“People Of Color”: Racism, 21st Century Style

The term “person of color” has become widely used by those who advocate education about the world’s diversity, which I think is quite ironic. In the dictionary, “person of color” means, “a person who is not white or of European parentage,” and so-called diversity advocates have begun to use the term to refer to non-white characters in the media that non-white people, theoretically, can relate to. Yet the inherent problem with the term “people of color,” is that it refuses to recognize the cultural distinctions between different “minority” groups.

How can we group approximately 90% of the world’s population into one, monocultural umbrella term and assume that that is equivalent to giving the other 10% of the population a distinguishable group of their own? It’s simply not. Most of the world is not white, and most of the world is not European.

As Americans, we are only now slowly overcoming the black-white racial divide and fighting for justice for blacks, but for me and my non-white, non-black friends, the questions, “Do you speak English?” or “Can you pronounce this in Indian/Chinese/Arabic?” are still commonplace. In the book American Mixed-Race: The Culture of Microdiversity (Naomi Zack, 1995), Stephen Saris identifies two major racial divides in America: the black-white racial divide, and the white-everyone else one.

“First, there is the black–white kind, which is basically anti-black.” The second racial divide is the one “between whites and everyone else” with whites being “narrowly construed” and everyone else being called “people of color” (Saris).

Wikipedia, citing American Mixed-Race: The Culture of Microdiversity by Naomi Zack, 1995

Black lives matter, they do, and black people face challenges, especially in America, but as we overcome that hurdle, we come to the second type of racism Saris identifies. But as we do this, we put blacks in the same umbrella category as all other “minorities,” which we call, “persons of color.”

I don’t think we recognize that the black “person of color” experience is not the Indian-American “person of color” experience, which is not the Chinese-American “person of color” experience, which is not the Arab-American “person of color” experience. The difference between blacks and Indian-Americans or Chinese-Americans or Arab-Americans or Middle Eastern-Americans is that we all come from different cultures. The difference between us is not because of skin color, but persists mostly because of culture, and our lack of understanding of the different cultures present in the world. For me in particular, this comes in the form of people not recognizing that I am just as American as the next white person, regardless of how I was look, or whether I was born to immigrant parents.

When we use the umbrella term, “people of color,” that is just us trying to avoid recognizing the individual challenges of each group based on cultural stereotypes and common misconceptions. The fact simply is that each minority group experiences different “people of color” challenges, and a large part of the problem is our refusal to recognize that these experiences are indeed different. It’s not fair to group them all under one, homogeneous, general term. They’re just not equatable.

The term “people of color” generalizes the non-white, non-European experience, and applies it to every “minority” community in America. Do I have to fight against police brutality or for an education, like many of my African-American or black peers? No, I don’t. But every day I have to prove that I can speak English. I have to prove I don’t smell like curry. I have to prove that I love my english and history classes perhaps more than I’ll ever love math. And to assume that those two experiences can be grouped together under the same umbrella term is wrong. It’s not just “politically incorrect.” It devalues the challenges and defaces the identity of each non-white ethnicity. And ultimately, “people of color” adds, essentially, nothing to the fight for the recognition of diversity, except, perhaps, the notion that the world is half-white and half-everybody-else.

DISCLAIMER: I support people of all ethnicities, identities, and so-called “minorities.” As an Indian-American myself, I completely understand what it’s like to be stereotyped and/or have incorrect facts presented about you or your identity group. Please let me know if anything I have written is offensive to you and/or politically incorrect, whether in content or phrasing, and I will be more than happy to correct it. 

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12 responses to ““People Of Color”: Racism, 21st Century Style

  1. I was so caught up in the excitement over increased diversity that I didn’t really analyze the term people-of-color. Perhaps, as more people become aware of the fact that it’s not a good idea to generalize like this, more (hopefully less racist) terms will be created.

    (Btw “Indian” isn’t a language.. 🙂

    • Yeah neither did I at first! Something about the term was off-putting, but I just couldn’t put my finger on it. (Oh and I know Indian isn’t a language. Neither is Chinese, it has to be a specific language like Mandarin or Taiwanese. I just used them to show how unaware people are of other cultures.)

  2. I feel like terms about diversity are so tricky to get right. I constantly struggle to find the right words to say. Even the word “minority” has a negative connotation, and it isn’t always completely accurate. I think this discussion is so important, and it’s one that more people should be having. Great post!

