Saturday, December 1, 2012

Systems of Signification in African-American Culture

Perceptions that individuals are racially different may often begin as perceptions that individuals are physically different. Perceptions of the differences that individuals may have in their skin color, hair texture, complexion, facial features, height, body build, etc. may often lead to presuppositions about the particular racial group that those individuals belong to. Differences in the physical characteristics of individuals may often be presupposed to signify racial differences, and racial differences may be presupposed to signify social and cultural differences.
     The dialectic of sameness and difference may also be the dialectic of insider and outsider, inclusion and exclusion, belonging and alienation, acceptance and rejection. To be racially or ethnically the same as the majority of members of society may in some cases be to share a socially important and perhaps advantageous mode of sameness with them, but this racial or ethnic sameness does not, by any means, imply any other kind of belonging to, or acceptance by, that society. An individual member of a racial or ethnic majority may feel just as alienated from the majority of society as an alienated member of an racial or ethnic minority. On the other hand, an individual who is perceived as racially or ethnically different from the majority of society may necessarily have to define his or her personal identity in the context of this difference or "otherness."
     The marginalization (political, social, economic) of an (ethnically, racially) "other" may take the form of a mode of discourse by which a (racial, ethnic) majority says, in effect, to a minority, "This society is ours and not yours." The majority may say to a minority, "The political, social, and cultural institutions of this society belong to us and not to you." Thus, the minority may, to some extent, be denied a sense of belonging to that society. This mode of discourse may be a means by which the majority says to a minority, "If you want to become a full-fledged member of this society, then you will have to become more like the majority. You must be the same as the majority and not different."
     Are there any innate racial differences among human beings (in behavior, in mental or physical characteristics, for example)? Is the concept of race actually a viable and useful concept? If so, are racial differences among individuals biological or environmental? These controversial questions have been intensely debated, and continue to be matters of public dispute. However, a viewpoint gaining increasing acceptance among social scientists and cultural theorists is that racial identity is, at least to some extent, socially constructed. The sociologist Stuart Hall, for example, has eloquently articulated this viewpoint in his conceptualization of race as a discursive category. Hall (1966) describes race as a "floating signifier" that may be defined by social context, cultural setting, and historical situation.
     It should be noted that to describe race as a discursive, socially constructed category is not to say that racial differences among individuals do not actually exist. However, Hall has shown that perhaps the most productive means of understanding these differences is to analyze them as discursive, socially constructed categories.
     In connection with this mode of analysis, the Italian philosopher Umberto Eco (1976) has noted that there is a difference between saying that a culture can be studied as a system of structured significations and saying that a culture is only a system of structured significations. To say that a culture can be studied as a semiotic phenomenon is not to say that it can only be studied as a semiotic phenomenon.1
     If discourse about race is a metalanguage, then it may itself become the object language of a metalanguage. It may be formal or informal, contemporary or historical, monological or dialogical. The study of African-American culture as a semiotic system may be a metasemiotic, whose object semiotic consists of the signs and symbols that are meaningful to African-Americans.
     Racial signifiers (such as skin color, body language, styles of speech) may be integrated into systems of signification that govern the construction of concepts of social reality. These signifiers may reflect the way in which we view ourselves and each other. The signifying or discursive practices of each racial or ethnic group in society may include the usage of various kinds of signifiers in order to denote perceived racial or ethnic differences. These signifiers may also be used to denote the racial or ethnic (and social or cultural) identity of individuals.
     Social signs stand for (or signify) real or supposed social facts (cultural realities). The signification of signs may consist in their standing for facts or realities. The truth of signs may be determined by whether they signify objective facts or realities (physical, social, cultural, or historical). However, the precise signification of signs, as well as their objective truth, are matters of interpretation. Thus, our concepts of reality may, at least to some degree, be socially constructed.
     The surface meaning of a sign may include its sense (its mode of presentation), its mode of reference to an object, and the particular concept, fact, or reality that it represents (its referent). The underlying meaning of a sign may include its relation to other signs, its interpretants (its representations in the minds of producers and interpreters), its range of connotations, and its relation to the system of beliefs or values it stands for.
     The presentation of a sign may be overt or covert, and its meaning may be apparent or inapparent, disclosed or undisclosed. The realm of discourse in which signs function as signs is a domain in which producers and interpreters can determine the level of openness, honesty, cooperation, and respect with which they will communicate with each other. They can also determine by general agreement or convention the syntactic, semantic, and pragmatic rules that will govern their communication with each other.
