Anthropology / Everything Human

Is the Term “People of Color” Acceptable in This Day and Age?

Is the Term “People of Color” Acceptable in This Day and Age?

One day a student approached me after class and asked, “What should I call students who are of Asian descent? Is it OK to just say Asian, or should I say what group they belong to?” He continued, “What if I make a mistake and call a Chinese student Japanese? I don’t want to appear racist.”

On the campus where I teach, as well as in community organizations that I belong to, people often approach me with such questions.

In most cases, the questions are posed by white people wondering what they should call African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Pacific islanders, and others. They are generally sensitive to not wanting to be offensive and genuinely want to know what people prefer to be called. The response I usually give is, “Just ask them.” If done in a respectful way, it is usually fine. Racial terminology is daunting even to those of us who research and write about it.

I am old enough to remember when blacks were called “colored,” especially in the South, roughly from the 19th century to the middle of the 20th. I also remember the use of the word “Negro,” which, for older black folks such as my mother, who grew up in Louisiana, was certainly an improvement over the “N-word.” And I well recall the 1970s when the Black Power movement was in its heyday and the slogan “Black is beautiful” came into popular use, at least among the younger generation of black student activists and scholars. The word “African-American” became common in the 1980s, and today we hear the term “people of color” being used.

Who exactly does the term “people of color” refer to? Is it a throwback to the word “colored,” and is it used solely to describe African-Americans?

people of color

Do race-based terms such as “people of color” help or hinder our relationships? U.S. Agency for International Development/Flickr

People of color” is a term primarily used in the United States and Canada to describe any person who is not white. It does not solely refer to African-Americans; rather, it encompasses all non-white groups and emphasizes the common experiences of systemic racism, which is an important point I discuss in more detail below.

Where does it come from? The Oxford English Dictionary says that it derived from a term used in the French colonial era in the Caribbean and in La Louisianne in North America. It traditionally referred to gens de couleur libres, or people of mixed African and European ancestry who were freed from slavery or born into freedom. In the late 20th century, the term “person of color” was adopted as a preferable replacement to “non-white.” Unfortunately, the contrast pits all people who have a “color” against people who do not have a color or who possess “whiteness.” However, the word “minority” has also come to have a negative meaning attached to it, especially in places like California, Texas, New York City, and Florida where people of color are not a numerical minority anymore.

So in the United States in 2016 our language still reflects the continuing racialization hierarchy—with white at the top. The use of “people of color” may be less offensive to some than, say, specifying one’s country of origin (Mexican-American, African-American, and so on). Some people that I have asked say they prefer the use of country-of-origin terms because they provide a connection between one’s ancestral country and where they live now. So a question from me is, if we replaced “white” with “European-American” or “Iranian-American,” for example, could we then do away with the word “white” as well?

Getting back to the issue at hand, the term “people of color” may have an important role precisely because it includes a vast array of different racial or ethnic groups. These groups have the potential to form solidarities with each other for collective political and social action on behalf of many disenfranchised or marginalized people. This terminology is useful in social justice, and in civil rights and human rights contexts. For example, in relationship to the current Black Lives Matter movement here in the United States, many students-of-color groups on university and college campuses support the movement’s efforts.

How widely accepted is the use of the term “people of color” in everyday language? In an NPR blog post titled “The Journey From ‘Colored’ to ‘Minorities’ to ‘People of Color,’” author Kee Malesky discusses the evolution of these terms and observes that “people of color” has gone mainstream. This term may have originated in political circles or social justice arenas, but it has spread to academia and is being accepted in academic writing and in speech.

But it is important to recognize that while “people of color” reaffirms non-whiteness, many people don’t like the term because they feel “it lumps all of us together.” Those who are white or Caucasian (“Caucasian” is itself a problematic word—which I will discuss in an upcoming blog post) are still the standard by which all others are labeled, at least for now.

At this cultural moment in the U.S., we still live in a racialized social and cultural hierarchy, and our language continues to reflect our ongoing attempts to grapple with that reality.

