should we use the term “people of color”?

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I recently wrote a post about political correctness. In that post, I discuss how a conversation with my friend caused me to reexamine political correctness and then motivated me to share the conversation surrounding it with all of you! I also mentioned that in this conversation, my friend and I discussed what it meant to be a “woman of color”. I looked it up (as one does during a friendly political discussion) and found more than I was looking for, in the best way possible. And so began my deep dive into articles about what it means to be a “woman of color” and is it inclusive or should we use alternatives. This is a topic that a lot of people think they know about, but maybe don’t know the entire story. And because of that, they don’t know the reasons behind a lot of discontent or support of the phrase, “people of color”. A lot of the issues within this larger conversation arise because rather than try to understand the roots of the phrase or the reasons for discontent, people just want to know – what word do I use. Someone might know that the phrase “African-American” isn’t always the best to use, but they don’t take the time to understand why or why people feel that way. So, in this post, I am going to discuss a lot of things, but primarily the roots of this discussion and where we are now. As always, I have included all my sources and suggestions for further reading at the end of the post. Something I did a little differently in this post, is that I included a lot of direct quotes from articles and individuals because I thought they were too compelling to paraphrase and the strongest as they were. 

 


preface and my background. I am an Indian-American, straight, upper-middle-class, east-coast, daughter, of a single mother, daughter of immigrants. Do what you want with that information, but I want to be completely transparent about where I am entering this conversation from, and what experiences I am entering it with. Yes, I have my biases. Yes, I have a lot of privilege. Yes, this is a very Western/American topic (although it is relevant around the world, a lot of my information surrounds the US). However, I always do my best to give a holistic view of the topic. I will clarify when I am speaking from a place of opinion and when I am writing about others or facts. I encourage you to challenge me on anything I say that may be incorrect or lacking information because I’m a human being and I can’t give a perfect look into everything. That being said, I encourage you to read the articles and opinion pieces below, that I not only included throughout this post as guides but referenced when deciding what to write. 

overview of the conversation. Unlike my political correctness post, I will not be giving two sides of one “argument”. This is mainly due to the research I did and the fact that not may articles have lighted a reason to keep the term “people of color”. So please keep that in mind as you read, that I will be writing about why people, particularly within the BLM movement, want to retire the term and the history of it. The terms “women of color” and “people of color” are now being reexamined in a larger historical, social, and political context. It’s not necessarily a conversation about whether or not “people of color” is a politically correct term. There are a lot of debates about whether or not people use that term accurately, in terms of exactly who they are talking about, and whether there is a better word out there. For example, saying women of color to describe a group of black women versus just saying, Black women. However, there are also a lot of other questions, like how do Asian people or Latinx people fit into this? What do we use instead? How do we stay “united” or “show solidarity” instead? Does this relate to terms like “diversity” or “African American” (when used as a cushioned default for a black person)? 

origins of “people of color” as a phrase. This phrase originated in the 18th century, was first used by the french for “mixed-race colonial subjects” and has led to several other names for non-white or multiracial identities, for example, South African Apartheid’s usage. This article gives a very in-depth look at how language has changed, from “colored” to “minorities” to “people of color”. At a national women’s conference in 1977, “women of color” was negotiated as a “solidarity definition” rather than a biological one. In activist history, the phrase has been used to identify a group of people, united against those in power, which meant white men. The activist/feminist, Loretta Ross, that spoke at the conference said that the words in their origins were “a solidarity definition, a commitment to work in collaboration with other oppressed women of color who have been minoritized.”

the development of “people of color” as a phrase. Ross continued to say that over time, that phrase has been “flattened” and has lost its original political meaning. She said, “Unfortunately, so many times people of color hear the term ‘people of color’ from other white people that they think white people created it…..instead of understanding that we self-made ourselves. This is a term that has a lot of power for us. But we’ve done a poor-ass job of communicating that history so that people understand that power.” A lot of this flattening happens, not because people want to harm, but because they have a fear of being seen as “racist” or want to show that they are “not racist”. This has a lot to do with political correctness debates, but we will get to that later. 

origins of the conversation. A lot of activists are starting to declare that “people of color” no longer works, due to the changing power of language, the changing goals of organizing, and changing political and social issues. During the past few years, with the emergence of BLM, BLM activists say that the term isn’t always accurate anymore. They say that as all non-white Americans are grouped, there is a lacking focus on the fact that oppression is experienced differently by different groups, and more importantly, oppression and injustice are seen disproportionately. Moreover, they feel that it “erases black people” and black history. 

