Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Race- The Floating Signifier


Stuart Hall argues in the documentary “Race -The Floating Signifier” that race is a signifier which has meaning in a culture, but the meaning of skin colour is not fixed. The significance and social viewpoint of skin colour changes between different cultures. In addition, the meaning of skin colour slides and floats on the scale of interpretation held by members of a society. (Hall, Stuart. Race the floatingsignifier)

Below I will support the theory of Hall and show in the historical context that has emerged as "Race" and how this concept changes over time.
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The meaning of skin colour changes between different cultures
The preferred skin tone of a culture varies over time and between different cultures. Some African groups associated in the past pale skin with being accursed or caused by evil spirits. They connected “white” skin with witchcraft.
But the most cultures have historically favored lighter skin, because it was associated with a higher social status. The poorer classes worked outdoors and became tanned from exposure to the sun.  The upper class stayed indoors and they skin don’t exposure to the sum.  (Wikipedia, n.p.)
The meaning of skin colour changes with context/ history
15th/ 16th Century- Colonialism
Colonization and slavery by European countries perpetuated racism- a prejudice upheld by the belief that people with dark skin were uncivilized and were to be considered inferior and subordinate to the "white races." This idea has continued up to and persists to this present day. During the era of slavery, light-toned slaves were perceived as more intelligent, cooperative, and beautiful. They were more likely to work in the house, opposed to the fields and were also given preferential treatment by plantation owners and their overseers. They were given permission to become educated, while darker slaves worked in the fields and were forbidden to get an education. Common preference for fair skin remained prominent until the end of the Victorian era, and racial stereotypes about societal worthiness and beauty were still persistent in the last half of the 20th century. During colonialist times new discoveries on cultures and races were reported back to Europe.  This knowledge depended upon reports from explorers and missionaries, who were strongly influential in forming racist modes of thinking. ‘Uncivilized’ people and customs of unknown parts of the world were compared with the lives led by Europeans.  Those previously unknown peoples were judged by a white-dominated, class-based society led by hierarchy and deemed ‘unfit.’ (Kattmann 1999, n.p.)
18th century- Enlightenment
At the beginning of the Enlightenment, humankind was divided into two parts- the nobility and the common people. Later, the influence and nobility of Germanic descent and people of Gallic-Celtic descent prevailed. The 18th century upheld the hierarchical ladder, that man is superior to animals. On a scale of intellect and superiority, the monkey as the most intelligent animal is standing next to the "lowest-in-scale" human: those with dark skin and primarily, those of African descent. People were divided by the ideas of Carl Linee`. Geographically speaking, European, American, Asian and African peoples were assigned a status based on color. Immanuel Kant created a ladder of degrees in which intelligence is based on race. In his view, races other than European suffer an inferior genetic capacity to learn. (Hossfeld, p. 59-65)
19th century

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