A Fanonian Philosophy of Race
Summary and Keywords
Frantz Fanon was one of the most important voices in decolonial and black liberation struggles of the mid-20th century. Writing about race and colonialism in Martinique, France, and Algeria, he articulated the importance of blackness to Western frameworks of the human. The black studies scholarship influenced by Fanon has continued in a similar vein, arguing that much of modern, Western thought either does not discuss race at all or considers race as an add-on to the larger discussion of Western subjectivity. Alternatively, Fanon and his interlocutors argue that race is the central function of the larger fields of Western philosophy and science, even if race is not mentioned at all. To make this claim, they largely point toward two tendencies in Western thought. First, Fanon and his interlocutors often examine the centrality of time and space in modern Western philosophy. Indeed, much of Western philosophy and science has implicitly and explicitly examined time as a linear trajectory that is largely monopolized by the Western European and North American white male subject; alternatively, space has been theorized as the static and nondynamic measure of the Western subject’s capacity to progress. Second, Fanon and his interlocutors also critically interrogate the related discussion of mutual recognition that is assumed in much of Western thought. As such, Western thinkers have often contended that, historically, the self recognizes itself in the other, and vice versa, and that self/other relationship is the basis for concepts of subjectivity. Yet, Fanon and his interlocutors have also pointed out that the lack of recognition of black people as human or as subjects has done little to foreclose whiteness as the position overrepresented as the human. Rather than recognition, white people have historically enacted racial violence against black bodies as a central mode through which to enter into humanity. As such, time and space and the lack of recognition as outlined by Fanon and his interlocutors suggest that nonwhite bodies have always provided a crisis for Western concepts of universality and subjecthood.
Fanon and Black Studies
In 1952, the black Martiniquan psychiatrist Frantz Fanon released his book Black Skin, White Masks. It was a scathing critique of Western knowledge, one in which Fanon argued that blackness provided an unthought challenge to the universality of modern, Western science and philosophy. Fanon would continue to attract significant followers with this work, but especially with the release of his final book, The Wretched of the Earth, almost 10 years later. Fanon was not only a scholar but a revolutionary in the Algerian Liberation Front’s fight against French colonialism, and his books, speeches, and articles proved influential in both academia and on a younger generation of mid-20th-century decolonial and black liberatory voices in the world.
Also, during the mid-20th century, the dominant, white framework of Western academia portrayed Fanon’s work as promoting anti-white violence (Khalfa & Young, 2018). Indeed, Hannah Arendt (1970) once argued that Fanon was pushing an agenda of “racism in reverse.” Many of these critiques even led to Fanon’s work being outlawed in France. Yet, since the 1990s, particularly in the wake of the rise of black and ethnic studies programs, Fanon has seen a revival in academia. In particular, what scholars of black studies and others who are in conversation with Fanon have pulled from him is a critique of the racialized implications of the “human,” that which has been referred to as “man” in modern science and philosophy.
What Fanon suggested was that the presumed universalities of scientific and philosophical categories of the human have historically been representative of the social positioning of white people. Yet, just as importantly, the constructedness of these positionings is brushed over just as quickly as they are solidified. Whiteness comes to be the universal in science and philosophy, but it is so in its non-naming. Thus, the project of Fanon, and those who are influenced by him, is to name that which is not named; they seek to investigate the modes through which white social positionings masquerade as the universal. Here, the trajectories of scholars influenced by Fanon are outlined, particularly focusing on those relating to black and ethnic studies. What Fanon and his interlocutors share in common is the urgency for highlighting the centrality of Western frameworks to the presumed universalities of time, space, and recognition. What follows is a brief overview of the unnamed, universal whiteness in Western philosophy and science that Fanon and his interlocutors argue assumes blackness.
White Universality and Western Thought
For Fanon, the history of modern philosophy and science has largely had a problem of thought, of which the black body has been a central annoyance. Many Fanonian scholars follow suit, arguing that philosophical and scientific traditions should not continue as if race were a secondary concern; instead, these scholars contend that race is the condition on which knowledge rests in the first place. It is in this light that the black body, as the absence of freedom and self-determination, provides a crisis to universality. Here, Fanonian scholar Lewis Gordon is worth quoting at length:
Black existence brings to the fore a central tension in modern thought. While a celebration of the value of freedom, much (albeit granted not all) of modern thought has also been a rationalization of enslavement and the ignoring of ideas about enslavement and freedom from black people, which raises the question of the extent to which philosophical thought is committed to truth and reality. The avowed basis of excluding black thought is a supposed commitment to genuine universal themes. But as can be easily shown, this often takes the form of a presumed particularity of blackness expanded by the universalizing force of whiteness. That whiteness premises itself on ignoring blackness, and blackness premises itself as a relation to whiteness (and other symbolic purveyors of thought), leads to a subverted realization: Whiteness is only universal to the extent which it ignores reality. It is thus a particular asserting itself as a universal.