Language / / /

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  • slgardiner

    Any term of reference dealing with classification by race in the United States is going to be contested and contentious–for good reasons. This does have the affect of making some people reluctant to speak at all for fear of giving offense. This is not necessarily a bad thing! As any mode of race-reference moves from origins in social justice or anti-racism work or specialist usage into the mainstream, becoming freighted with connotations and implications, objections will arise and the search for alternatives will continue.

  • Jeff Boyer

    I’m concerned about the blasé-ness with which the author refers to people other than “people of color.” I am not white, nor does my skin evince an absence of color. How do I know? I carried a piece of paper from my printer into my bathroom, held if next to my face, and examined myself in the mirror. Nope. Not white. I have also compared my skin color to shades of white in the Munsell color charts. Nope. Not white.
    We are ALL people of color. My skin might be “melanin challenged,” as a Latino colleague tells me jokingly, but I am not colorless. No one, not even albino people, are colorless.
    In our post-modern rush to anthropological activism, we have dropped observation in favor of critique. What we have not done is realize that in so doing we encourage the long-standing, Western socio-cultural pattern of privileging skin color as a crucial individual and group identifier. Now, however, anthropologists work hard to privilege color over “non-color,” perhaps in some misguided notion that doing so rights the wrong of privileging non-color over color. What a shame.

    • DookerT

      Eloquently said. I’ve thought the same thing many times.

    • mintap

      I’m sure the author meant the term encompasses all non-albino groups.

    • Walton

      I like that… “We are ALL people of color.” Never truer.

  • Susan Moylett

    I was an Irish student on a J1 visa (working student visa) in California, in the 1970’s, When applying for a summer job, I was baffled by the question ‘race’ on the application form. i was told to put Caucasian, a term i’d never heard before. On discovering it meant from the Caucuses, and not being sure where that even was at the time, i opted for Celtic, and felt even that was nonsense. I don’t know if that question is still posed?

  • aka darrell

    “People of Color” has too many syllables. I’ve no alternative suggestion. In it’s day and for it’s purpose ”black” was crisp, understandable, useful and sounded natural. “People of Color” sounds contrived and nervously bureaucratic. Find something else if you must use something.

    • PLandH

      I like the term for now. Yes it has a little too many syllables, but it’s a non-offensive term that you can use that whites and POC can understand. It unites all people who are not white (Asian-American, Black, Latino, Native American, etc) ; we share experience and struggles. Use the term as a tool to unite people and drum up political power.

  • DookerT

    It is a regressive and divisive word. It should be completely discarded. We don’t live a in a radicalized society with whites at the top. The US is majority white. Numerical numbers account for a tremendous amount of phenomenon that others would like to portray as racism. The complaints about bandaids as supposedly showing racism comes to mind. In China, a German-American will never be accepted as Chinese, ever. It is the same in Japan, Korea, and most of the countries around the globe. Only in North America is this concept foreign. Anyone can become American, and in the 21st century, just because people are tribal and notice difference, doesn’t make them racist or at the top of a hierarchy. America is the most tolerant country in the world compared to all the rest. It is the only experiment of its kind, yet all we hear are how awful and racist it is, and its all “white” peoples fault. White people are not a monolith, and pitting all of one supposed group against the entire world is regressive and poisonous. People are individuals, not collectives. There are certain things that are just part of human nature, and aren’t part of these imaginary constructs of “whiteness” and “racilaizing”.

    • Samantha63

      Completely agree, completely accurate.

    • We very much live in a racialized–and gendered–society with white men at the top.

      The evidence is everywhere: income, assumptions about criminality and the attendant differences in arrents, charges, convictions, and sentences

      And the huge amount of denial from ‘white’ people about all the evidence.

  • Neighbor

    What about people who pass as white but aren’t? Shouldn’t we ask everyone how they want to be racially categorized? Maybe we should all carry nametags that pre-familiarize others with our preferred gender and preferred racial category so we don’t end up being traumatized on a daily basis.

