by Aaminah Khan
Recently on Twitter, @bad_dominicana discussed how reluctant white people are to call black women “beautiful”, and it reminded me of a print advertisement I studied in high school while learning about semiotics.
The ad was in a women’s magazine and if I remember correctly, was for a perfume. It featured a white woman lying in bed with a black man. The man’s shirtless back was to the viewer, making only his taut, muscular form and powerful-looking arms and shoulders visible. He was faceless, unidentified. The woman looked sultrily at us from over his mysterious form, satisfaction writ large over her features. She had partaken of whatever delights this man had to offer and was smugly, luxuriantly basking in the afterglow.
The ad copy was, “Take a walk on the wild side.”
My teacher used the ad as an example of how marketers can use certain words and images to convey large amounts of information subtly and effectively. A white woman having sex with a black man? How risqué. The implication: be a little like that woman. Spray on that perfume and feel like the kind of girl who has sex with faceless, muscular black men in ritzy hotel rooms because it’s an adventure, a thrill, a risk, something illicitly pleasurable.
These are the semiotics of race. This is why columnists will trip over themselves not to call Lupita Nyong’o or Angela Basset “beautiful”, choosing instead to use terms that call to mind a kind of savage, animalistic magnetism: fierce, striking, edgy, eye-catching. Words like “pretty” and “beautiful” and “cute” are for white women whose bodies and sexualities are not seen as wild, animal, or untamed. Black men are hulking, threatening, thuggish; white men are charming, sexy heartthrobs with hearts of gold. Brown women are exotic, with their “honey-coloured” skin and their “mystical”, “enchanting” beauty, unlike their white counterparts, who are held up as not only ideal, but knowable and safe. White people are beautiful; non-white people are dangerous.
Semiotics is fundamentally the study of sign-systems. A sign-system has two parts: the signifier (the thing we see), and the signified (what we think of when we see it). Non-white skin is part of a sign-system, where one’s skin-colour is the signifier and what is signified is wildness, savagery, and animalism. Non-whiteness, in the minds of white people, signifies what is lacking: a lack of enlightenment; of respectability; of culture. It signifies danger: danger to white values; to white norms; the danger of a square peg refusing to fit into a round hole. Mostly, it signifies other: them, not us.
The implications extend far beyond the academic. We have ideas–ideas absorbed through pop culture, by those who raised us; ideas we believe without even knowing we believe them–about what whiteness and non-whiteness mean, ideas that extend far beyond the dictionary definitions of those terms. We do not have a single race-based interaction that does not come with this semiotic baggage.
As a brown woman of mixed racial heritage, I encounter this baggage regularly, and I encounter it everywhere. Brown skin means alternately something exotic, a rarity to be sampled before returning to plainer fare, or something dangerous: the potential for fanaticism, a hair-trigger temper, a body rigged to explode. I have seen the way this shapes people’s interactions with me. I have been eyed warily or curiously or both, in stores while trying to do some shopping, in clubs whilst trying to dance with friends, on the street whilst running errands, or catching the bus home after work. I’m a curiosity, a novelty, a rarity, an exotic import from the monolithic East. I’ve been called an Arab princess (not Arab!) an exotic Indian (not Indian!), and an Afghani terrorist (not Afghani, either!). My skin is a signifier that points to not fitting in, to not belonging, to otherness and strangeness and the danger of the unknown.
I have seen, also, the way skin colour is used as leverage within PoC communities to recreate and reify the hierarchies of white society within our own spaces. The colourism and misogynoir so many darker-skinned WoC experience is directly tied to the semiotic association between dark skin and mindless savagery. Dark-skinned women are shunned and mistreated even by dark-skinned men, their lighter-skinned sisters praised and glorified as though the association with whiteness makes them somehow better–better wives, better girlfriends, better mothers, better professionals, better attitudes, better women.
There is a reason print ads in magazines can convince you to buy perfume by comparing it to the experience of being a white woman having sex with a faceless Black man in an expensive hotel room, and that is because even non-white society thinks of blackness as wild; deliberately-engaging with blackness is sampling forbidden fruit.
If we are to break down the oppressive strictures of anti-blackness and white supremacy, we must start with an examination of the semiotics of race. We must question the unstated assumption that whiteness and blackness carry meanings far beyond what one would find in the dictionary. We must ask where the signifiers are pointing and what they signify. And we must resist these categorisations at every turn. We must resist using blackness to signify savagery and animalism. We must resist using brownness to signify an exotic, mystical East. We must resist using whiteness to signify purity and enlightenment and righteousness. We must change the way the signs point and the things at which they are pointing.
We must take a walk on the wild side of society’s secret sign language. I think it’s worth the risk.
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