Before coming to college, I always thought of myself as a black person. But when I got to college a few years ago, I heard people use the term “people of color” and it boggled me. Even though the term is used to foster solidarity, the term can be used to create a dichotomy between people with white skin and those without white skin. I am not a “person of color”. I’m black and have lived in the US since the minute I was born.
My experience as a black person is specific to me and me alone. Even though I appreciate people’s efforts to sound more politically correct, I also have come to understand how problematic it can be depending on what context it is in. I was in an Afro-American Studies class and my professor told the class how he thought the term “people of color” was problematic because it really sounds like many, if not all, people are trying to sugarcoat the old fashioned term “colored” with political correctness.
I went to an ethnically diverse high school in Texas, with people of various backgrounds, but no one used the term “people of color” (no one probably even knew what the term “people of color” meant). My experiences as a black person might or might not be the same as those of my Asian, Latino, Native American, or for that matter other Black acquaintances and friends (but neither will they always be the same as those of my White friends and acquaintances). I am aware that there are efforts to foster more effective heart to heart dialogue in which people are not screaming at each other online to check racial privileges and have their individual narratives lumped together under “oppressed” and “oppressor” (it’s most likely why I don’t have any social media, even though I acknowledge the positive potential of social media to foster social change), and I always think there could be much more done to foster effective dialogue.
This does not necessarily require categorizing everyone’s experiences into oppressed and oppressor. So are all white people the oppressors now? What about people who are Jewish but do not have white skin? What about people who have ancestry from Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa but do not have white skin? What about people who can pass for white but are also Native American, Asian, Black, or Latino? Should we categorize them all under “oppressors”? Should we just portray all people not considered white to be victims? Because I definitely don’t consider myself a victim of racism, even though I’m a black female.
I grew up neither lower nor upper middle class in a wealthy but socioeconomically diverse suburb, I haven’t gotten shot at or brutalized by police or other students at school, and I haven’t encountered a whole bunch of microaggressions in college. My parents have grad school degrees, and my sister and I go to colleges in New England even if we had to have institutional financial aid to get there. And yeah, I can’t pass for white, either. People know I’m not white even though I have been asked many times by non-white people and white people alike what my ethnicity is and whether I’m really black or not. It shows in my chocolate skin tone and braided hair. So when I listen to the experiences of other students from marginalized or underrepresented groups, I keep my mouth shut because many of the “students of color” at my school have had very different experiences than I do, and I would not want to co-opt anyone’s experiences and make them my own. Because they’re not my experiences.
I understand why the term “people of color” was used, and I also understand that there needs to be another term that does not create a divide between us vs them. I’m not saying “deny difference”, “be post-racial”, or even “#All Lives Matter”. I’m just saying that we need to either amend the way we use the term “people of color” or come up with a different term for how to describe people who aren’t considered white, or aren’t given access to the privileges associated with having white skin, in discourses surrounding race and ethnicity, especially if we want the #Black Lives Matter movement to keep moving forward. If you have any ideas about how to go about this, please feel free to post. Thank you for facilitating The Race Card Project.