What’s Wrong With the Term ‘Person of Color’

…or at least how it’s used.

by Janani

My tension with the term ‘person of color’ begins in high school. It begins at a stay-away anti-oppression camp in Jefferson City, Missouri.  I was grouped with 50 other young people around my age, most of us just starting to put words to our lived experiences: race, class, gender, sex.  It feels quaint now, because I can’t remember the last time I went through a day without saying ‘colonization’ or ‘White supremacy’.  But back then, these were unfamiliar terms that rolled awkwardly in my throat, brought up the salty-fresh reminder of identity and woundedness.

When we began a particular fishbowl activity where we divided into  ‘people of color’ and ‘White people’, the three Asian kids, including me, joined the White folks’ group.  This sounds ridiculous now, but it was what made sense at the time.  Most of the camp attendees were from St. Louis, which has stark Black/White segregation.  Missouri was a slave state, and St. Louis’s urban/suburban race and class structuring still hugely reflects that history.  My understanding of racial privilege and oppression was shaped exactly by the immense antiblackness in my communities.  When the discussion on racism began, however, all of us Asian kids broke down and cried.  It was clear to us that we didn’t have White privilege, but ‘people of color’ didn’t fit either when the only other context we had for it was a group of our Black peers using it as a solidarity term. 

The facilitator of the POC group held my hands, held my eyes with hers and asked me if I would consider joining the people of color group.  I spent the rest of camp, and much of my young activist life, dancing under the term POC, and in a sense forgetting about that original tension.  I want to return to that moment of racial ambivalence, and why it happened.

That moment was unsettling precisely because even if Black and Asian kids had a common experience of being racialized, we didn’t have a common racialized experience.  Being a Desi kid in St. Louis is not like being a Black kid in St. Louis (or anywhere else).  Even if we live in the same neighborhoods, Black people in the US largely have their ancestry in formerly enslaved peoples, and most South Asian folks are immigrants or immigrants’ children.  My people were colonized and faced all the associated violence of colonization, but their original struggle happened in South Asia.  And you can argue that my parents and I immigrated to the US because of the economic systems of the time, but we were not brought here as slaves, and this is not land that was taken from us forcefully.  We are not White people, but we are also settlers.  This land does not carry our enslavement or our original colonial struggle.

Black cultural theorist Frank Wilderson’s Red, White, and Black argues that early US America was constructed in a racial triangle of Settler/Savage/Slave.  White people, White men really, claimed this land and because they were able to use Black bodies for slave labor, they were able to launch a genocide on Indigenous peoples.  That is, the dehumanization and exploitation of Black people scaffolded the erasure of Native peoples.  This was the racial order set in place in the early formation of the US as a White supremacist state.

This model leaves a whole lot of us out, of course. API folks, Latinos, Middle Eastern folks, and many more of us don’t fit into that racial triangle. We’re not White, and we bring our own histories of colonization.  Many of us were colonized by the US itself, and White people have supremacy over all of us in various and different ways.  But the fact is our land and resources were not stolen from us in this space and our ancestors were not brought here as slaves (with some important exceptions). 

That place-based specificity is what the term ‘person of color’ doesn’t deal with adequately. As an identifier, ‘person of color’ can be slippery for a lot of politicized, non-Black, non-indigenous, non-White people in the US, for 2 reasons:

1) US/Western imperialism is so widespread that it even imposes its ways of doing racism on the rest of the world, and on people of color.  For example, my family is upper caste, and that caste position is partly what enabled our immigration to the US.  It also means that we’re lighter-skinned South Asians (read: closer to Aryan British colonizers).  Using the term ‘POC’ as my identifier rather than ‘South Asian’ or ‘Desi’ means  I never unpack these non-Western racial systems that are also at play. 

2) Many of our communities have benefited variously from racism.  South Asian communities I’ve been involved in use antiblack racism as one strategy of assimilation.  Because as White people have established, the easiest way to shore up your racial supremacy is to be antiblack, displayed in everything from microaggressions to employment discrimination to violence.  We know that people of color can be racist towards each other.  What I’m saying is that many of us also reap systematic advantages from the racist attitudes and structures that are held by our entire communities.

How do we, as politicized people of color, acknowledge the very limits of the term ‘people of color’ and the way it can mask our actual racial situations?  For example, why do we keep using the phrase ‘communities of color’ as targets of police and state violence when we primarily mean Black and Latino folks?  What races are we trying to contain in the word ‘brown’?  Why are we afraid to point to the specificities of racism?  Do we think it will divide us?  Do we think we are really not capable of understanding and working from the different ways we experience racism? 

As long as the vocabularies of our struggle derive from the homogenizing actions of White supremacy, we will be that much farther from racial liberation. 

Still, it’s helpful to understand ‘POC’ is still a useful term.  Quoting Loretta Ross of the Sistersong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective in her interview with Racialicious, ‘woman of color’ emerged from a Black feminist platform at a National Women’s Conference in Houston in the 1970s. 

So they actually formed a group called Black Women’s Agenda to come [sic] to Houston with a Black women’s plan of action that they wanted the delegates to vote to substitute for the “Minority Women’s Plank that was in the proposed plan of action.

Well, a funny thing happened in Houston: when they took the Black Women’s Agenda to Houston, then all the rest of the “minority” women of color wanted to be included in the “Black Women’s Agenda.” Okay? Well, [the Black women] agreed…but you could no longer call it the “Black Women’s Agenda.” And it was in those negotiations in Houston [that] the term “women of color” was created. Okay?  And they didn’t see it as a biological designation—you’re born Asian, you’re born Black, you’re born African American, whatever—but it is a solidarity definition, a commitment to work in collaboration with other oppressed women of color who have been “minoritized.” 

Identifying as a person of color in solidarity with other people of color says ‘hey, my people have been oppressed by White people, maybe in a different time and space than your people, but we can work in solidarity.’  The identification needs to carry some degree of humility, and a deeper commitment to allyship .  The POC umbrella is not an excuse to disavow the ways we benefit from various racial structures and sit idly by as our communities reap advantages from racism towards other people of color. 

Black-Asian solidarity in the US, for instance, is hard to find and it will continue to be difficult to build if we continue to use the uncritical ‘POC’ label.  Rather, we can use ‘POC’ as a way of reflecting on our different racial histories and building coalitions in our struggles and their difference.  POC is a term for building solidarity between movements, not a movement in itself.  That distinction is important. 

I’ll leave you with Audre Lorde:  

‘It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.’ —Audre Lorde, Our Dead Behind Us: Poems