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” 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.