  • Robert Kantor

    Is Marco Rubio a person of color? How about Ted Cruz? If you have one Hispanic grandparent, are you still a person of color? If you have one black great grandparent and look white, are you a person of color? Why does the one-drop rule still apply in the US? The term “person of color” is of course a political, not a scientific, term and is designed to balkanize the country into voting blocs which serve the interests of one political party.

  • Jessica Needs

    How does the scientist or organizations able category us for research purpose or survey if we don’t want consider us as people of color?

  • Walton

    What color? People are people. I believe there will NEVER be a racial middle ground that can be agreed by everyone. Im sure there is more to it, but I believe color profiling is subjective, and directly tied to culture and upbringing. Identity keeps changing depending on who is currently OFFENDED or FEELS they should be, or DESERVE to be, better or more exclusively defined. Those that do, segregate themselves racially. Let me repeat that. Those that do, segregate themselves racially. Let that sink in.

    Nobody’s race is exclusive and nobody is special. WE are all unique in our own ways, so why all the labeling? Because people desire uniqueness. Old oppression seeks entitlement or restitution. From all my research, (and maybe I didn’t dig deep enough) but when it came to equality, the more equality was acknowledged, the more the previously oppressed segregated themselves. I understand the importance of movements, but once there is momentum towards equality, the more those who advocated for equality, the more they segregated themselves in some form of exclusive means to gain acknowledgment of their newly defined race card. I just don’t get it. I was under the impression that equal is equal, not better or less than, but equal in every sense. I.e; Blacks equal to whites. Women equal to men. However, the more equality, the greater the identity gap. Negro, Colored, Black, African-American, People of Color (note the early skipping of the infamous N-word). Lets get more exclusive… Black lives matter. What? As opposed to everybody else’s doesn’t? Again, I understand the movement, and yes black lives do matter, but so does the life of other non-black victims of violence. So, should everyone segregate by ethnicity and march too? Innocent lives matter.

    Im not implying that racial bigotry and racism were not a problem in the past or that it doesn’t exist today, because unfortunately, it still does. But you can give special thanks to culture, upbringing and general ignorance. Thank segregation to self-infliction by those who seek exclusiveness, racial identity or race-specific solidarity. (and yes, this includes white supremacy)

    When it comes to skin color, accept that you are unique, but understand that there is nothing about your skin color that makes you special, or entitled. Especially since, as a human species, skin color is contributed by only a few select genes. As the dominate species, I think we need to forget color and take lessons and learn from other species. Because it really seems that THEY figured out how to live in harmony.

    Nearing 50 years old now, I’ve experienced my fair share of negative effects of racism. Especially growing up. But I refuse to let racists or racism define me. BTW, I’ve also experienced 25 wonderful years in a mixed/interracial marriage with mixed offspring.

    Wait… can I say “mixed”?

  • John McVirgo

    “Unfortunately, the contrast pits all people who have a “color” against people who do not have a color or who possess “whiteness.”

    I find this statement racially offensive because you’re implying that “White” people don’t have a colour: really? White people have a range of skin tones from very light tanned browns to yellows, pinks, reds and… white. Yes, porcelain white which is still a colour. Secondly, a person’s colour is composed of their hair and eye colours making White people a very colourful bunch of people: redheads/gingers, blondes, brunettes etc!

    As Jeff Boyer below points out, we’re all “people of colour” and so if you want to exclude certain colours, then do it like this: “people of brown skin colour”, “people of red hair colour”, “people of blonde hair, blue eyes, golden tanned skin colour”.

  • thefermiparadox

    Good post. I have always thought like you said when we lump all non-white people together we as a society are saying white is the standard. Systematic racism exists does exist and we have to have a way to talk about it. Most my friends that are not white prefer country of origin + American and Black over African American.

    Interesting fact that doesn’t directly relate: 85% (give or take a few percentages) of human history we did not see phenotype variation we call Europeans, Asians, Eurasians and Native Americans (North to South). Human history was just Africans until pretty recently when we left the Motherland. I mean we, Homo Sapiens.

