Last weekend at LSRJ’s annual Leadership Convention I co-moderated the Women of Color Issue Caucus. The name struck me. I hadn’t realized that we were called “people of color” now. Minority? Non-white? Person of color? The landscape of terms to describe race in America is full of landmines, and it looks like “people of color” is the new standard of political correctness. I find this to be problematic in some significant ways. First of all, I don’t think it’s any better or worse than most other terms. Secondly, I think it still fits into the same structure of white being the default or standard. Lastly, it prevents some people from doing the legwork of thinking about race and its complexities.
Whenever someone uses the term “person of color,” they are referring to a group of people who don’t benefit from white privilege. Many people feel like the existing terms describing a group of oppressed-and/or-marginalized-in-one-way-or-another people have been insufficient: “minority” could be technically incorrect in certain places or situations, and “non-white” defines a group by what it’s not. “Minority” might not technically be correct, but neither is “person of color” if you’re referring to a fair-skinned Asian woman who might be the same color as a white person. Race is not just about pigment.
Non-white is probably the most technically precise word to use, but it defines a group as a negative, but in another way so does “person of color.” The default “person” is not “of color” unless you specify so. The frame certainly isn’t that we have “people of color,” and then “people lacking color.” “Person of color” feels like it’s expressing the same concept—that the default is white unless expressed otherwise. Also, it doesn’t go without saying that everyone who isn’t white doesn’t have the same experience. Clumping us all together just supports the structure of supremacy.
Loretta Ross says the term “woman of color” emerged from a racially diverse group of women as a political term denoting solidarity against white supremacy. I can appreciate the political nature, but I think the phrase is often used as a safe word for white people nervous about discussing race. Race is difficult to discuss for everyone, and it’s not clear how to avoid offending anyone. But that difficulty isn’t fixed by using “color” as the object of a prepositional phrase instead of an adjective. I think that finding one word or phrase which we—persons with very different experiences not marked by white privilege—can sign off on is simplistic. There is no simple way around the question, “Who exactly am I referring to?” White people can’t hide behind “people of color” if they are actually referring to black people and Latinos defending their place in law school as more than waiters or gardeners, or Arabs and Muslims constantly being targets of suspicion, or non-white people who are allowed into a “closed” space without white people. The answer to the question “what term is ok to describe people marginalized by white privilege?” is predictable: it depends.
Race is problematic; language describing it is problematic. “People of color” belongs on the same list as “racial minorities,” “racially marginalized people,” and “non-white people.” They are all phrases that can be appropriate, inappropriate, offensive, or fine depending on how and by whom they are used.