    • Yeah, I think the problem is that we just assume that fixing one problem, like adding more black characters to our books, will solve the problem of diversity. What we fail to recognize, though, is that as an Indian-American teen who struggles to tell people that she’s American, I can’t identify with a black person’s struggle against police brutality. Each ethnicity or race faces its own stereotypes and that’s just why none of these general terms are ever going to fit right. Oh, and as for “minority,” I think the main problem with that term is that (1) it’s not considered PC anymore, and (2) it connotes that white people make up the majority of the world, when the opposite is in fact true. I’m glad this discussion is valuable to you, because I seriously think not enough people truly pay attention to the little details that may someday end up promoting a new breed of racism.

  3. This was an amazing, AMAZING post! Why do we group everyone under “persons of color?” Like they are all one group, facing the same things, thinking the same way. It doesn’t make sense anyway…white is a color…so we are all people of color! 🙂
    I think we shouldn’t be so quick to judge people by appearances. Take the time to get to know the person. Don’t assume they are a certain way because of their appearance or ethnicity. Sadly, this happens all the time. How many times are kids treated poorly because they aren’t “pretty” or are small for their age?
    Anyway, I’m going to stop ranting now. 🙂
    Great post!

    • Thank you! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told by the Internet that I’ll love a book because it has diversity and as a POC I’ll be able to relate to everything in it, just to find that it has a black teen in it. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having books about black teens at all, but I do get very frustrated when people expect me to identify with their struggles! I agree, getting to know people is more important than judging them by appearance or ethnicity. I can’t tell you how many times people have felt that I wasn’t “American” just because I don’t have white skin, and it’s funny because Indian people don’t think I fit in anywhere, either, because I’m not in touch with the culture and don’t especially want to be. Ugh, race/ethnicity is awful sometimes.

      • That must be frustrating to constantly have people question how “American” you are. I have a friend who was born in India and adopted by a family here when she was three. She’s just as American as anyone I know. She grew up here…this is the culture she knows. I’ve known her since we were little, so I’ve never thought of her as “Indian.” She was just my friend. The only time I notice how she looks is to be jealous of her long dark hair. 🙂

        • Yes, I suppose it has to do with the negative, stereotypical images of Indian people present in pop culture. I think it’s great that you just think of your friend as your friend; for some reason, people just seem to judge those who are non-white by their skin color, assuming that they embrace and understand their parents’ cultures more than first-generation white immigrants’ children.

  4. Omg I have actually thought about this…but since I thought saying “person of colour” was the politically correct thing to say, I let it go. But it bothers me because technically we’re ALL a colour?!? So like, why does person of colour mean black or asian or etc? It’s not…really logical. D: But yeah. I mean, I am technically a middle-class white Australian (I say “technically” because I’m 1/4 Italian, but never lived as an Italian so I don’t feel it?!?), so I don’t even KNOW ANYTHING. But I really really like to learn so this post is amazing. Thank you for writing this. ❤

    • I don’t know if it’s politically correct?? I don’t know I feel like a lot of times the politically correct version of POC is used to refer strictly to black people and I’ve never actually heard it applied to other persons of color as the dictionary defines them. I feel like I should be partially qualified to comment on this subject and opine on it because I technically AM POC, being Indian-American and all, but it’s just an opinion. If you want to keep using POC, by all means go for it. Personally, I just don’t like the term and I especially don’t like the way it’s come to be used.

  5. I guess it’s hard because people genuinely do want to be respectful of other cultures and it’s generally agreed-upon that “person of colour” is the politically-correct term. I guess as a collective we have to try even harder to be more inclusive 🙂

    • I’m definitely not trying to bash on people who are trying to be respectful, and really aren’t trying to imply racism by using the term people of color, but I think it’s a sign of a problem in our society when even the politically correct term has racist connotations, and I just think that we have to think critically about what we say. Obviously we can’t think too critically, because then nothing would ever get said, but I do like to ruminate on these things once in a while. I think it’s definitely hard to find a term to describe all non-white people without having it, to some degree, connote racism, but I definitely do think that it’s a term that we need to have in order to be able to discuss problems about diversity. I think what we have to keep in mind is that in America, fifty years ago terms we now consider offensive were commonly used to describe non-European/non-white people. I just want to make sure that we don’t solve one problem by creating another one, is all. But I totally see where you’re coming from and I don’t blame those who are genuinely trying to express their thoughts without being racist (I mean, even I use POC sometimes). It’s just food for though, I guess. 😀

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