by Eli Rolón Jeong
Rising Consciousness: Fanon, Identity, and Race
This entry serves as a brief introduction to my own commitments within the Constructive Theologies Group. In subsequent entries, I plan to explore the formation of race identities, where it is taking us, how it is taking us there, and ultimately, the various meanings that are implied through such formation. In particular, I will be paying close attention to various forms of cultural and lived experiences as sources of where this symbol of race is deeply embedded. Race, as it was for Fanon in the account that follows, can be constructed and perceived in such a way that allows us to inflict pain upon others. My hope, however, is that we can learn to renegotiate our constructions and perceptions of race so that they may be liberative and no longer oppressive.
I came into the world imbued with the will to find a meaning in things, my spirit filled with the desire to attain to the source of the world, and then I found that I was an object in the midst of other objects. – Frantz Fanon, Black Skins, White Masks
In Chapter 5 of Black Skins, White Masks, Frantz Fanon recounts an incident that left him feeling internally nauseated, discontent, and full of rage. A child, visibly shaken and fearful of Fanon’s presence, indiscreetly shouts, “Look mom, a Negro!” Fanon was not affected by the kid’s extreme apprehension because it was unexpected or unusual; on the contrary, he was angered because this incident was the epitome of his incessantly imposed racialized experience. A psychiatrist and philosopher, Fanon laments his inability – and the inability of other black persons like him – to be seen except by his appearance. The person he wants to be is inescapably at odds with the person who others – most of the time, complete strangers who would know nothing of him – expect him to be. Fanon is not allowed to define his own racialized identity, but forced to define it by how and what others have perceived it to be.
I find Fanon’s narrative interesting as it demonstrates two consequences of the significance of race: the consciousness arising as someone – you, me, or simply anyone – is hailed as a racialized body; and, the effects and affects extending out of such consciousness. It is not difficult to hear the echoes of Fanon’s account reverberating across more than five decades after it was first published. One only has to watch a TV show, read a book, or sort through countless memes and hashtags to realize how our racialized identities are perceived and, consequently, negotiated. Those perceptions are sometimes impenitently expressed while remaining indiscernible without travail some other times. But, whether blatant or subtle, those perceptions – and how they call to us as racialized beings – continuously affect us and often oppressively.
Without a doubt, the formation of identities is, to say the least, complex. But, as cultural theorist Kwame Anthony Appiah claims, “to adopt an identity…is to see it as structuring my way through life.” And, race works as a deep symbol, which – to appropriate ethicist Victor Anderson’s conception – is a category of social meaning so deeply rooted to the point where it feels basic to our development of knowledge. In other words, race serves as one of the many factors that influence or compose our identities and, therefore, structuring how we navigate our lives. But however basic race might feel, its conception is intricately tied to our cultures and our communities. As such, our approach to race requires careful and nuanced consideration lest we fail to properly understand and grasp its power.
Therefore, race is pivotal in understanding, not only who we are and how we became that, but also what we are becoming and how we are becoming that. And, if we are to believe that who we are, who we will be, and how we will get there is in any way connected to our conceptions of God – whatever they might be – then, we must consider the significance of race in our forming theological constructs as we do in our forming constructs of identity. For me, this theological inquiry concerns concepts such as (but certainly not limited to) theological anthropology – that is, our relatedness, as humans, to our understanding of God’s nature – and eschatology – the juncture marked by the transitioning of where we are and where we are called to be. A deep symbol such as race does not remain neutral but is constantly at play in and through our theological assumptions as it is in our assumptions of identity.
Ultimately, my goal is to nuance the constant but covert interplay between race, identity, and theology in order to recognize its prevalence and, hopefully, move towards liberative conceptions of race, identity, and theology so that we may feel like Fanon as he affirms his rise to consciousness in closing his chapter: “I feel in myself a soul as immense as the world, truly a soul as deep as the deepest of rivers, my chest has the power to expand without limit.”
 Frantz Fanon, Black Skins, White Masks (London: Pluto Press, 2008), 82.
 Kwame Anthony Appiah, The Ethics of Identity (NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005), 24.
 Victor Anderson, Creative Exchange: A Constructive Theology of African American Religious Experience (MN: Fortress Press, 2008), Kindle Location 505-600.
 Ibid. Location 560.
 Fanon 108.
Eli is a Ph.D. student in Ethics and Cultural Studies.
Eli, thanks so much for this! I appreciate your emphasis on people in process as distinct from people fully formed. It gives me hope that the more i understand the process of my formation as a human, including the process of the formation of my radicalized identity, the more i can shape that process intentionally for the better. It also reminds me that some fully formed perfection isn’t a possibility and that becoming a human is a messy thing. I’m excited to hear the theological concepts and language that you employ in describing that process.
Eli, thanks for this provocative entrée into your future posts and your current thinking about race, identity construction, and God.
I think that your recounting of Fanon’s story gets at something really crucial about identity: we only have so much control over how we present ourselves and how we are perceived by others. To some degree, this is a universally human condition. While some of those identities we find ourselves inhabiting are more socially privileged than others, none of us gets to choose our identity entirely or build it from the ground up. We find ourselves already in bodies we didn’t choose, in racialized social systems we didn’t (entirely) create, and in family systems that precede our entry into the world.
Given that your proposed norm is liberation, I wonder what it is that we are to be liberated from in this messy, politically-loaded, always-in-need-of-negotiation process of identity formation. The last quote from Fanon suggests to me that you might have in mind the removal of all limits so that the soul can expand to be as “immense as the world.” But from the perspective of Christian theological anthropology, this kind of unrestrained self-assertion is typically understood to be quite dangerous. And given the deleterious environmental effects of human technological power that has expanded “without limit”, I wonder if limits aren’t always all that bad. Theologically, we are limited as temporal, finite creatures, but that vulnerable limitedness also opens us up to potentially salvific encounters with otherness.
So are we to be liberated from limits? All limits? If not, what makes for a vicious limit versus a virtuous limit?
Good stuff my friend. Excited to see where this goes!
Allie: thank you for your comments – I hope that you find it interesting as I further develop this thought here (or at least, you’ll find out how I think…)
Andrew: you have some good and provocative questions. I’m actually going to address them on a follow up post. I was thinking of doing that here in the comments but I think there’s enough content to form another full response. Look out for those answers; they’re coming soon!