The first time I became aware of the various unpleasant nuances associated with the issue of race and racism in modern America was when I was about 10 years old. Right about that time was when I read James Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man along with The Ways of the White Folks by Langston Hughes, both classics stolen from my father’s bookshelf. I realize now just how young I was and I remember how shocking I found my father’s explanations to the questions I raised at the end of my reading.
I had not been aware of much of this unpleasantness before then, and this is absolutely normal if you consider the fact that I was born, and have lived all my life in Nigeria. Of course, before then, I knew about as much about slavery as the next Nigerian boy. I would go on to read and research extensively about all the ways the White man stole Africans from their homes in the 16th century but even from a young age, I had listened to various stories from the elders in my family about the old days when Africans were owned and traded off like chattels.
I figured that in light of the events that flowed from the Lincoln administration, the secession of the Confederacy and eventually the Civil War, all these woes for black people had ended. So, imagine my surprise upon reading these books and becoming aware of the continued prejudices suffered by blacks alongside the various valid fears of these black authors and writers for the survival of the black race in the West. From these books, I learnt a great deal about the issue of the identity of blacks in modern America and all the ways the descriptions of black people (Nigger, Negro, and Coloured) by Whites have made them prisoners of birth.
It’s been years since I read those books and while some things have changed in this regard, some others apparently are becoming normalized again. For instance, while the word ‘Nigger’ is currently being avoided like a plague (and rightly so), the word ‘colored’ which was a popular term for blacks in the 70s seems to have found a more creative way to stick around; with the most recent version being the phrase ‘People of Color’. When you pair the words ‘people’ and ‘colour’ in this manner, the phrase takes on a whole new meaning, politically correct but unpleasant in all its insinuations.
It becomes a modified version of an age-long prejudiced reference to a person’s complexion as a mark of his/her race with an underlying condescension that supposes that the person being described is tainted in some way or the other. It becomes a label that the person on the receiving end is a ‘colored’ element on the pure while the White people continually urges themselves to keep from polluting. It is a phrase that reduces for the simple reason that it treats the many (not white) as one and a White person’s lazy way of relaying that ‘you all are the same to me because you all are not like me.’
As a Black person, the term ‘People of Color’ rubs me the wrong way not just because it is used to describe everybody that is not white but also because it is often used by whites as if it is interchangeable with ‘black’, when it clearly isn’t. Even when said in the most unprejudiced way, I think this term still betrays all the ways we preach for the understanding of diverse identities and in our world today, how can anyone not understand how unfair that can be?
For starters, its origins are from the same clothes from which the terms nigger, Negro and colored were cut. According to NPR, one of the earliest sources of the phrase ‘people of color’ was from 1807. It was used in a law stating “An Act to Prohibit the Importation of Slaves into any Port or Place within the Jurisdiction of the United States”. The law was made to apply to “any negro, mulatto, or person of color” and if you needed any help to understand just who a negro is or in this context a colored person, the One-drop rule in Arkansas back in 1911 defined a negro as anyone who has any negro blood, even if it’s only a drop.
Now, there have been attempts to explain that the name is different. It is sometimes said that with the term ‘People of Color’, black people chose the name along with other racial minorities in the US as a rallying cry against oppression. Some believe that because a famous black man found a way to ‘own’ and use the term as an expression of communal power, using the term to avoid the discomfort of calling a black person black is now a given. I would have agreed with this if the usage of the term by Whites had a better context or empowers. Rather, if anything, the use of this term erases the identities of Blacks and other races by cramming us all into a descriptive box for the convenience of the white person.
According to U.S. census data, Latinos and Hispanics make up 18% of the American population. Black people make up 13% of the population and Asians five percent. How is it right to lump these people together in a group designated ‘not white’ which denies their distinct personal and racial identities? It is true that practically all ethnic groups have suffered oppression at the hands of white people. It is true that we all face discrimination and have to deal with racial stereotypes, but that does not make us all the same.
Addressing us as such is in itself is a continuation of that oppression; a refusal to acknowledge our individuality. Our struggles as Black people are ours, the struggles of Latinos are theirs and if White people feel too lazy or uncomfortable with actual racial descriptors; the rest of us shouldn’t be lumped together for their comfort. And no, it does not foster any collective agreement to fight against white supremacy. Rather, the mere use of the term sends a message that white is the default and that everyone and everything else is only a difference; a departure from the root and base of all colors and races.
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This lazy mode of address has been especially adopted by politicians who specialize in vagueness and who would rather than say black, would rather say ‘People of Color’ so as not to lose any votes or alienate any of their bases. For instance a few months ago, the current Vice Presidential candidate, Kamala Harris in discussing the need for legalizing marijuana, talked about correcting “failed drug policies that disproportionately hurt people of color….” She got some backlash for this because; those policies had in fact disproportionately affected black people, especially black men.
With the phrase, she carefully omitted to address the victims directly while making sure that other ethnicities do not accuse her of ignoring them. Isn’t that just convenient for a politician? This classification is so convenient that everyone – from the media to academia – has not only adopted it as the most acceptable way of addressing people who are not white, but have gone ahead to shorten it to POCs.
We must legalize marijuana the right way. That means correcting failed drug policies that disproportionately hurt people of color, & creating new opportunities for people of color to participate in the industry.— Kamala Harris (@SenKamalaHarris) October 21, 2019
Read my op-ed on how we can get this done.https://t.co/lnenVBtERI
In a 1988 New York Times column, William Safire pointed out that the use of ‘colored’ in this sense is a slur, even when it is used innocently and I couldn’t agree more. It is better replaced by what is factually correct; be it black, Latino, or Hispanic. Put differently, say black if you want to say black because calling a black man black isn’t racist; it’s fact. I am a Nigerian and if I am labeled a person of color because I am not white, it automatically puts me in the same place with the black man, the Asian man, and the Latino struggling to survive in the West. This is one of the easiest ways to ignore our vastly differently lived experiences and that’s just wrong.
My point here is simple, when used by Whites, the term ‘People of Color’ even if it carries a friendly undertone often comes across as a polite synonym for ‘black’ and refers to a group of non-whites for the convenience of the White person. I understand that everything seems to be problematic for the White person these days but the convenience of whites has been the burden of blacks for far too long. So refer to a person by name and if you want to refer to him/her by race, well, use the actual race.
Ask people how they want to be addressed and address them accordingly whenever possible. Like humans, language is ever evolving. It has taken hundreds of years for white people to finally see blacks as human but describing us as ‘People of Color’ feels like you are still taming or hushing our identities to make us more presentable to you. The term might look and sound nice. It might make you feel polite and comfortable as a white person but it has a hollow ring to it and even if you mean well, I figure it would really help us all if you knew how this term really makes us feel.
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Cover image via Godisable Jacob.