Vol 11, Issue 9
I’m not white. This fact is surely noticed by most people upon meeting me, although I think it’s far from the most interesting thing about me, and not something that I constantly think about. Nonetheless, in instances of discrimination and racism, as well as more benign social exchanges that I’ve faced, it’s something that I’m instantly reminded of. Nothing like being asked the brilliant “Where are you from?” in a circle of otherwise only white people to make your day. Or, to be spoken of as a ‘person of colour’.
I’m proud of my heritage. It’s of course not always a bad thing to be reminded of; for most of us, there are moments of intense perspective, meaning and value that can be drawn from thinking about our roots, and enjoyment, community and identity are experienced by engaging with it as well.
It’s also great that there has been an increased focus on diversity in social discourse; and in particular relevance to De Minimis readers, firms are starting to be more conscious of having a broader selection of backgrounds and racial mix in their candidates. Ideally, it shouldn’t have to be so conscious: but until there are no longer unconscious (or outright bigoted) biases that often cause people to prefer white candidates, this may have to suffice.
At the same time, it’s disheartening to hear the phrase ‘person of colour’ (or worse yet, the more dehumanising ‘PoC’) used so frequently in not just social movements and campuses, but in professionalised contexts as well. When we use that phrase, what we do is entrench condescension and difference.
I understand that what using the phrase ‘person of colour’ is intended to do is be well-meaning. It intends to recognise that there is substantive disadvantage and different experiences often faced by those of us who aren’t white. It recognises that non-whites are often marginalised, and allows us to have the realities of the perspective we are speaking from acknowledged.
But here’s the thing; when you say ‘people of colour’ what you’re really meaning is ‘people who aren’t white’. So, if you’re saying ‘people of colour’ because the phrase you’d otherwise be saying might come across as racist, remember that you’re singling out people on the basis of their race or relative lack of whiteness. So, if you’re going to do that, if you’re going to make a point about the differences non-whites face, you either need to rethink what you’re about to say or just be transparent about what you’re doing rather than using a misguided term for supposed PC credibility.
The most important thing to remember about the phrase ‘person of colour’ is that it’s really just a rephrasing of ‘coloured person’. This word was frequently used in a derogatory manner in pre-civil rights United States and is not acceptable in a 21st century context. Does re-arranging the words and adding an ‘of’ really make it any different? I don’t think so. I understand the idea that a word can change its meaning, can be reclaimed, and reused in a positive context. But, I would take issue with the rationale that that’s what has happened here: instead, it’s the reuse of a formerly racist term in the guise of progressiveness while really just treating the lack of whiteness as a paramount quality of non-whites. It should be considered about as acceptable as the ‘magical negro’ trope; those of us who aren’t white are imbued with some sort of crude ‘magical’, ‘colourful’, ‘soulful’, ‘spiritual’ quality that makes us differ from the norm and lets us be used as tokenistic caricatures.
Lumping all of us who aren’t white into some abstract category of being ‘people of colour’ further reinforces whiteness as the norm, rather than challenging its status as the dominant hegemony. It strips away our hopes, fears, successes, failures, flaws, strengths, beauty and ugliness away from being the meaningful qualities that define us and instead decides that our ‘colour’ is what makes us special. I don’t want you to respect me as a ‘person of colour’. I want you to respect me as a person.
This is the work of a JD student
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