Brown Skin, White Masks

By Hamid Dabashi; 2011, Pluto Press, 224 pp.

Frantz Fanon was (probably) compelled to write Black Skin, White Masks in 1952 after the publication of Mayote Capecia’s I am a Martinican Woman (1948). Hamid Dabashi was compelled to publish his Brown Skin, White Masks in 2011 after the publication of Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita In Tehran (2003). According to Dabashi, in Fanon’s time the world was divided into West and East, North and South, and between the white colonizers and the color-coded colonized. In current times, the world is no longer divided around any axis of West-East or South-North. The more advanced form of colonization, neocolonial globalization, has made the world geographically amorphous. However, the oppressed people still get invaded, occupied, expelled and at the same time they fight back, subvert, and organize. Fanon wrote his book right before joining the Algerian National Liberation Front (Front de Libération Nationale, or FLN). Hamid Dabashi has written his book in New York City. It’s no longer necessary to be in Algeria to understand subjugation and oppression.


In Brown Skin, White Masks, Dabashi has sought to expose the ideological foregrounding of the American imperial project, and its extended European shadow, by analyzing the nature and function of comprador intellectuals that he calls native informers. The native informers have contributed much to the collective criminalization and de-historicization of Islam, Muslims, and Arab people into subjugated political objects. They have also helped propagate such imperial ideas as “the clash of civilizations” and the dichotomization of “Islam and West” or “center and periphery.” The false imagination of center and periphery has shifted racism against Jewish people to Muslims and has constituted Islam as the demonic other of white Christianity.


Collective criminalization of Muslims and sanitization of imperialist adventurism. The book starts by questioning the discrepancy of the U.S. mass media’s mourning for the victims in Tel Aviv, Bombay, and London and its reduction of the victims in Baghdad, Kandahar, and Gaza to numbers and faceless byproducts of “humanitarian” invasions and occupations. For instance, Dabashi points out that the word Palestinian is sometimes not even mentioned in the U.S. mass media reports of Israel’s invasions of Palestinian cities. The book describes how Western imperialist powers have been portrayed as innocent bystanders whose civilization has been the target of global barbarism and Islam. On the other hand, Western imperialist adventurism has been sanitized. In this process, Islam and Muslims, collectively, have been implicated in the criminal acts that have occurred in Western countries. In such views, Islam is no longer a cosmopolitan religion practiced by people with different sociopolitical beliefs. It is de-historicized and its cosmopolitanism is ignored or distorted. Muslims are collectively held responsible for the criminal acts of fundamentalist groups for whom they have never voted or elected, and for whom they are often obliged to apologize. Dabashi points out that the citizens of imperialist powers have not been similarly asked to condemn their elected leaders for systematic criminal acts against Muslim and Arab countries.


Justifying imperialism and demonizing resistance to it by native informers. The imperialist adventurism of the last decade has been based on claims about the improvement of women’s rights and the democratization of politics in targeted countries. The citizens of such countries have, throughout their histories, endangered their lives for the improvement of women’s rights and the opposition to tyrannical governments and institutions. But such struggles are completely missing in the empire’s narrative as targeted countries are painted as history-less nations that need the neocolonial empire’s armies to rescue its female citizens from the atrocities of their male compatriots and the backwardness of Islam. The female citizens of targeted countries become agent-less, subjugated victims and the male citizens become monstrous, non-civilian figures who threaten Western civilization and use Islam to oppress women. As a result, the job of the empire’s soldiers is to free these powerless brown women from their brown men. Men of such targeted countries are not considered civilians. In many cases, only women and children are counted as the civilian victims of imperialist invasions and occupations. “This inversion of facts by fantasy, of truth by politics is of central importance to my argument,” Dabashi says in the book’s introduction.


Such distorted narratives and racial codification of a religion and its followers helps delegitimize national anti-imperialist resistance movements. According to Dabashi, “The aggressive politicization of the criminal acts of militant Muslims (by their neoconservative American counterparts) was inevitably accompanied by the criminalization of legitimate political acts…. In other words, the criminal acts of Osama Bin Laden and his followers were politicized so that the political projects of Hamas, Hezbollah, and Mahdi’s Army could be criminalized and that is the principal distortion that needs to be corrected. The first step in confronting the recodification of racism in the United States, and through it racism in general, is to begin divorcing criminal acts from Islam—or any other religion, for that matter ….”


Comprador intellectuals. Dabashi has reconsidered and vastly expanded on the ideas of exilic intellectuals by Edward Said, house and field negro by Malcolm X; colonized people’s mentality toward white supremacists by Fanon; comprador intellectuals by Kwame Anthony Appiah; the native informant by Adam Shatz; and so on. Said’s exilic intellectuals are not necessarily in exile, they can be in their own country and still metaphorically be in exile. Exilic intellectuals are the nay-sayers to power and refuse to submit and be silenced by the authorities. Consequently, they are outsiders and are not entitled to privileges and honors as the yea-sayers or insider intellectuals are. Examples of such intellectuals are Said himself and Hamid Dabashi. In fact, Dabashi is among the “101 Most Dangerous Academics in America” (David Horowitz) and also cannot return to Iran, his home country.


