The Power of Semiotics: Do Symbols and Signs Reinforce Racial Stereotypes?

Wherever we go, there are many signs and symbols that we recognise to inform us of everyday things, whether it be as simple as the male and female figure on a bathroom stall, or the colours on a traffic light telling us when to stop, slow and go. It’s universally agreeable that we look at these signs and instantly understand what is being communicated, almost without second thought.

However, it is impossible for everyone on this planet to view a sign or a symbol in the same way; regardless of how simple or mundane the information may be. The complexity of interpretation stems from society’s ideological and cultural differences. Essentially, not everyone shares the same views and not everyone has been raised in the same way. Depending on how a person ‘grows up’ in life, each individual inherits a personal experience that is sure to alter the lens in which they interpret and recognize the information they consume on a day to day basis. 

In relation to this advertisement created by the International League Against Racism and Anti-Semintism (LICRA), the image depicts two evidently Caucasian babies situated at both sides of a third baby which appears to have a darker skin in comparison to the others. As a means of distinguishing the ethnicities of the children, the Caucasian babies are dressed generically, in only diapers, whereas the darker child is dressed in what appears to be the uniform of a janitor, making it the salient subject of the advertisement.

In accordance with Semiotician Greg Rowland from Oxford University and creator of ‘The Semiotic Alliance’ he suggests that ...ideology exists to provide a guide to assumptions, behaviours and identity… illuminating the notion that one’s cultural identity personally shapes the lens in which information is interpreted. 

With reference to the complexity of the advertisement, as Sociologist Vilma Ortiz from the University of California, Los Angeles suggests “[South Americans] may encounter stereotypes which define how they should behave or who they should be…” solidifying the archetypal notion that Mexican American or Hispanic people often become ‘janitors’ or ‘cleaners’ in the future. Due to the reality that this ethnic group in the United States are significantly disadvantaged financially due to racial discrimination “[hispanics are] destined for jobs at the bottom of the economic hierarchy” as Ortiz further explains, which is the exact racially motivated socio normative expectation that is brought to light within the advertisement.

Due to the complexity of this image, there is indeed an alternate way that the layered semiotic nature of this advertisement can be interpreted. As suggested by the generic manner in which the Caucasian children are dressed, this illustrates the socio-normative privilege that white people are entitled to the freedom and opportunity to pursue whatever one desires without the restriction of discrimination due to racial orientation and profiling.

With the LICRA’S intentional decision to make the Caucasian children almost identical in appearance, the stark contrast to the child of ethnicity allows us as the audience to discern weather the overarching message advocating against racial profiling appears to be controversial or not due to the use of children to illustrate the negative connotations attached to individuals of South American decent. However it can be assumed by the caption suggesting that one’s “…skin colour shouldn’t dictate your future” softens the confronting symbolism of the child clothing by illuminating the reality of societal prejudices, forcing the audience to evaluate their perceptions of this specific ethnic group in a common workplace or educational environment.

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