“People of Color” as a Phrase :: Helpful or Not?

I first mulled over the phrase, “people of color” in 2005 when I was beginning undergraduate college.

This phrase is a current politically correct attempt at succinctly encapsulating the breadth of non-white groups. While some whites have come to find the term problematic because it appears to tacitly suggest whites do not have culture or skin tone [wait-I have a color too!], I do not think this is much of an issue.

The issue is deeper; it’s about the complexity of human culture. I have pulled together five reasons we can find new ways to speak more articulately and-dare I say-freely on these complexities. 

My goal is not to erase the phrase, but to give some nuanced thought on the subject and offer some alternatives that may be helpful. Oh-and it should be noted that I speak from the American context, and this will be evident throughout.

diverse
thanks, Shutterstock [art cred]
1. People of color encapsulates far too many unique human experiences to be a useful phrase. 

Not long ago I attended a conference, and during one of the breakout sessions a woman I know stood up at a conference and begin saying something with the disclaimer, “as a woman of color, I notice that…” She went on to make a great observation on something or other. Now, a word about the woman and her various intersectionalities. She is married, very educated, and quite stable in every external category. And yet, with the phrase people of color, she categorically rolls herself in with African Americans and Latinos.

Did I mention she’s Chinese?

I cannot speak with too much precision on how someone from a background that is significantly more disadvantaged than this particular woman might respond. But it is categorically odd to roll together people groups as diverse as Chinese, Latino, and African American.

In no way was the woman politically incorrect to speak as she did. And I am quite sure she has experienced various forms of exclusion and marginalization, both as a woman and as someone of Chinese descent. But I question how helpful it is to continue using this phrase that is currently in vogue-and so terribly convenient [like on Twitter, where POC is the abbreviation]. People of color is a current attempt to remain politically correct as a society, and respectful of people groups. I grasp the overarching goal, but if deep unity is our agreed [albeit challenging] goal, I am convinced we need something different.

People of color is marginally helpful in its attempt at drawing together people who are marginalized. The goal of being honest about marginalization is excellent! However, I conclude there are better ways to achieve that goal. Assessing intersectionality along with one’s felt position within culture are the more precise and helpful tools for assessing marginalization.

How does a white muslim’s experience the world? Where does a wealthy self-made Korean woman experience exclusion? How does an poorly educated white man from a poor family experience life in 2017? These questions take us on a journey that moves us closer to the root of why and how we feel separated from one another, for they integrate factors that include yet go deeper than one’s phenotype.

Race, class, and gender are the classic sociological lenses, but there are so many more.

2. People of color sounds eerily similar of its etymological predecessor: colored people.

It is incredibly disrespectful to refer to someone as “colored.” We have, as a society, rightly judged this language to be not only arcane but offensive. But our replacement term is, in my view, a stopgap measure on the journey toward greater progress. 

One big pushback to questioning the term is how embedded it is within our language and within culture. Yes, the phrase is popular. It’s quite useful a lot of the time. But that does not mean it’s the best or most uniting phrase for speaking on race.

Interestingly, institutions like the NAACP have preserved the phrase in their title, certainly not because they embrace an attitude of exclusion [this is what they fight against!] but simply because the en-double-a-cee-pee has a familiarity within the American consciousness.

I am not the first to notice the strangeness of the progression from colored people to minorities to people of color. Other observers have seen the same pattern and support people of color as a helpful phrase. And while some seem to resonate deeply with my viewpoint, others are ambivalent. The biggest pushback tends to come not from whites who find the term easy or helpful, but from blacks and Latinos.

And I suppose that’s why I’ve taken time to reflect on the subject and make my case from the white cultural standpoint.

3. People of color places an unnecessary dividing wall between whites and non-whites while propagating a subtle myth of whiteness as superior.

This is where my white perspective and experience speaks directly into the narrative. To insist on using people of color essentially draws a massive line down the center of human relationships, and separates anyone who appears to have primarily European ancestry from every other ethnic group.

