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 / / /

Republish With License
  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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”.

  • 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?