     The Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1916) defined a sign as a link between a concept and a sound-image, and he described language as a structured system of arbitrary signs. According to his model of the linguistic sign, each sign arbitrarily employs a sound-image (or signifier) to represent a signified idea or concept. Every sign includes both a signifier and a signified.
     The American philosopher Charles S. Peirce (1903) defined a linguistic sign as anything that denotes an object, and he defined an object as anything that can be thought. According to Peirce, linguistic tokens are actual things or events that act as signs, and linguistic types are signs that have been agreed upon as a matter of convention. Symbols are types that act through tokens, and tokens are replicas (individual examples, or instantiations) of types.
     In terms of the dynamics of racial identity, the type-token distinction may be applied to the modes of production of racial signifiers and related sign-vehicles. Racial signifiers may have content-types and content-tokens as well as expression-types and expression-tokens. Stereotypes may be symbols, general types, or models that are replicated by concrete tokens (such as physical objects, images, or representations of behavior). Stereotypical tokens may have individual differences as long as they conform to the relevant characteristics that are dictated by the type (symbol or model).
     Stereotypes are characterized by rigidity, oversimplification, and inability to recognize differences among individual members of the group that is being stereotyped.  Stereotypes are also characterized by exaggeration, one-sidedness, and resistance to change. They may express sexist, racist, ethnocentric, xenophobic, or other socially biased viewpoints.
     If a stereotype signifies a set of characteristics that are attributed to all members of a particular social or cultural group, regardless of any individual differences among members of that group, then the token of that stereotype may be produced by replicating those characteristics in an object or act, such as an image, picture, verbal expression, description, or characterization.
     The American philosopher Charles W. Morris (1971) defined a linguistic sign as any preparatory stimulus that produces a disposition in the interpreter to respond to something that is not at the moment a stimulus.In his view, all signs are either signals or symbols. Signals are not interpreted to signify other signs, but symbols are interpreted to signify other signs. Signs may be categorized according to their modes of signifying as identificative, designative, appraisive, prescriptive, or formative. Signs may also be categorized according to their primary usages as informative, valuative, incitive, or systemic (organizational). Modes of discourse (including poetic, scientific, legal, moral, religious, and political discourse) may thus be distinguished from each other by their primary modes of signifying and their primary usages of signs.
      The word "white" or the word "black," when used to signify the racial identity of an individual, inevitably oversimplifies that individual's social identity, since his/her identity may also be defined by such factors as age, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, economic status, religion, and nationality. "White" or "black" can never be regarded as a sufficient description of an individual's social identity, if the diversity of attitudes, viewpoints, and modes of experience that belong to that individual (independent of his/her racial background) are considered.
     Nevertheless, the words "white" and "black" are often used not only to denote the racial identity of individuals, but also to denote particular sets of social characteristics that are assumed to belong to individuals because of their racial identity. It is precisely because such signifiers oversimplify the social identity of individuals that they are found to be useful by those who desire to promote oversimplified and stereotypical notions of racial differences. For those who have racist preconceptions, the use of such signifiers may express a basic unwillingness to look beyond race or skin color in forming opinions about individuals.
     For those "whites" (in whatever way this term is defined) who believe that "blacks" are socially inferior, the fact that an individual's skin color may be described as "black" may outweigh any other characteristic that may distinguish that individual's social identity. Thus, the architect, photographer, or physicist who happens to be black may be marginalized by being described as a "black architect," a "black photographer," or a "black physicist."  The victim or target of such racist preconceptions may be compelled to respond,"Yes, I'm black, but I'm also an individual with various skills and abilities that do not depend on my being black."
     The very fact that individuals who are described as "white" or "black" are not literally white or black in their skin color indicates that these descriptions are merely figurative and based on social convention. The racial signifiers "white" and "black" may not be literal descriptions of skin color, with some "whites" appearing more "black" than "white" in skin color, and some "blacks" appearing more "white" than "black" in skin color. Moreover, some individuals may be difficult to classify as "white" or "black" on the basis of their skin color. Some individuals who have both "white" and "black" ancestry may not be easily describable as one or the other and may not choose to describe themselves as either "white" or "black." The matter of an individual's racial or ethnic identity is always to some extent a matter of self-definition, insofar as each individual must decide for himself or herself what it means to be "white," "black," "Hispanic," "Asian-American," and so on.
