December 1, 2018
Philosophy 201 – Introduction to Philosophy
Synthesis Paper: Race as Language
Stuart Hall, a noted and highly respected cultural theorist, lecturer at Goldsmith’s College in London, described the concept of race as a “floating signifier.” By that, he meant that the word “race,” and words used in a racial context (such as “black” or “white”), have no fixed cultural meaning; rather, the meanings associated with racial words, even the word “race” itself, when used in this context, call forth a series of dependencies and assumptions that are socially-constructed and culturally-conveyed. In this way, racial concepts function more like a language than they do as a set of demonstrable and tenable attributes (Hall 2002). This essay explores the meaning of race in the context of Hall’s floating signifier conceptual analysis, and seeks to demonstrate that the words associated with race function as a language, in which terms associated with race take on different meanings depending on one’s position .
In order to have cultural meaning, objects, ideas, and concepts must be associated with words. Some words have definitive meanings – the word ‘aluminum,’ for example, references a specific elemental metal, derived from bauxite ore. The word may also be used to reference a light silver/grey color, but that use is a specific reference to the color of the metal. The metal has specific attributes– hardness, for example, or resistance to breaking when stressed – that can be measured objectively, but the word ‘aluminum’ only has meaning in reference to that metal element or alloys in which it is a significant component. Other words are less specifically defined, but conjure a specific image or concept when spoken. For example, the word ‘sidewalk’ has a specific meaning in American English – it always refers to a path intended for pedestrian use that runs parallel to a road or street. A sidewalk may be made of brick, or cement, or crushed rock, or any other material (although if made of wood, it would be called a ‘boardwalk’), but the word sidewalk always has the same meaning.
Some words, however, rely almost exclusively upon context for their meanings, and the meanings are dependent upon context. Even within the same context, their meaning may function differently depending upon the viewpoint of the person understanding the word. Words associated with race fall into this category, and so they function in that context as a ‘floating signifier’ as Hall puts it. The meaning of the word ‘race’ itself, when used in the context of cultural division (and not, for example, as in a contest of speed) is dependent upon context for its meaning; the significance of the word is contingent upon a common understanding.
Modern research has made it clear that there is no biological basis for division of people into groups by what W.E.B. DuBois referred to as “color, hair and bone.” These categories simply have no meaning in the context of the human genome, despite the cultural endurance of stereotypes based upon precious understandings of race. Understandings of race also rely largely upon comparisons between cultural subdivisions. That is why, for example, in American culture, “black” people are assumed to be expressive, athletic, great dancers, and have an innate sense of rhythm when compared to white people. That is also why “white” people, in American culture, are assumed to be intelligent, rational, and unable to jump when compared to black people. These dependencies function, in a way, like other comparison-dependent concepts, like ‘cold’ or ‘hot’, which both only have meaning when compared with something else – there is, for example – no definition of what cold is unless it is compared to something. Thus, the surface of the sun is incredibly hot, and the surface of Pluto is incredibly cold, but only in relation to each other or to the surface of planet Earth, which is ‘just right’.
If race, and words used in a racial context, then, depend for their cultural meanings on the viewpoint of the person conceptualizing the idea, or upon comparison to something else – if they are truly relational (‘negotiated’ is one of the terms Hall uses), then Hall’s concept of race as a ‘floating signifier’ has real meaning. Using this concept, then, for an outsider-looking-in to understand the meaning of the words ‘white’ or ‘black’ when referring to the racial context, they would also have to understand the cultural assumptions being used by the speaker, because the word ‘white’ means something entirely different to a racist than it does to a victim of racism. Hall’s point of view on race is that only by understanding how the concept of race functions as a negotiated language can we hope to change the social effects of racially-based cultural division.
Misunderstandings about what the ‘floating signifiers’ related to race mean have social consequences. W.E.B DuBois, for example, used the word ‘badge’ to describe the function of the heritage of slavery and the insult of that experience as a negotiated signifier. While very few people actually living today were slaves in the sense of the word prior to emancipation, the ‘badge’ of that experience is culturally understood as a signifier of blackness. Thus, for example, even though Rachel Dolezal, the discredited and ousted former President of the Spokane, Washington chapter of the NAACP, wore her hair in a manner that conveyed blackness, identified as ‘black,’ and fought against discrimination of blacks in a position of strength, she cannot be black because she does not carry the cultural badge of the insult of slavery (Samuels 2015). The meaning of ‘blackness’ in this context carries that contingent component.
Similarly, cultural expectations of ‘blackness’ operate to create cultural political negotiations, even though these expectations are based only on culturally-negotiated ‘truths’ about what it is to be black. Thus, Democratic candidates talk about cultivating the ‘black’ vote, using cultural assumptions to lump all black voters into a single cohort, despite that individual black people may not vote consistently as a bloc. Nobody, by comparison, cultivates the ‘white’ vote; rather, candidates seek out components of the white population using other terms, such as conservative, liberal, urban, suburban, etc. We may hear about appealing to ‘rural’ voters, but we never hear about the ‘rural black’ vote, because all blacks are lumped into a single category. While this may (or may not) be politically expedient, it is, nonetheless, based upon cultural expectations of what it is to be black, an expectation to which individual black people may not subscribe. Anthropologist Mary Douglas suggests that cultural expectations that do not have basis in reality function as “matter out of place,” and that such conditions cause political tension. She gives the example of soil, which is “matter in place” in the garden, but creates a real problem when “out of place” on the floor of the parlor (Hall 2002).
Race, and related words in a racial context, do not have concrete meaning – their meaning is contextual, contingent, and dependent on the point of view of the perceiver. They function, as Hall observes, as a “floating signifier,” the meaning of which changes over time. Thus “white” does not convey “whiteness” and “black” does not convey “blackness” absent a contextual, negotiated understanding of the dependencies and contingencies of those terms. The context, dependencies and contingencies of the terms are socially-constructed and culturally-conveyed. Thus, race functions as a language, rather than as a “thing-in-itself.” By decoding the language of race, culturally accepted meanings can be negotiated over time, resulting in different understandings in the future. In this way, the ‘blackness’ of today is much different than the ‘blackness’ of earlier times, and will be understood differently in the future.
Hall, Stuart. 2002. Race: The Floating Signifier. Performed by Stuart Hall. Northhampton, Mass.
Samuels, Allison. 2015. “RACHEL DOLEZAL’S TRUE LIES.” Vanity Fair, July 19: 1-2.