- There’s a growing debate online over who qualifies as a “person of colour.”
- Some are questioning whether Asians should be considered “people of colour.”
- The definition of “person of colour” in the 21st century has been less about skin colour and more about marking those that have been affected racism and white supremacy, but some argue that the effects of racism for Asian Americans has been less significant than for other populations.
- Others say that a “person of colour” is defined simply as someone who simply has physical characteristics that set them apart from white people.
“East Asians arent people of colour,” read one tweet from @barderingscardi.
“Asians are NOT people of colour and never were. Don’t even try it,” read another from @Nj_Grizz.
“Did I miss the memo where we decided Asians were people of colour?” asked @zacfromsac.
The tweets, all included in a viral post from Filipina student Martina Salamero, represent a growing debate online over the term “people of colour” – a phrase that has moved from social justice parlance into the collective vernacular of most Americans.
“We are mocked, fetishized, discriminated against, and yet you won’t let us call ourselves this? We have been called yellow for far too many years to be put in the same place as white people,” Salamero said about the tweets.
According to The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style, the term “person of colour” was first noted in 1796 edition of The Oxford English Dictionary. Like “coloured,” the phrase was originally used to differentiate people of mixed African and European heritage from “full” Africans.
Post Civil War, “coloured” came to be used as a ubiquitous term for black people, until eventually coming to be understood as offensive, but describing people or groups as “of colour” has become an acceptable and often-used catchall for all non-white people. Now, the Oxford English Dictionary defines “person of colour” as “a person who is not white or of European parentage.”
But what started as a way to positively identify everyone who hasn’t benefited from a culture of white privilege has turned into a divisive flashpoint online, where race-specific spaces used to chat and organise have thrived.
The shades of colour
Those who have drawn a division between “people of colour” and Asian people made their arguments from multiple perspectives.
Some have argued a difference in skin colour. On Twitter, @talkthatfenty asked, “Honest question: who are people of colour? Is it based on ethnicity or the colour of your skin?… i know some asian people who look white because of their skincolor (white).”
Vivian Louie, director of the Asian American Studies Center at Hunter College, says that skin colour is irrelevant in the designation “person of colour,” which she defines as someone who simply has physical characteristics that set them apart from white people.
“Asian Americans have other physical characteristics that do set them apart from whites… such as speaking a home language other English, hair texture, ancestry, etc.,” she said.
Functionally, the definition of “person of colour” in the 21st century has been less about skin colour and more about marking those that have been affected racism and white supremacy, but some argue that the effects of racism for Asian Americans has been less significant than for other populations.
“East Asian and South Asian people are not being harassed and killed,” @tedandrew2 wrote on Twitter, comparing the struggles of Asian Americans to black Americans.
While recent data documented increased levels of crime against Asian people in America, it touches on the central question of privilege. According to the census, in 2017, median annual household income of households headed by Asian Americans outstripped that of the average American household by $US19,460, while black Americans fell behind the average by $US21,114.
Louie argues that despite the economic privileges of Asian Americans, they still face discrimination that sets them apart from white people, noting, “there is evidence suggesting that Asian Americans are seen as forever foreigners, regardless of citizenship status and how many generations one is from the immigrant ancestor.”
According to a 2017 report from Harvard University and NPR, 27% of Asian Americans report being discriminated against when applying for a job, while 32% say they have had racial or ethnic slurs directed at them.
While income suggests a higher level of opportunity for many Asian Americans, other experiences point to an experience with a different type of discrimination.
“All minority groups in the United States have their own historical and contemporaneous experiences with exclusion,” said Louie. “That includes Asian Americans.”
More than one colour
While some have argued about who fits under the umbrella of “people of colour,” others have chosen their own terms.
Black Lives Matter (BLM), one of the most prominent race-based activist group in the US, has organised specifically around black people because they have been left out of other conversations that fell under the banner of “people of colour,” BLM co-founder Patrisse Cullors said.
While openly agreeing that all non-white people qualify as people of colour, Cullors took issue with the term itself.
“I think when the term [‘people of colour’] became problematic, was when I started to see instances of black people not being in people of colour formations, so you could use ppl of colour but not actually talk about anti-black racism,” said Cullors.
“The term POC was able to be used because they had Latinx communities or Asian communities, but it didn’t translate into black communities,” continued Cullors. “People get afraid to specify blackness.”
According to Cullors, that specificity is why they chose the group’s name.
Chanel West, a black English teacher from Chicago who has frequently posted about the term “people of colour” on her Instagram, has had similar frustrations with the identifier.
“[The term] does nothing to openly identity then unique struggles and ethnic identities of the group’s within the umbrella term,” West said over email. “I don’t like it because it is a form of erasure of my unique ethnic identity and brand as just a person of colour.”
West said that instead, she prefers more specific identifiers: “I’m a fan of ethnic identifiers such as African-American, Latino, South East Asian, Asian, Hispanic, Hebrew, Korean, Pacific Islander etc… These allow the speaker and audience to have a clear understanding of that person’s ethnic and cultural identity while also demanding respect.”
The future of ‘people of colour’
Despite certain groups opting for more specific identifiers in their activism, most people I spoke to still say there’s a place for the term “people of colour.”
Salamero, the poster of the viral meme, said that she’d like to see the continued use of the term because it creates a sense of security and camaraderie: “Like all of us aren’t alone in these issues of hate and discrimination. There’s someone out there with the same experiences as you, and would we willing to lend a hand or an ear.”
“In these times, we need allies and support more than ever, and its sad that we are being pushed back again and again,” Salamero said.
Cullors said that despite her organisation’s specific focus on black people, she believes that the term “people of colour” is more important than ever for creating unity.
“The universality of the word is incredibly important for the movement, especially under this moment,” she said.
“If I’m talking about this current administration that has literally attacked all communities of colour it becomes really useful for example, but we also can’t stop there, we should specify what has happened in each community.”
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