     In a society in which black people have historically been marginalized (politically, economically, socially) by white people, blackness may be seen by white people as an "otherness." Being black may mean having to accept otherness and learning how to affirm the positive aspects of one's self in one's otherness, or it may mean refusing to accept otherness and demanding to be accepted as equal. Thus, the American civil rights movement of the 1960's may, in a certain sense, have arisen from a refusal by African-Americans to accept "otherness." It may, at least in part, have proceeded from their desire to be accepted as citizens who have the same rights as others to fully participate in American society.
     The most obvious sign of racial discrimination--the sign that says "whites only"--is both a sign and symbol of the exclusion of blacks from various levels of participation in society.
     Linguistic signs that stand for concepts of race may evolve over a period of time. Thus, racial signifiers may be analyzed diachronically (with respect to changes in their signification over a period of time) and synchronically (with respect to their signification at a particular moment in time). Linguistic signs such as the words "black," "Negro," and "colored" are examples of signs that have, over a period of time, changed in their signification.
     Names of people, places, concepts, objects, and events may be both signs and symbols. For example, "the white man" and "the black man" are names that may be used to symbolize the general concept of white people and black people. The name "Rodney King" may symbolize the victimization of black people by police brutality. The name "Emmett Till" may symbolize the suffering endured by black people because of their being subjected to racial violence and intimidation. The words "brother" and "sister" are other examples of sign-symbols. They can be used to address not only family members, but also friends and acquaintances. They may symbolize not only a familial kinship, but also a sense of shared fellowship and humanity.
     The names that parents give to their children may also reflect their racial or ethnic identity. For example, such names as "Lakisha," "Towanda," "Antwan," "Latrell," "Tyresse," "Lashonda," "Shontay," and "Shaquon" have become increasingly popular among African-Americans. Indeed, the recognition that such names imply that an individual has a particular racial or ethnic identity may be used as a basis for "racial profiling" and other forms of discrimination by those who have racially biased viewpoints.
     The most obvious connotations of the word "white" are, of course, positive attributes such as "pure," "innocent," "clean," and "unblemished," and the most obvious connotations of the word "black" are often negative attributes such as "dark," "evil," "unclean," and "dirty." Such connotations can easily be made the basis for prejudicial characterizations and stereotypes of "whiteness" and "blackness." Thus, for those who accept such stereotypes, the white-black antithesis becomes a conflict of good and evil, right and wrong, light and darkness, the civilized and the uncivilized.
     Racial or ethnic stereotypes become a means to dehumanize and ridicule those who are viewed according to racist or ethnocentric ideology as racially or ethnically inferior. Thus, some of the racist caricatures of black people that have been presented in Hollywood films have included the minstrel or buffoon (with blackface makeup, wooly hair, and raggedy clothes) and the "mammy" (the sassy, overweight black maid). Black people have been portrayed in media such as magazines, comic books, and films as having big noses, big lips, big buttocks, kinky hair, and stereotypical patterns of speech ("negroid" features and dark skin have been portrayed as ugly, while "caucasian" features and light skin have been portrayed as beautiful). More recent stereotypical images of blacks that have been spread by mass media include the image of the drug-dealer, pimp, homeboy, hustler, and "gangsta."
     Racial stereotypes may also express racist and blatantly nonsensical presuppositions about individuals (e.g. that if an individual is black, then he or she must be able to dance and play basketball).
     Racial codewords may be used to convey racist ideology, e.g. "blacks" may be used as a codeword for "crime," and "forced busing" may be used as a codeword for the enforcement of laws designed to end racial segregation in public schools. The term "affirmative action" may be used as a codeword by those who are opposed to measures to correct social inequalities and who believe that the effect of such measures will be to allow individuals belonging to racial minority groups to obtain employment or educational opportunities solely because of an arbitrary policy guaranteeing a certain number of positions to minorities and not because of any personal qualifications of merit.
     The production and interpretation of signs require the use of codes in order for the expression of these signs to be correlated to their content. A code may be a correlational device for determining the relation between signifiers and their signified concepts.Code switching may occur when blacks and whites talk to each other, because they may adapt their conversational styles in order to facilitate communication. Blacks may move back and forth between African-American vernacular English and standard American English, although these two varieties of English (which may be described as ethnolects or sociolects, because they are varieties of language that may be associated with particular ethnic or social groups) may be a continuum, and may not be rigidly separated from each other. Code switching may include changes in formality, vocabulary, syntax, and phonology (pronunciation), as well as in nonverbal communication.