I have observed the phrase people of color essentially split a room of people. I have felt it myself! It falsely rolls together disparate ethnic groups and separates them from the general amalgam of white folks. While making white people into one large, monolithic entity, it forces together various ethnicities with essentially no commonalities apart from non-whiteness.

This leads to a subtle Euro-centrism that has unfortunately permeated everything from international politics to colorism, especially within communities of African descent [essentially, the lighter the better]. If white features are seen as preferable, our system is flawed-and people suffer on account of it.

And this leads to the next point.

4. Just like any other ethnic group, not all whites share a similar cultural experience. 

People of color could theoretically be helpful in a context where the population consists of a large white majority and a few pockets of Latinos, Asians, and folks from African descent, but I would suggest that it is becoming increasingly unhelpful if our goal is an integrated society where culture is treasured and differences are appreciated.

Consider a case example.

There is a significant Russian and Eastern European presence in my little corner of Silicon Valley. Plenty of times I have shown up to a playground where I am the only native English speaker, but I share a common skin tone with a pretty decent percentage of fellow tired toddler-chasing parents. There are Asians, Latinos, then… Russians. Or Latvians. Or Belarusians.

This is another situation where people of color, as a phrase, falls flat.

I have very little cultural commonality with a Russian or Latvian, apart from one paternal grandparent who emigrated from Slovenia. Because of a great uncle, I know a couple Slovenian words.

Oh-and I have a similar skin tone.

But that’s it.

Whites tend not to enjoy being rolled together with every other person who looks similar any more than minority groups that are rolled together with other people groups who don’t even look similar.

So think about this: we wouldn’t call a Russian a person of color. And yet, they are indeed linguistically and culturally a minority.

There is a great deal of diversity within the world that lacks melanin. In my own American context, there are WASPs with a massive cultural and economic inheritance from generations; there are poor, under-educated whites who trace their heritage to less-privileged forbears; there are the white persons who are entirely new to the United States, who have strong accents from places as diverse as Paraguay, Russia, France, Argentina, Georgia.

5. There are more accurate and honest ways to communicate one’s identity 

Might it be easier to just get specific?

Hispanic/Latino…

African descent/West African/African American/black…

Italian/Southern European…

Anglo/European descent/white…

Filipino/Korean/Chinese…

Indian/East Asian/Pakistani…

I do not believe it is so difficult to simply get specific. As a culture, our world is primed to embrace differences; in no way should we make it a goal to somehow become colorblind or indifferent to our differences. It is quite the opposite, really-why gloss over the very differences that make our world so fascinating to inhabit? 

Rolling together the experiences of such diverse groups as Asian, African/African American, Latino [and others!] into one simple catch phrase is just…

…lazy.

6. [Bonus!] As a Christian…

I am reminded of a soaring portion of Christian Scripture [Revelation 7:9-10] that speaks on the eternality of cultural differences. Christians anticipate an eternal future that celebrates and includes all peoples:

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying,

“Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” 

 

Christians have no excuse for glossing over cultural differences, for in this text we discover that the new creation God is ushering us into includes all the differences we experience right now! Nor do we who are white and following Jesus have an excuse to secretly prefer sameness to the intricacies of diversity. Instead, we have the great joy of coming together, from every nation/tribe/people/language to extend the kingdom of God.

Whatever our cultural background or color, our eternal future as God’s people includes it.   

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6 thoughts on ““People of Color” as a Phrase :: Helpful or Not?

  1. I think it depends on context. As you pointed out, “people of color” is often a very useful descriptor when comparing the privileged position whites find themselves in in most places in America as opposed to that of non-whites, i.e. people of color. 🙂

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    1. Yes, super useful for sure! I took the time to reflect on this because I think we have better ways of having the same important conversation on privilege. It’s better, I think, to see privilege in a larger way. Whiteness certainly is a privilege in America-a big one. So is maleness. So is education. So is wealth. And, not to speak on their behalf, but a great many non-whites have concerns with the phrase as well. I just wanted to add my perspective to the mix. Feel free to check out the links to other writers I included in the blog!

