concerned with the lack of work on whiteness as an identification structure and form of social investment.
    best wishes Shona Hunter

    1. Dear Dr Hunter,
      Thank you for taking the time to comment. I agree entirely with your words and welcome your insights here. Simply to add that in my view, the notion of a ‘cover story’ for white envy (which you seem to find rather off/odd); meant to illustrate that minimisation and normalisation of white envy and thus of racial violence require terms & expressions that banalise, legitimise & thus invisibilise the phenomenon, this is what ‘economic anxiety’ achieves discursively. Yes, economic anxiety is necessarily interlinked with and, is an expression of, white envy and further I accept that capitalistic resources allocation cannot be separated from both white envy – thus economic anxiety (and racial violence) there is no doubt. Nonetheless, language matters. One set of words is more socially acceptable (and it is of course the expression which upholds white hegemonic structures) the other; which makes them more visible, is less so. This was what I was getting at. I hope it’s a little clearer. I think we are saying pretty much the same thing. Thanks for reading my work, I too would love to continue to talk. Feel free to use the contact page to get in touch.


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