(T)Race. Skin color, a bodily inscription of slavery

By Jean-Luc Bonniol


Skin color (in this case “black” skin) and the phenotypic traits associated with it—physical characteristics that are genetically transmitted—have served to support the memory of servitude in societies marked by colonial slavery. This trace, printed on both the bodies of those who were dominated and their descendants, played a significant role in the invention of the colonial conception of race: ideas and practices were imposed in the “old colonies” by clinging on to this imprint, thus surviving the period of slavery in which they originated, and spreading therefrom to their contemporary avatars. Given the possible erasure of the trace in mixed-race individuals, a racial obsession emerged, focused on identifying distinctions that the eye can no longer see. This attention to the trace continued after the abolition of the slavery, when it acquired a new symbolic dimension: whereas it was initially seen as something imposed on individuals, it is now largely permeated by self-affirmation, as illustrated by the “reversal of stigma” that emerged early in the twentieth century. This turnaround was further reinforced at the beginning of the twenty-first century, with the advent of a new paradigm: DNA.


  • Race
  • Trace
  • Slavery
  • Colour
  • DNA
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