Kwame Anthony Appiah has diagnosed comprador intellectuals as a “relatively small, Western-style, Western- trained group of writers and thinkers, who mediate the trade in cultural commodities of world capitalism at the periphery.” Dabashi criticizes Appiah’s definition because there are no longer axes dividing the world into West and East and into center and periphery. In Dabashi’s description, the physical locations of the comprador intellectuals are no longer important, but their imagined residences are.


Dabashi mentions that Malcolm X’s description of the house negro in his “Message to the Grass Roots” (November 10, 1963) gives an accurate account of comprador intellectuals. A house negro has completely surrendered to his white master and identifies with his master more than the master identifies with himself. The house negro wears the old clothes of the master, eats his leftovers, lives in the master’s basement or in the slaves’ quarters. Thus, he is close to the master and exchanges (mis)information about the field-negro with his master. He doesn’t tell his master what the master needs to hear, but what he wants to hear. Dabashi explains, “Just as Said’s exilic intellectual may be in actual or metaphoric exile, the comprador intellectual can actually be in the field or metaphorically there or, alternatively, he can move into the house. Whichever way, he is always located on the side of power. The advantage of Said and Malcolm X’s combination of insights is that, in an increasingly amorphous and boundary-less world, it no longer requires us to divide intellectuals along a fictitious center-periphery axis.”


Dabashi gives Fouad Ajami as one example of a comprador intellectual who lives in the U.S.: “The comprador intellectual is a by-product of colonialism, not a character trait of any given culture…. [T]he defining function of the comprador intellectuals is to shore up that relation of commerce to power. Birthplace, nationality, religion, creed, and color are irrelevant. Capital will use whatever and whoever is convenient for each particular time, place, and situation.” 


Native Informers. The native informant, a particular kind of comprador intellectual, is a term that was first used by Adam Shatz to describe Fouad Ajami. Dabashi has replaced the term native informant with native informer because “informant credits comprador intellectuals with the knowledge they claim to possess but in fact do not, informer suggests the moral degeneration specific to the act of betrayal.” The native informers that Dabashi discusses are comprador intellectuals who have emigrated to the U.S. and mostly speak English with an accent. The accent is supposed to authenticate and exoticize them and make their (mis)information about their home country believable for U.S. audiences. The U.S. mass media introduces native informers as representatives of people whose resistance culture they mock. According to Dabashi, “With the services they are eager to provide, the native informers present a paradoxically positive aspect, for they become caricatures of themselves by caricaturing the cultures they represent or misrepresent.”


Native informers (ab)use just causes, such as women’s rights and democracy, to assist the empire in its expansionist policies, wars, and occupations and do not extend their hands to actual struggles in their home countries. Such struggles have been carried on through cinema, poetry, novels, paintings, music, plays, the women’s rights movement, the student movement, labor movement, and so on. Instead, the native informers utilize “Western literature”—Lolita by Nabokov in the case of Azar Naifsi or the “demonization of Quran and Muslims,” in the case of Ibn Warraq—as emancipatory tools lent to powerless Muslims and Arabs by white men. Dabashi explains that in a climate of global historic amnesia after 9/11, native informers have been very important in publicizing the propositions of “the end of history,” “clash of civilizations,” and demonization of Muslims, Arabs, and Islam.


The native informers’ agenda is not to reflect the voices of dissent in Muslim and Arab countries or inform the world about the pro-justice movements in such countries or put Muslim and Arab people’s anti-colonial struggles into the historical context of imperialist atrocities. In contrast, native informers’ agenda is to ridicule Muslims and Arabs’ anti-colonial struggles and culture of resistance. Their aim is to dichotomize Islam and the West and paint Muslims as backward, subjugated people who need Western civilization for emancipation.


The native informers have another use for U.S. and European audiences: making them believe that they have a superior culture and progressive religion as opposed to inferior Arab and Muslim cultures and religion. Thus, people in the U.S. are led to believe that they have an imperative to rescue Muslims from their backwardness and inhumanity. Consequently, a more advanced form of racism can be formulated by people of color who have emigrated from the targeted country, who speak with an accent, and claim to have first-hand experiences. The job of native informers is to assure their U.S. audiences that the U.S. invasions and occupations are moral and thus to distract citizens from the inevitable backlash. Dabashi explains the blowback of the European colonial atrocities: “When the victims of European barbarism were in faraway Asia, Africa, and Latin America the European Hochkultur did not mind; only once its wrath turned inward toward the Europeans (especially Jewish Europeans) themselves did they begin to wonder where the monster had come from. In Cesaire’s formulation, ‘they tolerated that Nazism before it was inflicted on them.’”


