Yellow Skin, Which Mask?

by Daniel Xu
3294 words


Yellow Skin, White Masks

Yellow Skin, Yellow Masks

Yellow Skin, Which Mask?

Yellow Skin, Any Mask


Yellow Skin, Which Mask?

Daniel Xu

HUM309: Postcolonial Theory

Word Count: 3294


Black Skin, White Masks, originally published in 1952, is one of Frantz Fanon’s most important works in which he shares his own experiences to present a historical critique of the effects of racism on the human psyche. His psychoanalysis reveals the oppressed Black man to navigate his environment through the performance of White-ness. Borrowing from Fanon, in this essay I embark upon my own ethnographic journey, sharing my experiences to examine and critique the way in which Yellow-ness is constructed, produced, and denied. I finish by introducing Bhabha’s understanding of mimicry, and questioning whether it offers any relief to navigating the identities of Yellow-ness and White-ness.

Yellow Skin, White Masks

            I am reclining in the bottom bunk of a chic yet intimate hostel dorm in a quiet suburb of Brussels. It is only late afternoon and the room is empty, but I have had a full week on my feet. I rest my battered soles and enjoy my novel. The door opens – a new guest; sandy hair, reddened skin, lugging a heavy rucksack. I hear him thank the hostel owner as the door closes – southeast England – I think to myself. Probably just north of London. Our eyes meet hesitantly and he gives me a cautious nod. This is the crucial juncture. In a not-so-subtle Scottish accent, I call to him: “Alright mate, how’s it going?” His eyes widen, a twitch of the eyebrows; his lips curl into a soft smile-in-recovery. It is the look of comfort and relief as he realises I am not the notorious Chinese tourist. Loud, rude, broken English. No, he sees that I am one of the good ones. I am almost like him. I am almost… white.

            Growing up in northeast Scotland, nothing guided my identity more than the colour of my skin. This was not my choice, but this was how I was categorised, my identity determined for me.

            “Jackie Chan! Jackie Chan!”

            “Why are your eyes closed, ha-ha”

            “Eww, you’re Chinese – you eat dog”

            “So what if you did well in the exam? You don’t count, you’re Chinese”

            To quote Fanon (2008), “An unfamiliar weight burdened me […] I was responsible at the same time for my body, for my race, for my ancestors” (pp. 83-84). My yellowness defined me; it marked me as an ‘Other’ to which “a thousand details, anecdotes, stories” (p. 84) could be gratuitously attached. I desired nothing more than to be a subject in my own right, to be judged as a human being, to no longer be yellow. I could never change my skin, but I could change my history, my culture, my mask. I neglected my Chinese studies – why should I study such a useless language (quite an ironic sentiment now) – and I immersed myself in English literature and European history; my bookcase was replete with names like Jane Austen, Saul Bellow, Winston Churchill… I underwent a crisis of self-image – any valid and active sense of self was eroded by dislocation and cultural denigration; my original personality (if I can even remember it!) suppressed, consciously and unconsciously, willingly and unwittingly, by a ‘superior’ cultural model.

            But before we begin in earnest, and because I feel the need to explicate this, the scholars that I discuss write of blackness and the colonised. I am neither black nor do I live under colonial rule. Nor do I claim to equate my experience with theirs. But in contemporary Europe, a range of racially and culturally marginalised groups gather under the aegis of the Black. That is not to say we suffer the same oppressions, but to make it a common cause, a common identity of Otherness.   

            Let us first take a moment to consider the pivotal role of English. Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin (1989) explain: “The study of English has always been a densely political and cultural phenomenon, a practice in which language and literature have both been called into the service of a profound and embracing nationalism” (p. 2). Since the late nineteenth century, English had emerged to replace the Classics as the marker of British civility and imperial power. In English, British colonial administrators found a valuable ally in maintaining control of indigenous populations. English establishes a ‘privileging norm’, which naturalises the constructed values of the imperial centre (civilisation, justice, etc.) and conversely establishes the savagery of the periphery, and makes the latter the target of reforming zeal (p. 3). Then when elements of the periphery encounter and seep into the privileged space of the centre, there is a process of “conscious affiliation proceeding under the guise of filiation” (p. 4). In other words, the mimicry of the centre does not only arise from a desire to be accepted, but absorbed; through mimicry, the colonised fully imbibes themselves in the dominant culture, repudiating their heritages in an attempt to become “more English than the English” (p. 4).