     Terms such as "Jim Crow," "the middle passage," "sit-in," "black power," "Harlem Renaissance," "NAACP," "freedom rider," "Black Panther," "rhythm and blues," "jazz," and "hip hop" are signifiers of historical movements or events that have powerful connotations for African-Americans. Racially-charged symbols such as the confederate flag, the hood of a Ku Klux Klansman, a burning cross, a lynching rope, a swastika, neo-Nazi symbols, and slave shackles also have powerful connotations. Racial epithets, such as the "n-word," also have powerful connotations and are signifiers of racial hatred that have been used by some whites in the past to express their scorn and contempt for blacks and other people of color.
     Other symbolic expressions include the racial epithets "boy," "token Negro," and "Uncle Tom."
     Racial signifiers may become vehicles of racial (and racist or ethnocentric) iconography. Examples of such iconography include depictions of God or Jesus that are intended to show that God or Jesus is "white," depictions of white superheroes such as Tarzan and the Lone Ranger who are symbols of white supremacy, and demeaning characterizations of people of low social status, such as Amos 'n Andy, Little Black Sambo, Stepin Fetchit, Buckwheat, and Aunt Jemima, who are symbols of black servitude.
     Iconic signs (signs that resemble the things they signify) may take the form of emulation of a particular style of speech, dress, or fashion. Indexical signs (signs that demonstrate the influence of the things they signify) may take the form of changes in an individual's physical appearance (such as his/her having a shaven head or his/her wearing a tattoo or earring) in order to denote a particular set of social attitudes. Symbolic signs (signs that by convention refer to the things they signify) may take the form of a gesture such as a handshake, high-five, or black power salute, or a colloquial verbal expression such as "what's up?" or "what's goin' on?"
     Historical events of symbolic importance to African-Americans include the Dred Scott Supreme Court decision (1857), the Emancipation Proclamation (1863), Jesse Owens' winning of four gold medals at the Olympic Games (1936), Jackie Robinson's becoming the first black baseball player in the major leagues (1947), the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision (1954), Rosa Parks' refusal to give up her seat on a bus in Alabama in 1955 and the subsequent Montgomery bus boycott (1955-6), the March on Washington (1963), the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1968), the declaration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a national holiday (1986), and the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States (2008).
     Protests are by their nature symbolic forms of social expression. Thus, when African-Americans have engaged in social protests in the past, they have symbolically articulated their demand for social justice and equal legal and civil rights.
     Individuals who are symbols of excellence and achievement, and who are "cultural icons" include Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Marcus Garvey, W.E.B. DuBois, Rosa Parks, George Washington Carver, Charles Drew, John Hope Franklin, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Lorraine Hansberry, Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Sidney Poitier, Michael Jackson, Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan, Willie Mays, Jackie Robinson, Hank Aaron, and Muhammad Ali.
     Other symbolic signs of African-American culture include Negro spirituals, gospel music, the Negro National Anthem, the colors of Akan Kente cloth, the celebration of Kwanzaa, and the song "We Shall Overcome."
     Symbolic rituals in the everyday lives of African-Americans include rites of religious worship, everyday work routines, weekend recreational activities, weddings, funerals, birthday celebrations, holiday observances, school graduation ceremonies, family rituals (such as saying a prayer or blessing before meals), and patriotic observances (such as standing up and facing the flag during the playing of the National Anthem).
     The signifying practices of African-Americans include art, music, religion, oral and written narrative, folklore, literature, science, rhetorical discourse, political discourse, and other signifying practices. Fashion and design are other examples of signifying practices (formal and informal) that may take the form of simply wearing a particular type of clothing or choosing a particular hairstyle (thus, the adoption of a particular style of dress or the driving of a particular type of car may be a sign of one's lifestyle, social attitudes, level of income, economic status, etc.). These signifying practices (or enunciative modalities) on the part of African-Americans may be informed by the historical struggle to overcome social oppression, and may in some cases be part of the continuing quest for human dignity and freedom.
     Racial signifiers may take the form of words, images, or modes of behavior. They may have positive or negative connotations (thematic paradigms) that may be subject to varying interpretations, depending on their context, mode of presentation, and the particular preconceptions, opinions, and attitudes of the producer or interpreter.


1Umberto Eco, A Theory of Semiotics (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976), p. 22.
2Charles W. Morris, Writings on the General Theory of Signs (The Hague: Mouton, 1971), p. 366.
3Eco, A Theory of Semiotics, p. 38.


Eco, Umberto. A Theory of Semiotics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1076.

Hall, Stuart. Race: The Floating Signifier (video lecture). Northampton, Mass: The Media Education Foundation, 1996.

Morris, Charles W. Writings on the General Theory of Signs. The Hague: Mouton, 1971.

Peirce, Charles Sander. Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960.

Saussure, Ferdinand de. Course in General Linguistics. Edited by Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye, in collaboration with Albert Riedlinger. Translated by Wade Baskin. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1966.

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