What We Get Wrong About ‘People of Color’

So why is it that we refuse to actually say what we mean?

The phrase itself has experienced an interesting trajectory, historically speaking. Early on, identifying nonwhites conveyed a more violent othering: You were simply colored or a colored person—a stain on the white purity America told itself it needed to uphold. (The term hasn’t totally disappeared; in 2015 Benedict Cumberbatch mindlessly referred to black actors as colored.) Eventually, that phrasing morphed into popular science mumbo jumbo: You were a minority, but soon even that term fell out of favor as minorities became a majority.

People of color originates in black discourse, Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, a professor of feminist theory and theoretical physics at the University of New Hampshire, tells me. It was first used to refer to lighter-skinned people of mixed race, someone who was perhaps “mulatto.” As it’s grown in popularity, its meaning has become more twisted, misshapen. Prescod-Weinstein says that this has resulted in a shift in how we understand it; we are now at a point where much of what is written about the phrase today doesn’t “excavate the historical importance and necessity of multiracial antiracist solidarity … particularly in the ’60s and ’70s when the term took on something close to its contemporary definition.”

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Although the current use of people of color doesn’t denote the same racial hierarchy of previous iterations, it still does a kind of violence to how we grasp power in this country. It reduces and constricts, it treats the many as one. “As we speak, however, the English language seems to lump the colors together and treats white—the noncolor—as a race and a word apart,” William Safire observed in one of his famous “On Language” columns for The New York Times. He wrote that in 1988.

In late October, the actress Gina Rodriguez posted a video on Instagram of herself rapping the lyrics to the Fugees’ song “Ready or Not,” in which she says the word “nigga.” She was immediately called out, and when she offered an apology, she did so to “communities of color.” “Say ‘people of color’ when you mean people of color and say ‘Black’ when you mean Black,” Prescod-Weinstein tweeted.

Michael Arceneaux, a cultural critic and the author of I Can’t Date Jesus, shares a similar viewpoint. He believes the harm is in how the phrase is weaponized against black people. “What does irritate me is when it is employed to essentially erase black people as if that term is interchangeable with black,” he said over email. “It’s not.”

For me, and for many others, Rodriguez’s fumbled apology highlighted the thoughtlessness that now occupies space around the phrase. For media personality Scottie Beam, the matter is clear-cut. “I am not People of Color,” she tweeted this month, which set off a wave of responses.

Once a tag of antiracist coalition building, today in its modern, wholesale application, the term has become a bruised signifier. People of color means well—honestly, truly—but doesn’t really do the work it’s supposed to do anymore. Ostensibly, it looks and sounds nice in a sort of “We Are the World” kind of way, but its overuse has rendered it hollow.

Aside from the Kelly incident, the examples I cited earlier were not especially harsh—in part, that’s the point I am trying to make. Even the well-meaning, the most progressive among us blindly tack the phrase onto cultures as varied as the rainbow. In doing so, we turn the plural into the singular, an action that betrays all the ways we have come to understand contemporary identity.

We live in a time of expanding cultures, genders (or nongenders), and sexual orientations. Why limit that? We can never escape who we are and where we come from; we will never be culture-free, but we can be culture-specific. More and more, we are becoming a society of in-between identities, of fluid selves, and I have come to believe that the phrase people of color—to recklessly lump nonwhites into a bland monochrome—does a disservice to that reality. Broad, all-inclusive sweeps are convenient and comfortable—and sometimes, for the sake of progress, we need them—but they can also do great damage.

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