            Likewise, Fanon argues in Black Skin, White Masks (2008) that the coloured native develops a sense of ‘self’ in relation to the coloniser, and by reflection, the coloniser develops a sense of superiority. In the struggle with his perceived sense of inadequacy, the coloured man tries to emulate the white man; he assumes Western values, language, cultural practices, and renounces his heritage. He dons white masks over black skin, and experiences a schizophrenic atmosphere.

            Staying with language – “To speak a language is to take on a world, a culture” (Fanon, 2008, p. 25). The Antillean who travels to the major cities of the metropole and assimilates into French culture develops an air of superiority; he stops speaking Creole apart from to servants. In his French, he imitates the ‘correct’ pronunciation to a degree that is almost comical. I think of how often I avoided my native tongue, how often I have been spoken to in Mandarin, but replied in English, how often I have turned my nose up at accented and broken English, how often I rejected the friendship of Chinese boarding students in secondary school. For Fanon to be told whilst giving a lecture on poetry: “At bottom you are a white man” (p. 25); this was what I wanted. I thought that I could prove that I was just as educated, just as civilised…

            But as Fanon (2008) writes, “When someone else strives and strains to prove to me that black men are as intelligent as white men, I say that intelligence has never saved anyone” (p. 17). To assume the White Mask is not a ‘clean’ process; the coloured man remains dissemblingly in two places at once, which makes it impossible for the evoulé to fully join the coloniser’s ‘us’. Because no matter what, “Wherever he goes, the Negro remains a Negro” (p. 133). He instead becomes a disturbing image of Western pretence inscribed on the coloured body.

Yellow Skin, Yellow Masks

Just imagine a brown-legged son of the east in the red and black gown of an M.A. as I saw him. The effect is killing. I had an irreverent vision of the Common room in a Muhammedan get up. At the end of the proceeding, an excited bard began some Urdu verses composed in honour of the occasion. It was a tour de force of his own—but I am sorry to say he was suppressed, that is to say, they took him by the shoulders and sat him down again in his chair. Imagine that at Oxford! (Kipling, 1882, in a letter to George Willes)

            How can an African or West-Indian, subjected to French rule, adopt the cultural values of his coloniser without suppressing his own way of life and turning his back to his own people and history? Similarly, the modern immigrant to Britain who acculturates or ‘integrates’ must surely lose an essential part of who he is? Does he not become a hollow being, a mimic man, an evoulé, a babu, a coconut, a banana? Now obviously I did not think in quite those terms, but I remember the curious looks and piercing laughter as I sang a rendition of My Heart Will Go On for my relatives on a return visit to China. I looked at myself and I was not happy with what I saw – I was Fanon’s Antillean ‘been-to’.

            In the fifth chapter of Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon (2008) saw that he would never be white enough for the coloniser to treat him as an equal. No matter what, his “blackness was there, dark and unarguable”. No matter what, he would always be the “Negro teacher, the Negro doctor [emphasis added]” (p. 88). And although I considered myself fiercely British, I was fiercely British because it required defending again and again. No matter what, I would always be asked: “Where are you from? No, where are you originally from?” Fanon’s reaction was to study his own culture with a celebratory zeal, to turn to negritude (pp. 93-97). Now instead of denying my skin, I too embraced it.

            The words “you don’t count – you’re one of the good ones, you’re one of us” were no longer a source of comfort and pride, but a testimony to my betrayal. Oh venerable and sagacious ancestors, pray forgive me! In a dialectical turn, and with such vigour that would make Hegel proud, I disavowed ‘Britishness’. I embarked on a race to reclaim myself, a transformation of truth and value – I wanted to be Chinese. I threw myself into Chinese literature, film, music, and history. Journey to the West, Romance of the Three Kingdom, the Analects, even Mao’s Little Red Book – these books that I had always owned but sat neglected and dust-laden on a bookshelf – now found their new lease of life. In hindsight, I consider myself fortunate that I had access to such a litany of ‘authentic’ Chinese literature and history (cf. the culture of the national bourgeoisie in Wretched of the Earth).

            In a similar vein, as post-colonial societies sought to establish their difference from the centre, those who recognised the collusion between English literature and cultural suppression sought to isolate literature from linguistics, and subject both to a critical re-evaluation. They realised that little genuine decolonisation could take place so long as the nexus of power involving literature and language remained in place, and retained the unquestioned status of culture, tradition, and education (Ashcroft et al., 1989, p. 4).

Yellow Skin, Which Mask?