  • Bayano Valy

    i really wonder why non-whites signed up for this term. like someone pointed out, it places the whites on the top of the human chain in juxtaposition to others. the term should just be banished one and for all

  • Samantha63

    Nonsense article and an example of what a mess we are in this country both on campus and off campus. The questions you posed are fear-based questions, and fear is a prelude to silence and hiding and disenfranchisement and resentment and eventually after incubating, gives birth to violence. Decades ago the nation seemed to unconsciously ask black people to be somehow less black and abide by hundreds of cultural rules. This didn’t work. It didn’t make black people happy, or assimilated, or respected, or successful. Only when they determined who they were and had unlimited freedom to travel, speak, write, create, assemble, sing, pray, etc did they come into their own.

    Now, we are asking “white” people (and white hispanics and anyone else you target as white for your own purposes) to be less white and not to have an identity or a culture or a religion or a sport or sometimes even a family. We tell them to not speak, not sing, not draw, not write, not gather, not teach, not vote, not do anything if they can at all help it,.. and if they must exist, then their every breathe should be pre-approved by the reigning maniacal progressive elite. They must not only be ashamed and remorseful, but actively think about how to be an “ally” to complete strangers.

    You have students coming up to you asking you how to speak to others and fearfully asking “what if I make a mistake?” Instead of recognizing that this is fear, not compassion, that this is compulsory not voluntary, that this is a reaction to control and oppression from the cultural elite and not empowerment, you instead perpetuate it. That student waits for your response, and hopes for a response he never will ever, ever receive from you. The response he hopes for is this:

    “You’re not making a mistake, and don’t feel like you are a mistake, either. You’re not alone and everyone is grappling with these same questions and don’t worry. Just as you are compassionate with others and would not jump down on someone if they used a wrong word or phrase and not judge a book by it’s cover, you should expect the same from others, and if others cannot give you that then that is their problem not yours. As long as your heart is in the right place, that’s what matters. You can’t please everyone, and if you continue on this path of worrying about taking a wrong step every second of the day then you will not move forward at all. Don’t be afraid, because fear will never help you, and if others encourage you to be fearful then they are neither your allies nor your friends.”

    He didn’t get that response from you. Instead he got a cultural cue that basically said “good luck, and don’t expect me to have your back.” You didn’t have a solution for him, you told him to “ask” each person how they would like to be called. You put all the power in the hands of the other person and none for him. Imagine if you were a marriage counselor, and the wife came to you saying she’s having difficulty in the marriage because it seems that everything she cooks her husband doesn’t like or she makes the wrong dish on the wrong day, and when she does the laundry she forgets what day he wants extra starch in his shirts and which day he doesn’t and she doesn’t want to get yelled at. She comes to you and asks, how do I know what he likes and what to do? Instead of you telling her not to sweat the small stuff and trust in the relationship and to expect mutual respect in the relationship, …you tell her, ” Well, you know you can just ASK him, that way you won’t make a mistake.” The truth is, not only is that destructive, but it’s also impermanent because his desires and opinions will inevitably change without warning. Next week, he could decide gluten is evil and how dare she put bread on the table on Friday!

    It’s also no surprise that parallel, non-racial problems are running alongside this…..because once a template works, it’s replicated. So, not only is your student struggling with what label to use for an asian person, he/she is also struggling with what pronoun to use for that person. Will he be yelled at, expelled, ostracized, criticized, bullied on twitter, hit in the face, arrested, sued, or just laughed at? Any or all could apply. Or, unexpectedly, nothing might happen but he wonders about next time.

    The truth is, the world is much more complex and interconnected than black and white. But being human beings, it’s difficult to focus in on something narrowly and keep perspective at the same time. And there is no power or profit in keeping things in perspective and seeing all sides in something and having a full grasp of an idea or a people or a nation or a religion or a culture. No, the power exists only when distilling down to a very narrow idea or emotion, and labeling everything, and assigning a narrative to it, and creating groups and moving people into your group and other people out of your group (to later) be ostracized and eliminated. This is how all movements, dictators, religious authorities, came to power over the centuries, all around the world, it’s nothing new.