(Gordon, 2013, p. 97)
For Gordon, modern thought presented itself as a universal articulation of man’s self-conception that tosses to the side the black body as essentially nonhuman. This is not to say that modern thought has not thought about the black body (it has obsessed over it), but it is to say “that there is no philosophical thought of the thought of the black” (Judy, 1996, p. 60). Whether race is explicitly mentioned or not, much of the modern tradition has concerned itself with a universalizing whiteness and a particularlizing blackness. Alternatively, Gordon states whiteness is “a particular asserting itself as a universal” (Gordon, 2013, p. 97).
Fanon and his interlocutors, then, have dedicated themselves to outlining the ways in which race continually enters into the universality of modern Western thought, even as it is often perceived as nonracial. Whiteness is a redundancy in philosophy and science; whether clothed in the constructs of man, the human, or the subject, whiteness is named in its non-naming. This also suggests that “race” equates to blackness in modern thought, which is not to say that nonblack or nonwhite races go unmentioned, but that these races are often situated as somewhere in between blackness and whiteness. For example, in Immanuel Kant’s (2000) “Of the Different Human Races,” he privileged a binary, structuring race along two poles: white, as most civilized (time), and Negro, as least human (space), with all other races falling somewhere in between. In ways that are picked up later in a discussion of scientific racism’s usage of Darwinian theory, the nonblack and nonwhite races are “links” between whiteness and blackness.
Western thought, then, obsessed over whiteness and blackness, often in ways that are purposefully never named so as to continue white universality. The rest of this article surveys how Fanonian scholars have critically examined the relationship between white universality and black particularity: first, they note that dominant discussions of race have been articulated along the lines of time (whiteness, civilization, development, and self-determination) and space (blackness, nature, and dependency); and second, they argue that such discussions of race are also concerned with a politics of “mutual recognition”—which is to say the dialectic that brings together time and space rather than continuing to fragment them as absolutes. It is in both time–space and mutual recognition that presumably universal discussions of ontology and epistemology continue.
Time, Space, and Politics
Much research exists on the racial politics of time, space, and mutual recognition (da Silva, 2007; Fanon, 2008; Gordon, 2013; Mills, 1997). What this research points toward is that the foundation of Western thought is structured on a raced, colonial framework that becomes important to the epistemological and ontological questions being asked. As such, Fanon and his interlocutors suggest that simply acknowledging that many modern thinkers held racist thoughts is not enough. Instead, the modes through which many modern thinkers could even theorize their world were structured along colonial frameworks of “subjectivity” still assumed in contemporary questions. This is to say that although some white contemporary philosophers and scientists may try to brush over the racism of academia’s foundation, they fail because they do not understand the centrality of their concepts to Western racialized/colonialist approaches to the world.
In Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, one sees an iteration of the racial and colonial implications of time and space. He opened the book with a discussion of form and matter, or a priori and a posteriori. Form is the pre-experiential, or that which Kant thought most important. Matter was the sensational, the known, the experiential, or the empirical. Kant pointed toward the a priori because he felt that there must be an a priori sensibility, or pure intuition that exceeded the empirical. For Kant, this a priori could be discovered through an isolation of sensibilities, which pointed him toward the configuration of space and time as a priori knowledges. Further, while subordinate to time, space was that which had no self-determination:
Space does not represent any property of things in themselves, nor does it represent them in their relation to one another. That is to say, space does not represent any determination that attaches to the objects themselves, and which remains even when abstraction has been made of all the subjective conditions of intuition. For no determinations, whether absolute or relative, can be intuited prior to the existence of the things to which they belong, and none, therefore, can be intuited a priori.
(Kant, 1965, p. 71)
Put simply, Kant argued that even when the senses were abstracted, space had no capacity for self-determination. Alternatively, Kant suggested a preference toward time as a linear trajectory that showed human capacity to turn form into matter. Kant defined time actively:
Here I may add that the concept of alteration, and with it the concept of motion, as alteration of place, is possible only through and in the representation of time; and that if this representation were not an a priori (inner) intuition, no concept, no matter what it might be, could render comprehensible the possibility of an alteration, that is, of a combination of contradictorily opposed predicates in one and the same object, for instance, the being and the not-being of one and the same thing in one and the same place.