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  2. Ben, I agree with your main point: The phrase “people of color” is inappropriate in some contexts. I was simply pointing out that it can be useful when discussing white privilege or white-dominated fields. For example, I was recently at a forum where an Asian-American woman and African-American man were discussing the relative absence of people of color in missions.
    Keep up the good work.

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    1. Absolutely! Yeah, it is a convenient term for sure. I do think there are alternatives, nearly 100% of the time, that function to communicate more clearly and with less divisiveness. Thanks for chipping in!

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  3. I’m glad you’re thinking through these things, Ben, and think you’ve brought up some good things to think about. As long as “people of color” is a phrase that many use to self-identify I will continue to use it as the most helpful term we have now. No doubt as times change so will our language. I’d encourage you to think about the ways that using the term “people of color” doesn’t so much divide us as it points out and make explicit the divisions that already exist in our society. While your Russian playground mates may be very culturally different from you, their kids and your kids will largely be treated the same by the world when it comes to all the aspects where skin tone actually matters in our society. Once theses kids speak English they will blend into the dominant white privilege in a way that kids with black or brown skin never will.

    There are often times when more precision and intersectionality are the best options, but if I Chinese woman finds it useful to identify herself as a woman of color I hope you can remain curious about what in our society makes this feel like a helpful category for her. Discrimination and oppression by skin tone is a sin as old as our country and will continue to be a complex topic for us all to wrestle with!

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    1. Awesome pushback, Sarah, thanks!

      I am definitely all for the curiosity/wonder/interested-ness in others, and hopefully this post reveals that to be the case, and I think this is the driving force behind connecting disparate people groups.

      Now, a little pushback. I wanted to write this for the sake of adding an Anglo / European-American / white perspective on the phrase. Yes, things evolve, and I think it would be good to evolve when it comes to this particular phrase. Here’s some feedback I received on Facebook. Elena has a Mexican dad and a German mom:

      “Sorry for my awkwardly late comment but I saw this a few days ago and wanted to weigh in when I had time! I personally hate the phrase and agree with many of the points you made about it. I agree that it encapsulates many dissimilar groups and strips those groups of their identity outside of being “non-white”. I think it also helps popularize the assumption that all minorities or “people of color” are somehow disenfranchised (which is a greater belief that I also take issue with but that’s for a different comment thread) and implies that no white people are. The term is also extremely problematic as the US becomes more and more diverse with fewer people representing 100% or even 50% of a single ethnicity. I am considered a person of color because my expressed phenotype happens to more closely resemble my dark skinned Mexican father than my blue eyed, fair skinned German mother. Genetically I am exactly as Mexican as I am Western (and eastern) European. “Person of color” completely eliminates my mother’s side of the family as part of my identity. Additionally, despite being Hispanic, I do not come from a disadvantaged background and do not face regular discrimination. I am not a rare case, more and more multi-racial couples are producing ethnically ambiguous families and “people of color” does not do justice to the unique cultural and ethnic backgrounds that shape them. “People of color” still forces people into two categories, white and dark. The US is rapidly becoming shades of gray so I agree with you on getting specific. I am perfectly happy to tell people my ethnic background when they ask and don’t mind checking two boxes on forms. Let’s allow people their unique identities rather than lumping them into a group to which many of them do not truly belong.”

      I also provided some links to writers with varying opinions on the subject, including a woman of African descent who very strongly rejects the term. Anyway, I do agree that the term can help us see the already-existing divisions. But as I weigh out the good and the bad, I personally conclude that the term is unhelpful and provided some alternatives that allow plenty of room for the important discussions of privilege, positionality, intersectionality, and class [along with plenty of other demographics].

      Hopefully this furthers the discussion! No condemnation or judgment on those who find the term helpful, but I wanted to provide a perspective!

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