The term people of colour has been around since at least the 1980s, but in those days it was typically treated as something of a joke, a silly prettified euphemism. In the 2010s, in the US at least, it has now become a widely used term to group together people who are not racially white. This may be in part for the valid reason that the old term “minorities” is no longer appropriate, given that in some places like California and Texas, white people are now themselves a minority. Nevertheless, I do not think that the adoption of “people of colour” is a good thing.
As I understand it, “people of colour” as a term was selected on the grounds of its history: it came from the French term gens du couleur libres (literally “free people of colour”), used in Louisiana to refer to black or black-white mixed people who were not enslaved, and therefore calls to mind a relatively empowering past. But here is the problem. Gens du couleur libres referred, as far as I know, only to people whose ancestry was at least partially black. (In the US, that is. Other places have their own terms with their own history: in South Africa “coloured” refers much more narrowly to people of mixed white and black ancestry.) So insofar as our reasons for using “people of colour” are historical, it should only be used for people with black ancestry, not Asians or Native Americans or Latinos.
But “people of colour” is now usually not used in this way. Rather, it tends to be used instead as a euphemism to group together everybody who is not white. And it is a euphemism that effectively homogenizes the very different experiences of these very different groups of people, presuming we have more in common than we do. It leads us to assume that the experiences of Asians, especially, should be assimilated to the experiences of black people rather than to the experiences of white people. The clearer term “non-white people”, on the other hand, accurately conveys the point that the thing these groups have in common is the fact of not being white.
I think that such homogenizing does a grave disservice both to the terrible history of black people’s enslavement in the Americas, and to the conditions of grinding poverty and everyday structural racism that still constrain so many black people now. Overall we descendants of Asians are doing quite well in the contemporary US, thank you very much – Indian-Americans are the single richest ethnic group in the country, by at least some measures, better than any group of white people. The legacy of colonialism doesn’t affect our life chances much anymore, once we’re over here – but it does still greatly affect the chances of black people. Harvard has now been accused of discriminating against Asians in admissions, not because of anything like the unconscious implicit bias that harms black people, but because Harvard considers Asians to be overrepresented relative to their share of the population: making Harvard more diverse would mean letting in fewer Asians. That is the opposite problem from the one black people have: Asians are being discriminated against as an intentional form of affirmative action, because (it is claimed) that as with white people, there are more of us in élite circles than there should be, relative to the population. A very similar issue is now taking place in New York City public schools, which Asian-American parents are attempting to sue, as they claim their children are being discriminated against because of a plan to reserve seats for lower-income students.
By contrast, there is a huge gap in income and especially wealth between black and white Americans, to say nothing of the overwhelming bias of the American legal system against black people. The terrible legacy of slavery and its aftermath are a real and inescapable presence for African-Americans, and not at all for Asian-Americans.
So I think it is a grotesque misinterpretation of the situations of the two groups (black and Asian people) to assimilate them to each other. In the words of Adebola Lamuye:
I understand “person of colour” is intended to recognise the disadvantages and discriminations faced by those who are not white and to highlight how non-whites are marginalised, so their realities can be acknowledged. But how can that be done when we are lumped together as one homogeneous mass? How can police brutality be addressed if those very black men are overlooked?
The homogenization of nonwhite experience leads to a wide array of misunderstandings. One example is a Brookings Institution article that proclaims that among the US’s 100 largest metropolitan areas, “McAllen, Texas, at 96 percent minority among millennials, is the most diverse.” If you know anything about McAllen, Texas, you know how ludicrous this statement is. Brookings’s own data in their chart immediately above the statement indicates that 94.2% of McAllen’s population are Hispanic, with only 4.2% white and less than 1% each black, Asian, native or mixed. Given McAllen’s location – right on the US border with Mexico – it seems a reasonable further inference that the vast majority of those Hispanics are Mexican. A place where 94.2% of the residents fall into a single ethnic group is not diverse; it is the exact opposite of diverse. It is extraordinarily homogeneous. McAllen is less diverse than the extremely white metropolitan areas in Iowa or Idaho, where fewer than 90% of the residents are white.
The problem, of course, is that when Brookings says “diverse”, they do not actually mean “diverse”. They simply mean “not white”, but apparently can’t bring themselves to say it. And in so doing they reinforce the usual insular American perception of race, according to which the world is divided into two groups, whites and everybody else. (To this is typically added the one-drop rule: if any part of you is non-white, then all of you is. I have as much white as Indian ancestry; many people think that makes me Indian, but nobody thinks that makes me white.) Brookings defines “diversity” entirely in white terms: “diversity means any people who are not like us white people”. “People of colour” is even worse in reinforcing such a perception: it doesn’t just lump all non-white people together in a category, it pretends there is something to that category, beyond the simple absence of whiteness. “People of colour” not-so-subtly reinforces whiteness as the standard by which everything else is judged: the term leads us to assume that non-white people always have something in common, even when we don’t.
Now given that white people have held so much of the power for so long in the US and elsewhere, it is often useful to distinguish white people from everybody else. But that is why we have the term “non-white”. It is the one term that accurately groups people whose only characteristic in common is the fact that we are not white. I don’t buy the general linguistic theories of Dignāga or Saussure, according to which all words function only by excluding what they are not – but I think that their approach is helpful in this particular case. Some categories are merely residual, and should be treated as such.
There are indeed circumstances where white people need to be put in one category and everybody else in another – in discussions of American voting behaviour, for example, where whites as a group vote very differently from everybody else. But let’s be clear that that “everybody else” is an “everybody else”, a residual category, a miscellaneous group defined only by what it is not. That is to say: “people of colour” means “non-white people”, and nothing more. Insofar as whiteness takes on a status of such importance that other people need to be defined in relation to it, let us call that situation as it is and refer to “non-white people”. Let us not attempt to prettify the situation with a clumsy euphemism that maintains whiteness as the standard while pretending it doesn’t.