(Kant, 1965, p. 76)
Unlike space, time was not passive. It could be measured in motion and alteration of space into place (In The Philosophy of History, G. W. F. Hegel will take this point to its completion). Still, Kant’s position was one that linked with Isaac Newton’s earlier contention that time and space were absolutes: time and space were a priori, and time held a privileged relation in this dynamic.
Kant’s concepts of time and space only appear nonracial if one dismisses who/what constituted time and space. In his book The Racial Contract, Charles Mills argues that Kant was not only the “father of scientific racism,” but he was also one of many philosophers who marked a link of “space with race and race with personhood” (Mills, 1997, p. 50). Specifically,
Europeans, or at least full Europeans, were “civilized,” and this condition was manifested in the character of the spaces they inhabited. Non-Europeans were “savages,” and this condition was manifested in the character of the spaces they inhabited. In fact, as has been pointed out, this habitation is captured in the etymology of “savage” itself, which derives from the Latin silva, “wood,” so that the savage is the wild man of the wood, silvaticus, homo sylvestris, the man into whose being wildness, wilderness, has so deeply penetrated that the door to civilization, to the political, is barred.
(Mills, 1997, pp. 42–43)
Space was that which saw no movement toward what Kant felt was civilization, which is to say, Germany. Thus, the discussion of time was implied, here, within the civilizational capacity of Western Europeans. Kant’s conception of time was marked by that which he was not, and all those who did not mirror the West did not have the capacity for time/civilization/progress.
Likewise, Deborah Thomas (2016) argues that Western conceptions of time are historically considered linear, which roots such time to Western Christianity. Indeed, the colonial project of the New World, which was often framed in 15th- and 16th-century racialized terms of Christian conversion, would be central to Western conceptions of time as well:
These [New World colonial] elaborations of racialized notions of difference would be subsequently mobilized to serve the later 19th-century British project of indirect imperial rule throughout Africa and South Asia, as well as the new imperialist project of the United States. They would also shape the emergence of “modern time,” a notion Laura Bear uses to refer to “the abstract time-reckoning of capitalism, which acts as the basis for the universal measure of value in labour, debt, and exchange relationships” . . . Bear is drawing from Marx’s observations regarding industrial capitalism and the consolidation of a non-sovereign labor force, but if we push this back a bit to consider the time of mercantile capitalism and slave labor as also modern (but where the value of labor is not considered part of a human exchange), we see what this makes the economy of modern time is not strictly the exchange relationship between capital and labor. Instead, the new labor relations that were generated by proto-industrial export-oriented mass production—by slaves—of primary products for consumption elsewhere produced a new hierarchy of humanity.
(Thomas, 2016, pp. 179–180)
Thomas notes that slavery requires a rethinking of the conceptions of time in liberal humanism and Marxist discourses. Time, here, is a racialized construct that masquerades in nonracial terms. Thomas pulls from Sylvia Wynter’s (1995) discussion of time in Wynter’s classic essay, “1492: A New World View.” Wynter argues that Christopher Columbus’s presumed “discovery” of the Americas marked an early shift from Western Christian temporality to secular and scientific, exploratory temporality. Columbus, thus, marked a shift to “deggoded” man, which is to say, presumably outside myth, or man’s secular, modern scientific, and later biological turn.
In her book, Toward a Global Idea of Race, Denise Ferreira da Silva notes the importance of temporality not only to being but also to space. She argues that Fanon and his interlocutors have too often thought about time (history, the humanities, and interiority) as the entry point into discussions of race and, as such, have not as closely investigated the concept of space (science, nature, and exteriority). What this means is that modern thought’s articulation of being rests on the concept of self-determination and “unaffectability” as the sole property of man; alternatively, nature, the black, the thing—all lack self-determination and are “affectable” by man. Indeed, the stasis of spatiality is required by man to prove his self-determined capacity. Another way to say this is that man holds a privileged relation that makes him capable of affecting the Negro, nature, the thing to his own wishes, while never being affected by that same Negro, nature, or thing (he is unaffectable). Man alone is the self-determined being, and all other beings should look like him if they claim any semblance of humanity. This sets up the two foundational statements for modern representation, which includes and exceeds philosophy and science:
(a) the stage of exteriority, where reason plays its sovereign role, that of universal nomos, as the regulative (constraining) force that governs the things of the world that are subjected to outer determination, that is, affectable things, and (b) the stage of interiority, where universal reason plays its sovereign role as universal poeisis, the productive (representing) power that founds the tools housed in the mind of man.
