“People of color,” like many intellectually fashionable terms, gets written or spoken far more than it should; often functioning as a verbal tic rather than a meaningful, coherent term. My brain was set on edge recently while listening to public radio, when a caller introduced himself as a “Black student of color.” This was more than a verbal slip, and I don’t know that either the caller, the host or the guest even thought it was a slip. I’ve also heard: “Black People of color,” “People of color frequently have to balance their African heritage with their American identity,” and my favorite “non-people of color.” For this last one, I’ll give the writer a break and assume they didn’t mean “things with color that are not people” but “people who are not of color,” which I think translates into the English word “White.” Confusion abounds because “people of color” borrows the syntax of an affirmative identity, without performing the labor of being one. An affirmative identification describes me in terms of what “I am.” “I am Black” “I am a man,”I am 28,” etc. “I am a person of color,” seems to fit in grammatically, which partly explains its imperial hold on our speech.
What is color? Who has it? What does it mean to have “color?” Answer: That which makes one non-White. People who are not White. To not be White. “Color,” as a construct, has no coherence outside of imperialists defining themselves as the human standard and calling that standard White. “Non-White” unlike “POC,” unmasks this sleight of hand, to show that what unites “People of color” is not color, but the state of being “not White.” This may seem to be a centering of Whiteness; it is, and it should.
The gathering together of humanity under the banner “of color” is not an “identity,” it is a rhetorical convenience that allows non-White humanity to indict White Europeans altogether, at once. Referring to this chorus of voices as “people of color,” centers Whiteness by treating it as the unspoken standard. “Non-White” fits into all the places where the “of color” construction actually makes sense. In addition to hauling Whiteness before the harsh glare of history, “non-White” accentuates the absurd misuses to which “of color” is frequently put, thus forcing a level of intellectual precision. “I am a Black, non-White student” doesn’t slip off the tongue as easily. In addition to revealing the centrality of Whiteness, “non-White” is transparent about its extreme generality, in a way that primes us to reflect on whether or not we are being inappropriately broad.
As usual, history offers a further clue to this confusion. “People of color”, began as a polite synonym for “mulattoes,” known in Haiti as “gens de coleur.” Eventually the term spread throughout the Francophone world, before being translated into the Anglosphere as “people of color” and “colored,” which referred to all African descended persons. As European colonialism spread beyond the Western hemisphere, more deeply into Asia; one begins to hear, when speaking internationally, of the “colored races,” in reference to those people eligible for colonization. Giving us the imperial euphemism we know today.
Today, “people of color” remains as a euphemism, except, now it spares the feelings of the “uncolored” as much as the “colored,” by framing issues of “diversity” as a matter of chromatic expression, rather than subjugation by Whites. Unlike “people of color,” “non-White” has little use as a euphemism, thus limiting the tendency of euphemisms to infest speech wherever concessions are made to White fragility. Since non-White explicitly implicates Whites, it becomes no more dangerous to be precise than to hide behind “polite” language, as “people of color” permits us to do.
What recommends “non-White” is not that it represents a different idea from “people of color,” but that it makes it harder to mutilate public discourse by overusing the shared idea behind both of them. When overused, both do rhetorical violence to historical and social dynamics. The phrase “People of Color were enslaved in this country” (Yes, someone actually said that) lessens the sting of reality; that for 246 years Black Africans were enslaved in this country. It does not sound as cruel to speak, falsely, as though every human group save one was enslaved in the United States. “People of color/non-White” invites us to envision slavery as an onerous, yet “diverse” institution. It also serves as a form of misdirection, “people of color,” are doing a lot better than Black people. Since many groups “of color” only began to be present in this country in large numbers in the second half of the 20th century, they have been spared many of the founding atrocities. When we agglomerate these experience behind “people of color”,” the particular horror of slavery and Native American genocide can drown in a vast sea of undifferentiated “diversity.”
Less egregious cases may be even more damaging. A New York Times story about environmental racism in North Carolina noted that hog farms, and their fetid waste ponds, were most often found in counties predominantly populated by “people of color.” All over the southern United States, industrial facilities that poison surrounding human populations are deliberately placed in near proximity to “color” communities. There is not a single predominantly Asian county in the southern United States and the only predominantly Latinx southern counties are in Florida and Texas. When we’re talking about the geography of environmental racism in the south, the “color” we’re talking about is Black. Getting more specific than either “people of color,” or “non-White people,” foregrounds the historical continuity between structural devaluing of Black life today and the foregoing 350 years of ceaseless atrocity. If one is talking about a region of the United States with a historically high Latinx population, like the American southwest, referring to Latinx people specifically, calls to mind that this region was stolen by Spain from Native Americans, from Spain by Mexico, then from Mexico by the United States. In many cases, Black and Latinx oppression overlap sufficiently to justify mentioning both, this is accomplished by the phrase “Black and Latinx” or “Latinx and Black.” Obviously, calling Native Americans, Native Americans or by a specific tribal affiliation, brings forth the foundational American reality of settler colonialism. When referring to all three groups, Black, Native and Latinx may seem unwieldy, but it is better to be verbally unwieldy than conceptually muddled. In the course of a conversation which has been established as being centered on Black, Native and Latinx folks all at once, the pronoun “these” as in “these groups,” or “these peoples,” would probably suffice as a breath saving measure. The only time I would suggest using non-White (As a superior synonym to “people of color” ) would be when one is actually referring to the 86% of the human race excluded by the ideology of Whiteness. In America, if one is literally referring to every major racial/ethnic population but White people; Black, Latinx, Indigenous, Asian; “non-White” is not only an available synonym, but the best, most literal and intellectually honest term available. To summarize, “people of color” is an imperial euphemism that privileges Whiteness by rhetorically excluding it from its own carnage. “Non-White” puts Whiteness in the center of its own horror, where it belongs, while complicating the euphemizing function performed by “people of color.” In complicating this euphemizing function, “non-White” (hopefully) encourages all of us to say what we actually mean, and above all, what needs to be said.
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