            The personal snapshots above are accounts from my mid-late teenage years, and in the years hence, I have swayed one way and the other; this cultural pendulum consuming me with self-loathing and pride in equal measure. Perhaps Homi Bhabha may yet offer some relief to this anguish, this Fanonian schizophrenia, this excruciating dialectic-with-no-end. Like me, Bhabha does not neatly fit into a prescribed box. As a Zoroastrian Parsi, sandwiched between the cultural conflict (often violent) of the Hindu and Muslim communities, he has had to constantly negotiate his identity. Thus, Bhabha does not write from a simplistic and binary position; he believes in the possibility of the negotiation of boundaries to transcend the supposedly irreconcilable differences between cultures (Abruna, 2003, p. 91). Might I also reach such a negotiated cultural identity?

            For Bhabha (1994), the construction of identity within colonial discourse depends on the concept of fixity, which functions at the level of signs and signifiers to demarcate racial difference. The stereotype is fixity’s major discursive strategy, which restricts the interpretation of signs/signifiers to their fixed meanings: race becomes an “ineradicable sign of negative difference” (p. 108). I return to Fanon’s line, “Wherever he goes, the Negro remains a Negro” (Fanon, 2008, p. 133). Against this fixity, Bhabha uses the term ‘hybrid’ to denote the people found in the in-between spaces of these fixed identities. These in-between ‘third spaces’ offer the possibility of cultural hybridity that “entertains difference without an assumed or imposed hierarchy” (Bhabha, 1994, p. 4). Indeed, for Bhabha, culture itself is never temporally and spatially fixed, but is in constant flux; culture in its purest form is found in the interstices. The concept of “homogenous national cultures […] or ‘organic’ ethnic communities […] are in the process of profound redefinition” (p. 5). Hybridity then is empowering and emancipatory; it allows the individual to play with their identities, to reconstruct themselves, and overcome stereotypes.

            Bhabha therefore offers a sympathetic and subversive understanding of mimicry. For Bhabha (1984), mimicry “emerges as one of the most elusive and effective strategies of colonial power and knowledge” (p. 126). However, he is ambiguous as to whom it ultimately gives power – the coloniser or the colonised.

            Colonial mimicry is the “desire for a reformed, recognizable Other […] that is almost the same, but not quite” (Bhabha, 1984, p. 126). The process is complex and negotiated. The coloniser desires the coloured man to become more like him, someone who reproduces his habits and values, but still, the coloniser maintains a clear sense of difference, for god forbid the white man and coloured man become equals! Thus, ironically, colonial mimicry must “continually produce its slippage, its excess, its difference,” which Bhabha terms ‘ambivalence’ (p. 126). Ambivalence disrupts the simple relationship between coloniser and colonised; since it cannot produce ‘real Englishmen’, it produces subjects whose mimicry never strays far from mockery – a mode of representation that “mocks its power to be a model, that power which supposedly makes it imitable” (p. 128).

            Bhabha illustrates with an example: writing in 1792, Charles Grant advocated that Christian doctrines and moral codes be fused with divisive caste practices to produce “partial” diffusion of ‘Britishness’ throughout India to construct an appropriate form of colonial subjectivity amenable to social control. If the Indian were to be fully ‘educated’, he would revolt against his coloniser. But inadvertently, Grant produces an image of Christianity that is patently un-Christian; he mocks the proselytising project and undermines the colonial mission (1984, p. 127). We see it still in the message to immigrants today – ‘Speak English, embrace Western values, integrate into our society, but keep out of our social clubs, don’t marry our women, and don’t you dare complain’. The West’s treatment of the Other “alienates its own language of liberty and produces another knowledge of its norms” (p. 126). Thus, in an ironic turn, the subject, the colonised who desires ‘authenticity’, finds that the authenticity of the original is destabilised through his mimicry; the colonial project thus generates the seeds of its own destruction.

            So perhaps I can be less harsh on myself – I have not yet sold my soul to the white man. Though adopting British cultural habits and values, the result is not a faithful, obedient reproduction, but “at once resemblance and menace”, always potentially and strategically insurgent (Bhabha, 1984, p. 127). For in its ambivalence, mimicry transforms the “founding objects of the Western world” into “accidental objets trouvés of the colonial discourse”; the ideals of the West become meaningless “part-objects” (p. 132). In other words, mimicry is the performance that reveals the artificiality of Western power symbols.

