People “of color” are everywhere. We are here referencing the term, not the people. “Debate so white: candidates of color miss out as Democratic field narrows” a recent headline in The Guardian informs us. “Physicians of color are far too rare” worries the Philadelphia Inquirer. “People of color win majority of acting Oscars for the first time in history” announced the headline of Entertainment Weekly in the wake of the awards last February.
The history of the term “of color” is, well, colorful. Its use dates back at least as far as the 1790s, when French colonists coined the term “gens de couleur” to refer to light-skinned people of mixed African and European heritage. In the Deep South, freed blacks called themselves “people of color” to distinguish themselves from African slaves. During the Civil War, Frederick Douglass gave a speech in Rochester, New York, entitled “Men of Color, To Arms!” urging African Americans to enlist in the Union Army.
After the Civil War, the term evolved into the shorter “colored people.” The nation’s oldest civil rights organization, founded in 1909, was called the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, better known today as the NAACP.
In time, the term “colored” gave way to the more acceptable “Negro,” as in the United Negro College Fund, founded in 1944 and now better known as the UNCF. “Negro,” in turn, gave way briefly to Afro-American; which in turn gave way to African American. Columbia University linguistics Professor John McWhorter refers to this evolution as “rolling terminology,” and explains that old labels are replaced because of their association with a darker, bleaker past. New terms are enlisted to refashion thought and provide fresher, healthier perspectives. For similar reasons, as the once civil term “cripple” acquired negative connotations, it gave way to “handicapped,” which in turn yielded to “disabled.”
But modern use of the term “of color” is the product of a different kind of evolution. It did not arrive as a way to change how we think about a particular group of people. It arrived to change the composition of that group of people.
One can perceive the change by comparing Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963 with the language used in the National Women’s Conference in 1977.
When King referred to “citizens of color,” he was referring specifically to black citizens, not to non-whites generally. He compared the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution to a promissory note guaranteeing equal rights, then noted:
It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked insufficient funds.
To King, “citizens of color” meant “the Negro people.”
Just fourteen years later, the phrase “of color” took on a different, broader meaning. The National Women’s Conference was held in Washington DC, supported by President Carter as part of the World Decade for Women. Concerned that their interests were receiving short shrift at the Conference, a group of black women held their own separate conference in Houston, and adopted a plan of action called the Black Women’s Agenda. According to Loretta Ross, one of the organizers of the Houston conference, “minority” women of other races showed up, desiring inclusion in the Black Women’s Agenda. The black organizers agreed to include them, which required a name change to “women of color.” In an oral history, Ross later recounted:
…[T]hey didn’t see [“women of color”] as a biological designation – you’re born Asian, you’re born Black, you’re born African American, whatever – but it is a solidarity definition, a commitment to work in collaboration with other oppressed women of color who have been “minoritized.” …. And I think it’s a setback when we disintegrate as people of color around primitive ethnic claiming. Yes, we are Asian American, Native American, whatever, but the point is when you choose to work with other people who are minoritized by oppression, you’ve lifted yourself out of that basic identity into another political being and another political space.
In short, “people of color” evolved from its historic significance as a designation of racial status to a designation of a political status.
This broadening in the meaning of the phrase “people of color” is reminiscent of the legendary 1960s advertising campaign for Levy’s Jewish Rye, a New York kosher bakery. The campaign consisted of posters featuring a variety of ethnic types – a young black boy, an Asian and a Native American man, an Italian matron –dreamily holding a Levy’s Rye sandwich, under the slogan “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s real Jewish Rye.” Loretta Ross and her colleagues were taking a page from that ad campaign, announcing to the world: “You don’t have to be black to be a person of color.”
Despite its ubiquity, the phrase is under attack in some quarters today. In a Los Angeles Times op-ed, Nadra Widatalla noted “that not all ‘people of color’ suffer equally.” She advocated “retiring” the term:
The terms ‘women of color’ and ‘people of color’ are meant to be inclusive. But, from my perspective, they only help to leave black people behind – specifically black women. While every minority group faces its own challenges in America, a ‘one size fits all’ mentality toward diversity erases the specific needs of the most vulnerable communities.
Retiring the term makes sense, but not for the reasons Widatalla cites. While she correctly notes that not all people of color suffer equally, she ignores the fact that not all who suffer are people of color. Jews make up about 2% of the U.S. population, but they constitute 57% of the victims of anti-religious hate crimes. The poverty rate in predominantly white Appalachia is far higher than the national average. To paraphrase the Levy Jewish Rye campaign again, you don’t have to be a person of color to suffer.
Other reasons support retirement. There is no biological or scientific rationale for lumping together this vast swath of humanity under a unitary classification based on color. The subject of race has its controversies, but there is universal agreement that the genes for skin color have nothing to do with athletic ability, musical talent, or intelligence.
The term “people of color” is so broad that it lacks significance of any kind. Even within that vast, borderless domain, the component elements of the term are far too amorphous to mean much. To be an “African American,” for example, means that one can trace one’s ancestry to Africa, where some 3,000 different ethnic groups speak more than 2,100 different languages. Among these groups are Egyptian Arabs, Moroccan Berbers, and South African Afrikaners, none of whom fit conventional images of black people. To be an “Asian American” means that one can trace one’s lineage to Vietnam or India or Iran, countries whose inhabitants would find the notion of commonality ridiculous.
But the strongest argument for retiring the term “people of color” is its inherent condescension. The term examines humanity in all its variegated virtues, vices, and quirks, and then defines its members by their relationship to whiteness. All mankind are either white, or they are non-white and therefore “of color.” In engaging in the exercise, users of the term unconsciously accept the mindset of the quintessentially “white” English cartographers of the Victorian Age, who placed 0 degrees longitude at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, and then located the other meridians, and all other sites on the planet, according to their proximity to that spot. Greenwich was their lodestar, just as whiteness is the lodestar for the loose, ill-defined concept referred to as “of color.”
To anyone comfortable with the notion of defining humanity by its distance from whiteness, the term “people of color” may seem acceptable. But one would expect the term to cause discomfort if not outright indignation in others, particularly in those now commonly known as people of color.