Home, exile, and diaspora. As Dabashi diagnoses, the racial delusion that the white man is the center of the world, and the rest of humanity his periphery, has made it possible for native informers to exist and profit. The notions of exile and diaspora, immigrants as burdens of the white man, will no longer be correct if we stop assuming that a white man is at the imagined center of the world. “The transitory transmutation of black into brown and jew into Muslim more than anything else exposes the transparency of the fictive white man who stands at the center of this racialized imagination,” Dabashi states. However, Palestinians in refugee camps and millions of illegal migrant laborers, deprived of their basic human rights, are in exile and diaspora. Palestinian exile and diaspora persists as long as the Palestinians are deprived of their right to return. The white master demolishes their homes to make a racialized center there, protected by an iron fist and a racist wall.


Home is defined, according to Dabashi, by one’s angle toward power. “Home is where…above all [you] raise your voice in defiance and say no to oppression,” Dabashi says. Thus compatriotism is embodied in the voice of dissent and refusal to submission. “I feel at home here because this is where Malcolm X was born and raised and gunned down. In his homeland I feel at home,” Dabashi says. Dabashi has titled one of his recent books The World Is My Home.


But what about the people who, for instance, live in the U.S. and oppose the U.S. government’s crimes, but denigrate the resistance movement in Iran? What about, for instance, Iranian people who live in Iran and oppose imperialist powers’ crimes, but justify the Iranian government’s atrocities? Should we oppose injustice globally or is it sufficient to oppose the crimes of our government, in order to feel at home in the place we reside? I think we need to oppose injustice globally, otherwise our home is defined as opposition to some kind of tyranny at the expense of conformity to some other forms of oppression. For instance, Saddam oppressed the Iraqi people and a byproduct of that oppression was the U.S. and Britain’s invasion and occupation of Iraq. On the other hand, imperialists who imposed sanctions on the Iraqi people and encouraged Saddam to attack Iran also helped Saddam monopolize power and further disempowered the Iraqi people. Thus, tyrannical forces all over the globe are interconnected. They help each other in their crimes and in their disempowerment of the people. It’s contradictory to oppose one, but justify other ones, or to support some voices of dissent, but to ridicule and denigrate others. Since imperialist oppression and domestic tyrannies are interconnected, we need to make the whole world our home or we are in exile and diaspora.


The effect of the recent North African and Middle Eastern resistance movements. After the formation of the pro-democracy movements and revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East, the propositions “the clash of civilizations” and “history has ended” have been challenged. It now becomes much harder to wage war and fearmonger people who stand up against tyrannical forces. People in these uprising countries perpetuated different struggles over the last 100 years through labor movements, anti-colonial movements, women’s movements, student movements, pro-independence movements, and so on. However, as Dabashi says in the book, we globally suffer from amnesia in this era of spectacular imagery. Systematic colonial projects have whitewashed the history of struggle in the brown countries, but the recent uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East have been recorded and documented by the citizens there. The universalism expressed and manifested in the struggles of the last two years has challenged the binaries of West vs. Islam, and Muslims vs. Western civilization. Consequently, the native informers have been forced to support these pro-democracy movements, the emancipatory self-empowering people’s projects. Indeed, native informers will have a harder job demonizing  the people and their culture of resistance.


The native informers wear white masks to hide their brown or black colors. But their leftist collaborators walk among the oppressed brown people with brown masks that cover their white masks. “I feel pain in giving them names, for the figure of the native informer the fictive white man presiding in their mind and soul has stolen me from me. He has owned up to robbing me from me and now can talk back to me in my own language, the language I thought I had successfully hidden from him so that I could speak freedom,” Dabashi says.


The brown people who write letters from inside prisons, who block their roads, who go on hunger strikes, who sew their lips in refugee camps, who smoke cigars in each other’s faces to survive tyranny’s tear gas, who shout slogans and record a few seconds or minutes of their chants, have no voice when it comes to the interpretations of their revolutionary uprisings by native informers and their collaborators. Such interpretations are predicated on Western conducted polls or on Western media’s (mis)reporting, rather than on the people themselves. Any representation of brown people is more reliable than brown people themselves in the collaborators’ colonized minds.


Hamid Dabashi says in Brown Skin, White Masks: “The black man who dares to speak—as did Fanon, Said, Malcolm X, Leopold Sedar Senghor, and Aime Cesaire—is called anything from passionate to angry, but never ‘reasonable.’ He may have a point, he is repeatedly told, but he is so angry he defeats his own purpose. Reason and composure, of course, are white.”


Mina Khanlarzadeh teaches math and physics at Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology in Boston. A longer version of this review is available on ZNet.