            Mimicry and ambivalence is then Bhabha’s way of turning the tables on colonial discourse. In the words of Robert J. C. Young (1995), the colonised, the periphery, the marginal, the doubtful constitutes the centre as an “equivocal, indefinite, indeterminate ambivalence”, creating cracks in the certainty of colonial dominance (p. 161). But we should not think of this as a simple reversal of the binary; both coloniser and colonised participate in this ambivalence. Indeed, Bhabha seems to suggest the very engagement between the culture of the coloniser and colonised inevitably leads to an ambivalence that dismantles the coloniser’s dominance. Here, I return to the concept of hybridity. Like Bhabha, I must resist the urge to polarise, resist identifying with the fixed ‘us versus them’. In his words, “Must we always polarise to polemicize?” (Bhabha, 1994, p. 28). A neatly compartmentalised identity is impossible; it would be at most a partial representation. I should seek out the in-between – the uneasy, restless space that allows for multiple subject positions (p. 2).

            On another, simpler strand, I can approach mimicry as strategic appropriation, as how a dominated culture can use the tools of the dominant discourse to resist its political and cultural control. I think of Amrit Rao from E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India (1924). Amrit Rao (an advocate) defends Aziz (an Indian doctor) against the charge of raping Adela (a British schoolmistress) by arguing that British justice and law should apply to Indians as to the British. He becomes feared by the colonial authorities for subverting their dominating power. I think of some of the founding figures of modern China – the likes of Sun Yat-Sen, Deng Xiaoping, and Zhou Enlai, all of whom received a Western education, which they appropriated in their struggles against imperialism, colonialism, and capitalism. Had I not received the education I had, and absorbed the values that I had, would I even be engaging in this critical self-inquiry?

            There is also the question of language: I loathe to admit that my command of Mandarin and Chinese script lags behind my facility of English. The installation of Standard English as the norm, marginalising all other languages and variants as a method of control, does not escape my attention (Ashcroft et al., 1989, p. 7). But a central thesis of The Empire Writes Back (Ashcroft, et al., 1989) is that English and its discursive forms can be used to convey differing cultural experiences. By interpolating these accounts into the dominant modes of representation, they reach the widest possible audience. Thus, in the very act of writing this essay, have I not appropriated the language, with all its power and signification of authority, from the dominant culture?

Need I also self-flagellate for essentialising ‘yellowness’ and ‘Britishness’? Gayatri Spivak speaks of strategic essentialism. Although essentialism might reproduce problematic knowledges of the “other”, this temporary, strategic essentialism can be a strategy for the “other” to create solidarity and a sense of belonging to mobilise for social action (Ashcroft, 1998, pp. 159-160). Has the essentialising of myself as ‘Yellow’ not motivated me to embrace Chinese culture and history, to seek out my fellow “others”, and to cast off the self-loathing?

Yellow Skin, Any Mask

            Whither should I go now? What is the cure to my “Manichean delirium” (Bhabha, 1986, p. xxvii)? I must forget the myth of authenticity and identity. I must continually negotiate the contradictory strains of the languages lived, and the languages learned. In fact, I should not think of identification as the affirmation of a pre-given identity; it is the production of an image which gives transforming power to the subject in assuming that image. The West has inscribed in me the value of liberty. Now I must make use of that liberty to assert my presence, to make people uncomfortable, to assert my space, to be as yellow as I want, and as white as I want. For there is one thing I know for sure: I will forever be “not quite/not white.”

            I am drawn at this point also to think of Benedict Anderson’s imagined communities. For Anderson (1983), the nation is an imagined community, “imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion” (p. 49). Such a community is thus reified by communication – print capitalism that allows a language, history, and beliefs to be standardised and disseminated. I had variably thrown myself into British literature or into Chinese literature – for the lack of being white or living in China, being British or being Chinese was in the first instance engaging with the literature. Perhaps I should have seen then the emptiness of my endeavour, and the emptiness of national identity, for both communities are ultimately imagined. I, nor anyone else, has privileged access to real Chineseness or Britishness.

            On a final note, and in the spirit of community, I want to remind the reader that one needs not be black or colonised to use the tools of their self-examination. The crisis of self-image does not only result from overtly oppressive racism or colonisation. Dislocation, in all its forms – slavery, indentured labourers, free settlers, economic migrants, refugees, etc. result in a dialectic between place and displacement. In our present world, which teeters between globalisation and xenophobia, the theoretical tools which were applied to master/slave, colonised/coloniser deserve to be repurposed.