Analyse one or more examples of media representation of ‘race’ with reference to Stuart Hall’s claim that it is a ‘floating signifier’. 2000 words

Analyse one or more examples of media representation of ‘race’ with reference to Stuart Hall’s claim that it is a ‘floating signifier’.

The media, being a medium of information dissemination, is always an important factor in the construction of identity. It plays a significant role in presenting one’s perception and also to constructing how others perceive us and, indeed, our collective identity. Language as described by Hall is the “medium in which we ‘make sense’ of things, in which meaning is produced and exchanged.” (1997, p. 1). Media therefore offers the avenue from which these meanings are depicted through images and sounds. “Representation is the process by which members of a culture use language (broadly defined as any system which deploys signs, any signifying system) to produce meanings.” (ibid, p. 61). The ‘system of representation’ as explained by Hall is the one, “in which our concepts, images and emotions ‘stand for’ or represent, in our mental life, things which are or may be ‘out there’ in the world.” (ibid, p. 4). In effect, “representation through language is central to the process by which meaning is produced” (ibid, p. 1), and “the embodiments of concepts, idea and emotions in a symbolic form which can be transmitted and meaningfully interpreted is the practise of representation”. (ibid, p. 10).


In this essay, I shall examine media representation of ‘race’ with particular reference to Stuart Hall’s claim that it is a ‘floating signifier’. Race as alluded to by Stuart Hall, like any other event or object in the world – does not have in itself any fixed, final or true meanings (Hall, 1997, p. 61), hence as a discursive fact, it is relational and subject to disparate conceptualization and definitions across cultures. Representations are constructed and the messages they proffer work in complex ways (diverse interpretations, adoption, transmission and rejections of ideas in messages) deducible from the ways peoples operated within different frontiers. Therefore, specificities of a particular location bring their experience to bear on ‘racialization’, its transformation and the language that evokes them. Claude Lévi-Strauss, in using language as one particular instantiation, argued the “collective construct that mediates relationships between the different members of a community are symbolic to the extent that their construction is a matter of arbitrary convention…”(Johnson, C., 2003 p. 2) – a convention which unarguably is in continuous transformation . The transformation of racial expressions, the presentation and re-presentation of race, and even the ways race was perceived and is being perceived now, follows from the interconnection of language with reality. Therefore, Hawkes’ submission that the attempts by humans to represent all myths in a satisfactorily, graspable, humanizing shape that springs from the human mind, becomes the concrete form through which reality is projected, and things made natural, or become a given (2003, p. 3-4). In order words, what begins from a natural act of human perception evolves into an objectification (certain form of representation) through which then meaning and interpretation proceed. In concrete terms, the connection between language and reality emanate from our perception of the world in terms of our own language which is reducible to collective societal experience.  It is from these processes that social facts are defined and obtain their meanings which accordingly vary among multifarious societies. It is this background or context that provides an avenue through which to critically understand the various complexities involved in the media’s representation of race, and for the purposes of this essay, so will Stuart Hall’s assertion that race is a floating signifier.