confusions and misconceptions surrounding the conversation. A lot of people think that this means language and activism needs to focus on Black people because this debate arose in light of the Black Lives Matter movement. However, that could not be further from the truth. I think (notice I have switched over to using “I”) that this, misplaced fear and misinterpretations, is also why things like “All Lives Matter” start. People either don’t understand what it means or don’t take the time to research and think critically about it. Sometimes, they just aren’t even aware of it because changing one’s language can be seen as an attack or offensive. Scholars and activists have said that everyone deserves representation, but by grouping everyone, you can overlook what makes each group different, and overlook parts of history, specific to one group, that deserve attention. For example, not focussing on the police violence that black Americans face disproportionately because it does not affect all non-white Americans. To wrap it up, it is not enough or productive to view all minorities’ histories and problems as the same or to see their oppression or treatment as the same. 

what about solidarity? No one is saying that the solidarity that “people of color” implies and was built on isn’t important. Unity and interracial and ethnic solidarity are some of the strongest things we have. And there are a lot of intersections between different groups’ struggles and histories. However, what activists say needs to be done is an acknowledgment of our differences and a commitment to understanding and fighting to “overcome the distinct layers of injustice that face people of different identities – and different layers within those identities.” (that is a direct quote from the LA Times

what does this have to do with feminism? A lot of the articles I read while preparing for this post centered around the issue of white feminism. Moreover, the tendency for feminist groups to claim to be “diverse” and encourage “women of color” to join, but then only focus on white lady issues or fail to grow to understand the things that plague black Americans, for example. The sexism that Black women face is not the same as sexism that Asian women face, as one example. Any sexism is bad, but grouping it all together can undercut one group’s history and homogenize all women. And this is if we just consider race and gender. There are so many other factors, which lead to why intersectionality matters. 

what does this have to do with intersectionality? Intersectionality is an analytical framework for understanding how aspects of a person’s social and political identities combine to create different modes of discrimination and privilege. (yes I got that off of google but I believe it encompasses a lot of different definitions in one phrase) It includes aspects of identity such as race, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, ethnicity, religion, etc. In one of the opinion pieces I read, the author says, very eloquently too, that “Intersectionality is not about building the biggest interracial team possible. It’s about catering to the individual needs of different communities to make sure no one is left behind.” (LA Times)

origins of “BIPOC”. BIPOC stands for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. Those who are challenging “people of color”, offer BIPOC as an alternative. The main reasoning is that it gives visibility to marginalized groups within the larger group of “people of color”. However, this term has its conversation. I want to keep this article focused on “people of color” but I do recommend reading this Vox article about the origins of BIPOC, the meaning, and the nuances of it. 

how does this relate to political correctness? I want to quickly mention this because I wrote a blogpost on political correctness recently, you can click here to read it, which inspired me to delve into this topic. A lot of people might reject some of the arguments I discussed in this post due to a large debate surrounding political correctness. People might be afraid of saying the wrong, politically incorrect thing and default to “people of color” or “African Americans”. I also think that reading both posts together might help you gain an even better understanding of both topics and conversations. 

what about other non-black minorities? I did want to address this question because it seems like a very standard response to the articles I read and this topic overall. For now, I’m going to give you this article as an “answer” because I think this topic requires a lot more critical thinking and research and I don’t want it to overshadow this post, even if it is a really important thing to discuss. 

 


I have been posting a lot of articles and content lately, mainly because I’ve been feeling inspired, and also the events going on in the world (let’s be real and say it’s mainly the United States) have been frustrating me. I also created a new topic page for posts dedicated to the topic language, like this one and this one. I would love feedback about how you are receiving this type of content and what you think overall! Furthermore, would love to just start discussions with you in the comments. I also have a contact page and email, or you can dm me on Instagram too! 

 

Resources:

Opinion – We are Black Women Stop Calling us Women of Color – Washington Post 

Feminism and Race: Just Who is A Woman of Color – NPR 

The Perils of “People of Color” – The New Yorker

Op-Ed – The term “people of color” erases black people. Let’s retire it

The meaning and significance of the term BIPOC – Vox

The Journey from ‘Colored’ to ‘Minorities’ to ‘People of Color’ – NPR

 

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