  • richardmullins

    “Person of color” is an absurdly racist term. It is reminiscent of the classification “Coloured” in South African apartheid.

  • fred lapides

    Old guy here. In 1947-48 I was sent to Ft Lee, Va, for further army training. Had weekend pass and took bus to go into Richmond. I sat in back of the bus. Driver said “Upfront. The back is for “colored.” though only 18, gut kicked in and I said, You can not tell me where to sit. I am on a military base. Driver said nothing, drove on. Outside the gate to the base, he stopped and said: “Upfront or off. You are in Virginia now.” I moved…now, all these years later we ask: is people of color ok when back then they said Colored.
    the problem with those terms? There is the very important White world (sarcasm) and then there is everything else, ie, not white, ie, colored

  • FriendlessLiberal

    This was very informative. Thank you.

  • dmoerman

    Turns out this old white guy is, grandparently speaking, an English.Dutch.Swiss.German ?dude?? Is that helpful?

  • Magna

    Well, the article is necessary. If you think about the term thoroughly, you will figure out that the term implies that white as the standard. Meaning, if you see someone using that term in a writing or speaking to someone, they have an assumption that their audience understands that they are referring to everyone else but white people. Get it? That’s why this article is needed.

  • Oliver Podolski

    To be honest the only time I ever think about another person’s race is when they explicitly make it something I must think about. Usually I don’t care and think of everyone who is legally here an American without any racial qualifiers, as much as Cuck Schumer and Nancy “My last period was the Cretaceous” Pelosi don’t seem like it.

  • Oliver Podolski

    The Democratic Party, and people in general, get a lot of rewards from playing the victim. Some people do this intentionally, others genuinely believe that they’re months away from being gassed. We already have some of the laxest borders in the Western world and our companies have minority quotas. You can’t say that there’s a conspiracy of one race to put down another, if there’s any conspiracy it’s more a conspiracy of plutocrats vs everyone else.
    As far as the race category is concerned, it’s (in most places) entirely optional.

    • Playing victim is something that is much more common from ‘white’ people on the right, while they point at people who are actually victimized or are pointing it out.

  • Alexia Cohen

    Thank you for this concise article. I am writing a chapter of my thesis and something that has come up in my research about women who participate in the outdoors is that women of color or from minority groups are very few, and I want to address this through my work. I wanted to make sure I was using a term that was acceptable to describe the group, and even though I don’t like to lump the groups together, the term is useful to describe my investigation.

  • Jacki Day

    When I was a little girl growing up in colonial Kenya the Africans were considered lesser beings by the mighty British. As I was only a kid I hadn’t learnt yet what the difference was.

    One day I escaped the eagle eye of my mum and went and played with the little girl down the road. I remember I really liked her and we played well together. Mum came looking for me and was horrified when she found me playing with an African girl. She told me I was NEVER to escape again and NEVER to play with that girl again. I had no idea what got her so upset because I actually, in my young eyes, didn’t even see the colour of her skin. I just was having fun with a new friend. I think about her sometimes and wonder if she remembers me.

  • Stevie Barry

    I hate the term for a number of reasons, not least because it somehow manages to sound both racist and overly PC at the same time. Also, as a mixed-race person who has a lighter olive complexion, I don’t have a great deal of “color”, and yeah, it does sound like it lumps us all together. We are not an amorphous, indistinguishable mass.

    And honestly, the term “white” itself is something of a misnomer, as people from Italy and Spain can have olive complexions, too. Calling them European Americans is a lot more accurate. Given the ever-growing number of mixed-race people in America, it’s time we stopped focusing on skin tone and started just respecting someone’s culture and ancestry.

  • fred lapides

    I have just witnessed a bad crime. The police ask me to describe the perp. Do I simply say He is a person or, more helpful, he is White, male, about 5%7inches and around middle age?

  • turnipcake

    Who are the “people of color”and who is white? How can color be such a defining characteristic, since within some cultures, there are people of a variety of colors? Are pale East Asians in the same category as African Americans? What is the point of assigning people to two categories?