(da Silva, 2007, p. 31)
Spatiality and exteriority, then, are a project of man’s measurement of himself; he can utilize space to show how much further developed he is in comparison to everything/everybody else outside of Western Europe. In a somewhat similar frame, Ronald Judy (1996) argues that the Negro is not a human, per se, but a steppingstone for the Western thought of what constitutes the human: “There is no negre body, only the negre imago, and it is an object in-itself only for the consciousness that is human” (p. 70). For Judy, the Negro introduces a problem to the presumed universality of Western ontology. Not only must the Negro exist in-itself and for-itself, as per the universality of Western subjects, but also for-another, which is to say the Negro is “black” only so that the West can present itself as a particular genre of man that will, at times, identify as white. Thus, da Silva and Judy suggest a consistency between the Negro and Western conceptions of spatiality and determination.
Katherine McKittrick examines similar spatial relations of blackness. Indeed, Western conceptions of race and space permeate the scientific field of geography. McKittrick argues that the field situates black women as “ungeographic,” distinct from man’s space-making capacity (McKittrick, 2008, p. xvii). Thus, McKittrick consistently notes that “Black matters are spatial matters” (2008, p. xii). In the process, the black woman, as a construct for white people, reflects Western conceptualizations of space: locked in the past, even in the present, and ill-equipped to recognize self-evident freedom.
Da Silva’s discussion of time and space marks a shift in Western thought. Indeed, she points toward the second concern of Fanon and his interlocutors: a lack of recognition, which points to G. W. F. Hegel’s discussion of ontology. In the Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel argued that fragmentation was inherent for the “lordship/bondsman” dialectic. This theorization began with the assumption of recognition, which is to say of a shared commonality between bondsman and lord. For Hegel, the lord recognized the bondsman, the lord saw humanity in the bondsman, and this was a moment when his own self-consciousness transpired: “Self-consciousness is faced by another self-consciousness; it has come out of itself. This has a twofold significance: first, it has lost itself, for it finds itself as an other being; secondly, in doing so it has superseded the other, for it does not see the other as an essential being, but in the other sees its own self” (Hegel, 1997, p. 111). Thus, Hegel illustrated that the lord and bondsman “recognize themselves as mutually recognizing one another” (Hegel, 1997, p. 12). What was once time and space, as absolutes, as epistemological frameworks, is now reexamined as central to ontology, as lord/bondsman, as self/other, as time/space in Hegelian dialectical relationality.
For da Silva, the concern of recognition is chiefly related to Hegel’s attempt to cut out arguments that man is also affectable. Hegel must maintain man’s relationship to unaffectability, and in order to do so, he must now incorporate the exterior/spatial/other as a central measure of man’s temporal/self/lord progress, that which Hegel (2001) will call the “end of history.” Hegel no longer noted a stark distinction between time and space, as per Kant or Newton, but he noted their dialecticism as a new moment that will secularize Western constructs of knowledge:
In Hegel’s version, the possibility that it [man] could contemplate the horizon of death, of becoming a thing of outer determination—affectability—will no longer threaten the interior thing because, in the scene of engulfment, exteriority becomes a moment of the trajectory of the transcendental (interior or temporal) subject. What I find in Hegel’s statements is the completion of the figure of self-consciousness, which now becomes the transparent (interior-temporal) “I,” the only one that overcomes the founding dichotomy, interiority/exteriority, when recognizing that the universal foundation it shares with exterior things has always already been it-self.
(da Silva, 2007, p. 70)
For da Silva, Hegel’s framework does not figure the black as the bondsman and the white as the lord, as has traditionally been theorized in much of black studies scholarship. Instead, she sets up the Hegelian dialectic as a largely “human” relationship, which is to say that recognition happens between those figures who are the baseline of man as defined by the West. In other words, those who can use spatiality as the measure of their temporal progress are the baseline of recognition. Put crudely, recognition happens between the Germans and the French, not the Germans and the West Africans. The black is less Hegel’s “other” and more the “other of Europe.”
