I remember the first time I was referred to as a “person of color.” It was in college, many years ago: I was participating in one of those god-awful “meet and greet” activities; those where the chairs are set-up in an awkward semi-circle and everyone is juggling in them as they struggle to eat food from their tiny plates. A mandatory meeting convened by the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs. As president of the “Mexican student group,” I was required to attend.
The mission of the organization, the moderator told us, was to provide a common space for groups representing ethnic minorities, to promote inclusiveness, and to encourage campus minorities to share common frustrations: “a safe space for people of color to voice and express their concerns.”
I remember sitting upright upon hearing the expression. As far as I was concerned, no one in Mexico would refer to him or herself as a “person of color.” Must have been a slip-up, I thought, and glanced around to see if any of my fellow students, members of the Asian Student Union, The African and Caribbean Students Association, the Muslim Student Association, the Native American Student Association, among others, had noticed it.
It was not. I soon came to realize that people all across the US subscribe to the phrase as a politically correct alternative to talking about ethnic minorities.
In fact, it is often voices fighting for racial equality who push for the use of the expression more aggressively, since they perceive the noun-adjective form of “people of color” to be more empowering to ethnic minorities than the adjective-noun form “colored people”: with “people of color”, minorities can embrace their ethnic diversity, while not feeling like they are narrowly defined by the color of their skin.
Moreover, the expression is frequently used as an “umbrella term” to create a sense of community among traditionally disenfranchised ethnic groups. For instance: every year, the typically progressive UC Berkeley campus holds a “Students of Color conference,” with the aim of providing “a safe space for students of colors and their allies to strategize around statewide and campus-based actions.” Similarly, after becoming the first Black woman to win an Emmy for best actress in a drama in 2015, Viola Davis used her acceptance speech to draw attention to the lack of opportunity among “women of color”:
“…let me tell you something: The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are not simply there…”
Yet, the term is problematic for a number of reasons: to start with, it ignores that race definitions, are, to a great degree, a social construct. Definitions of what constitutes “white” and “non-white” have shifted in the US across decades, usually responding to changing perceptions in what is considered “native vs. foreign.”
Take the experience of the Jews in the US. In his book The Price of Whiteness, historian Eric Goldstein documents the uneasy relationship between Jewish immigrants and their relationship to “whiteness” in the pre World War II era, showing how Jews were a social and racial puzzle to white Americans, and didn’t really fit into conceptions of “whiteness” until the 1960s. Goldstein argues:
“Jews’ transition from “racial” minority to part of the white mainstream was slow and freighted with difficulty, not only because native-born whites had a particularly difficult time seeing Jews as part of a unified, homogenous white population, but also because whiteness sat uneasily with many central aspects of Jewish identity.”
Many other European immigrants suffered similar fates. The Irish, being some of the palest people out there, were, a century ago, referred by some as “Negroes turned inside out.” In 1911, Italians were described by John Parker, governor of Louisiana, as “just a little worse than the Negro, being if anything filthier in [their] habits, lawless, and treacherous.”
The problem, then, with the term “people of color” is that it assumes that notions of “whiteness” and “non-whiteness” are fixed, forcing us to conceive racial divisions along the same dichotomous lines– white vs. non-white – which were used by xenophobes to push for racially-drawn social cleavages in the first place. It inadvertently propagates the same binary definitions of race which were used to “otherise” the Irish, the Jews, the Hispanics, and many other ethnic groups since then.
It is thus refreshing to read Ta-Nahasi Coates, perhaps the most renowned living intellectual on Black progressive thought, argue for the need to re-think of race in a more fluid way, in a way that is sensitive to how racial categories respond to the ever-shifting social context:
“Our notion of what constitutes “white” and what constitutes “black” is a product of social context. It is utterly impossible to look at the delineation of a “Southern race” and not see the Civil War, the creation of an “Irish race” and not think of Cromwell’s ethnic cleansing, the creation of a “Jewish race” and not see anti-Semitism. There is no fixed sense of “whiteness” or “blackness,” not even today.”
Furthermore, like trying to shove a wedged drawer shut, the term “people of color” tries to force itself onto a plethora of diverse ethnic groups, often unsuccessfully. The ambiguity of the term explains great part of what was frustrating about by participation in the meeting convened by The Office of Multicultural Affairs– the presumption that Asian Americans and Mexicans can be lumped together, joined by a vague notion of “non-whiteness.”
As a Mexican Jew, my mixed heritage plays havoc with the term; Jews are now considered “white” in the US, but “Mexicans” are usually considered “people of color.” So where does that leave me? What about other people of mixed races? Where do they fall in the narrow “white” vs. “people of color” purview?
Racism and discrimination is in many ways ingrained in the social structure of the US, and continues to permeate many aspects of society. And the use of any racial category runs the risk of erring through simplification. But lumping ethnic minorities together under blanket terms such as “people of color”, and thereby inadvertently cementing dangerous binary divisions of race, is not a step forward in the fight for racial equality. On the contrary, it holds back what could be a more honest conversation on race.