To put race and its representation in a media context, it is relevant that the broader socio-cultural context through which such representation occurs is explained. One of the permanent and most powerful features of modern societies is the heavy connectedness and networks of communication, embodied through the many networks of the popular media apparatus (Castels, 2004). Modernity, as formulated by Donald Donham, is “the discursive space in which an argument takes place, in which certain positions continually get constructed and reconstructed”. (Clarke M, K and Thomas D, A, 2006, p. 11). Racial prejudices and racialism have divided humanity for centuries, perhaps especially after European expansionist policies, which introduced European colonialism and imperialism, and also led to the establishment of the transatlantic slave trade. It is under the above context that one of the most famous, perhaps prophetic, statement in human relations was proclaimed by the black academic and black rights activist of all time, Dr Bugart Web Du Bois, who essentially asserted that one of the greatest problems of the 20th century would be the colour line; by this he was averring at the great division and impediments to human relations and progress caused by racial discrimination or the problem of representation of race for domination and exploitation. For instance, in 2001, the United Nations hosted a World Conference against racism, in South Africa, where it was acknowledged that racism and racial discrimination is still in existence today across the globe, despite human advancements in communication and other developments which were previously expected to bridge the divide. Why is this the case, however, and how does the media use race as a floating signifier involved in jettisoning or promoting racism?  Racial differentiation, and in fact the process of subject articulation, are evoked in class, gender, sexuality, religion, nationality and physical differences in colour: as argued by Foucault, that subjects are discursive formation that are produced during discourse (Foucault cited by Hall, 1997, p. 55). On this note, race being a subject and as it is articulated varies in periods, i.e. the concept of race and how it is represented is not static and it is in continuous transformation in different cultures. “By using terms like racial formations and racialization to talk about processes that are having similar effects across a wide range of locations, without intimating that these processes are enacted everywhere in the same way, various scholars have demonstrated that “race” is neither fiction nor fixed.” (ibid, p. 3-4). Nowadays, the use of audio-visual, websites, chat rooms, online communities, virtual reality environments are all mediums for such representations. I proceed below with highlights and explanation of examples of media representation of ‘race’ and how these comprise a floating signifier.


To begin with, race can be seen as a signifier resulting from its visibility. The prevailing definitions of race flow from the images created (arguably derived from the power of white hegemony in media) and disseminated by the media (Rhodes, 1995, p. 33, Mistry, 1999).  It representation are in class, gender, religion, nationality and physical differences in colour but are not limited to these. Stuart Hall stated that popular representation of racial ‘difference’ during slavery clustered around two main themes: firstly, the subordinate status and ‘innate laziness’ of blacks, and secondly, their innate ‘primitivism’, simplicity and lack of culture (1997, p. 244). As the discussions (contestations) continued  to evolve, the conceptualization of race is also being re-produced, re-presented and re-conceptualized within discourse. Therefore, each racialized regime of representation is drawn from its specific period and culture. Contemporary racialized regimes of representation stem from stereotyping (Dyer, 1993) and how it is essentialized and reduced to picture particular groups within the global power asymmetry. In this light, there are different elements of the old racist regime and the new regime of racialization. For instance, contemporary stereotypical racial representations of blacks by the media in most western countries is the notion that ‘they’ are dangerous. They are portrayed as the perpetrators of criminal activities, sex slaves and as such seen as societal menace. Blacks in Americans are represented and racially portrayed through the role of bad characters in movies. Africans, however, are pitied, and are portrayed in mainstream media as coming from a continent ridden with poverty, a dependent group of people, ravaged by disease and war: therefore, racialized as dependent and as such to be pitied and fed handouts. The point here is that the representation of race is shifting; the language used in the representation has shifted from that of eighteenth century slavery, to the present derogatory representation of blacks.

Late eighteenth century (and later) racist representations in the media (films) were created to portrayed “a host of characters that lampooned and stereotyped free African slaves.” (Rhodes, 1995, p. 35). “One of the most enduring images introduced was Sambo, the vain, pompous, and ignorant darkie whose life revolves around song and dance.” (Van Deburg, 1984 cited in Rhodes, 1995, p. 35). A century later, contemporary racist representation in media is one that stereotypes the blacks of Africa as extremely poor and dependent on developing nation for survival, and the blacks of America as dangerous. In this way perceptions of blacks are created, although the stereotypes are continuously being contested from diversities of images that media offers, and it has been argued that all stereotypes, however insulting and simplistic, are also always based on truth and fact.