For Fanon and his interlocutors, the universality of the Hegelian concept of mutual recognition is limited (Butler, 2006; Judy, 1996). Fanon (2008), for example, argued that the white required no mutual recognition from the black to be considered human because violence against the black body served that function. Thus, Fanon (2008) argued that he “approached the Other . . . and the Other, evasive, hostile, but not opaque, transparent and absent, vanished” (p. 92). Indeed, rather than mutual recognition between white and black, to enact violence against blacks was the vehicle toward one’s entrance into whiteness, which is to say humanity. Judy contends that “the black is a moment in the process of consciousness becoming in-itself and for-itself and for-others” (1996, p. 55; emphasis added). This for-others is important. It brings to the fore that the black body is a construct, or a steppingstone for white self-conceptions. This is not black people, as in a dynamic, changing assemblage; this is blackness as a construct, the black body, the Negro, as in the spatial concept that serves a purpose for white self-definitions. Further, the stasis of the black body, the Negro, and blackness means that the black never lives on the symbolic level of humanity for science or philosophy because both use the white as the measuring rod of everyone else’s proximity to man:
[The] black body does not live on the symbolic level in an anti-black world. It is locked in the serious, material values of the real. Thus, whereas the white body can live the symbolic alienation rich with neurotic content and thereby serve as a foundation for psychoanalysis, the black body, whether in dream content or awake intentions, always stands for “what it is”—the black. The black therefore does not symbolize crime and licentious sexuality in an anti-black world. The black is crime and licentious sexuality, bestiality, and all the arrays of embodied social pathologies.
(Gordon, 1996, p. 79)
To say that the black does not symbolize crime and licentiousness means that the black has no contingency, no complexity, no uniqueness, as other humans might. There is no potentiality of “recognizing” the black along the lines of criminality or licentiousness; instead, such forms of recognition are the domain of the white, who can symbolize both or none, contextually. Further, the black becomes the means through which constructs of crime and licentiousness are measured against white complexity and contingency. For Fanon, this entails that the black is neither self nor other in the dialectic, but is the violent nonrelation that makes them both possible.
Time–space and recognition are inseparable constructs. They have functioned along similar axes in philosophical discussions of race. Further, they point to the limits of Western thought in general, which still has difficulty reckoning with race. Rather than a central figure within the entire philosophical and scientific project, race is an add-on, but only as a courtesy, in even the contemporary examinations of philosophy and science. Yet, the scholarship of Fanon and his interlocutors suggests that this add-on logic actually covers more than it reveals.
Fanon and the “New Man”
The racialized assumptions of time–space and recognition lead Fanon and his interlocutors to argue for the need to move beyond a politics of recognition, as recognition is historically reliant on a logic of time and space as defined by the colonizer. To do so, they turn back to Fanon’s call for an “actional politics,” not based on a “reaction” against and/or with the colonizer, but a politics that does not look toward the colonizer’s conception of humanity as the baseline. Thus, to “induce man to be actional, by maintaining in his circularity the respect of the fundamental values that make the world human” is the most important decolonial task (Fanon, 2008, p. 197). To be actional is central to Fanon’s “new humanism,” which required a rethinking of Western constructs of the human, as defined in philosophy and science. Indeed, Fanon noted that the world would require a new politics to destroy the colonial categories on which mutual recognition rested in the first place. Put simply, because blackness is a construct of whiteness, for-another and not just in-itself or for-itself, recognition under such raced categories of the colonizer are limited by the lack of imagination of said colonizer:
Fanon recognized that the disappearance of colonialism necessitated the disappearance not only of the colonizer, but also of the colonized. The process would be complete only with the disappearance of racism, if not the shedding of skin, at least as a shedding of what skin color has come to mean in a world defined by colonialism.
(Bernasconi, 1996, p. 113; emphasis added)
Robert Bernasconi contends that the categories of colonizer and colonized (one could add black and white) are provided for both by the colonizer. The question, then, becomes, why should one continue to allow old dead white men’s fabrications to structure one’s daily life? If one is black or colonized based on a racist Western society that continues to fragment time and space, then is such a society capable of recognition of harms against black or colonized people, or complicit in the construct of recognition’s centrality of whiteness to begin with? These are larger questions than simple sought-after recognition from the state as a victim of state racism, a largely losing effort that assumes the state will indict itself. Instead, it reconfigures recognition as structured on the terms of those who fabricated the racial constructs of existence to begin with.
What Fanon and his interlocutors provide, then, is a mode of rethinking the limits of Western time–space and recognition. To do so requires rethinking not only Western thought but its unquestioned (white) continuance. Fanon and his interlocutors begin such conversations.
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