These phenomena can be explained and illuminated with Hall’s three base images of the ‘grammar of race’ employed in ‘old movies’ that re-invent racist ideologies (Hall, 1995, p. 20-21). Hall outlines the familiar ‘slave-figure’ that is “dependable, loving in a simple way, childlike way – the devoted ‘Mammy’ with the rolling eyes, or the faithful fieldhand or retainer, attached and devoted to ‘his’ master.” (ibid, p. 21). He argued, apart from blacks, many Asians have come on the screen in this disguise. “A deep and unconscious ambivalence pervades this stereotype.” (ibid). The other base-image is that of the ‘native’ which portrays two stereotypical sides: “The good side of this figure is portrayed in a certain primitive nobility and simple dignity. The bad side is portrayed in terms of cheating and cunning, and further out, savagery and barbarism.” (ibid). The last is the racist portrayal of the black as the ‘clown’ or ‘entertainer’, which captures the innate humour as well as the physical grace of the licensed entertainer (ibid, p. 22). Hall noted that although these ‘particular’ versions may have faded, their ‘traces’ are still to be observed, reworked in many of the modern and up to date images (ibid).


Another instance of the discursive nature of race and how its representation in the media is continuously shifting can be assessed from the racial construction of oriental-occidental orientations.  The East (i.e. orient) was arguably constructed in the mid 19th century as a society which was dogmatised, a society completely based on myth; while  contemporary construction not only portrays the East as still behind in civilization, and should adopt Western science and progressiveness as against dogmatism and communalism, but oriental (Arab in particular) societies are portrayed in Western films (especially post- September 11, 2001) “as religious fanatics and cold-blooded terrorists” (Shutter, 2007, p. 75). In fact, derogatory racializations are not only limited to blacks; in recent times, via Orientalist stereotypes, Arabs are also confronted with the phenomenon, as depicted in this recent statement: “ ‘I am trying to train the Arabs to be less effeminate….’ So said Hank- an American working in Iraq under the employment of a private contractor “(ibid).  The mainstream media not only reflects or mirrors identities but also creates new reality because meanings are constructed in the view of reality which shapes the perception of a particular group towards the other. In an attempt to recreate the perception and indeed the way the East is perceived from the Western perspective, ‘The 13th Warrior’ (a movie) ends up ultimately reinforcing Western cultural superiority over that of the East by displaying civilization to be incomplete without the acquisition of Western manliness (Shutter, 2007). It denotes Western hegemony over the rest, and all knowledge as constructed within the ‘western episteme’.


In conclusion, the conceptualization of race and racial thinking is a discursive process –  to borrow a phrase from Foucault (discourse analysis). Therefore, how it is presented and re-presented is bound to change, perhaps as a result of the possible assertive nature and contestations of racialized groups, and particular communities. The representation of race through images and sounds will therefore not be static or fixed but a meaning that continuously evolves. Hence, the adoption, rejection and even interpretations of meanings derived from the representation of race (through images and sounds) in popular media will be in a continuous state of change and flux. Race being a floating signifier therefore does not have, and will never have, a meaning commonly agreed upon.








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Clarke M, K and Thomas D, A (2006) Globalization and Race: Transformations in the Cultural Production of Blackness, Duke University Press, Durham and London.


Dyer, R (1993) The Matters of Images: Essays on Representations, Rutledge, London. pp. 11-18.


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Hall, S (1997) Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practises, Sage Publications and The Open University, London.


Hall, S (1995) ‘The Whites of Their Eyes: Racist Ideologies and the Media’ in Dines, G and Hummel, J M (eds) Gender, Race and Class in Media- A text Reader, Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks, London and New Delhi. pp. 18-22


Johnson, C (2003) Claude Lévi-Strauss: The Formative Year, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge UK.


Mistry, R ( 1999) ‘Can Gramsci’s theory of hegemony help us understand the representation of ethnic minorities in western television and cinema’ (cited  30 March 2009) Available from


Rhodes, J (1995) ‘The Visibility of Race and Media History’ in Dines, G and Hummel, J M (eds) Gender, Race and Class in Media- A text Reader, Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks, London and New Delhi. pp. 33-38


Shutters, L ‘Vikings Through the Eyes of an Arab Ethnographer: Constructions of the Other in the 13th Warrior’ in Ramey, L T and Pugh, T (2007) Race, Class and Gender in ‘Medieval’ Cinema, Palgrave Macmillan, New York. pp. 75-89