What We Get Wrong About ‘People of Color’

In October, to promote an op-ed on the best ways to bring about legislative marijuana reform, Senator Kamala Harris posted a bland extract of her proposal on Twitter. “We must legalize marijuana the right way,” she wrote. “That means correcting failed drug policies that disproportionately hurt people of color, & creating new opportunities for people of color to participate in the industry.” There was just one problem with the tweet: Harris meant to say black people.

It wasn’t people of color, that idiomatic casserole of cultures and identities, it was black people—and black men in particular, if we really want to talk about what we should be talking about—who were undercut by those unevenly distributed drug laws. (Even as incarceration rates have dropped nationwide, blacks remain the most at risk to be sentenced.) As San Francisco’s district attorney and later as attorney general of California, Harris was part of that enforcement—another point she conveniently brushes aside. In 2012, she literally laughed at the thought of legalizing marijuana.

But this is America, where amnesia is a convenient tool of the politically aspirant. Harris counts herself among a dozen Democratic hopefuls trying to remove a power-tipsy Donald Trump from his presidential seat in 2020. In the op-ed, she wrote about wanting to do the “smart thing, the right thing,” expressing that it was critical to “add measures to correct the historical injustices.” She wanted, she said, to help reverse the impact of hurt on “communities of color.” The points were valid, however vague or late or politically well-timed, but mostly they were beside the larger point. Like so many of her contemporaries, Harris’ cultural corralling—tacking on the very unspecific modifier “of color” without explicitly detailing which “people” or what “communities”—is what ultimately spoke volumes.

California’s junior senator is among a growing contingent of public figures, media publications, and online culture warriors who, in recent months, are helping grind the phrase people of color into a pile of dust. Look around and you might assume that the expression has never felt more in vogue than it is at this very moment. You would not be wrong.

Let’s first recount some recent abuses, shall we? Weeks ago, when Gravity Payments CEO Dan Price tweeted about a report that exposed racially toxic banking practices, he said the problem applied to “people of color.” The study focused exclusively on black and Latinx home buyers.

There was also a moment during the last Democratic debate when Tulsi Gabbard, who represents Hawaii in the House, mentioned how the ongoing “war on drugs” heavily affects “people of color.” There is a more than reasonable chance she knew what the data insisted: that black and Latinx folks are impacted by it the most severely.

When Stephen Ellis responded to a music poll on Twitter in November, he described “Alright”—a 2015 black power anthem by Kendrick Lamar—as “a battle cry for police brutality against people of color,” which, again, was its own kind of whitewashing.

“People of color have a higher ‘pollution burden’ in the US,” a Fast Company headline exclaimed in March. They were talking about blacks and Hispanics, as the article actually detailed.

This past summer, in one of the most bizarre applications, Representative Mike Kelly of Pennsylvania, who is white and Republican, described himself as a “person of color” when discussing Trump’s comments about four Democratic congresswomen. “It’s time to stop fixating on our differences—particularly our superficial ones,” he said.

I admit, I’m also implicated in this political correctness ruckus. Since I began working at WIRED, I’ve used the phrase when writing about changing TV patterns, movies, that HBO series Problem Areas, and scammer culture.

So why is it that we refuse to actually say what we mean?

The phrase itself has experienced an interesting trajectory, historically speaking. Early on, identifying nonwhites conveyed a more violent othering: You were simply colored or a colored person—a stain on the white purity America told itself it needed to uphold. (The term hasn’t totally disappeared; in 2015 Benedict Cumberbatch mindlessly referred to black actors as colored.) Eventually, that phrasing morphed into popular science mumbo jumbo: You were a minority, but soon even that term fell out of favor as minorities became a majority.

People of color originates in black discourse, Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, a professor of feminist theory and theoretical physics at the University of New Hampshire, tells me. It was first used to refer to lighter-skinned people of mixed race, someone who was perhaps “mulatto.” As it’s grown in popularity, its meaning has become more twisted, misshapen. Prescod-Weinstein says that this has resulted in a shift in how we understand it; we are now at a point where much of what is written about the phrase today doesn’t “excavate the historical importance and necessity of multiracial antiracist solidarity … particularly in the ’60s and ’70s when the term took on something close to its contemporary definition.”

Although the current use of people of color doesn’t denote the same racial hierarchy of previous iterations, it still does a kind of violence to how we grasp power in this country. It reduces and constricts, it treats the many as one. “As we speak, however, the English language seems to lump the colors together and treats white—the noncolor—as a race and a word apart,” William Safire observed in one of his famous “On Language” columns for The New York Times. He wrote that in 1988.

In late October, the actress Gina Rodriguez posted a video on Instagram of herself rapping the lyrics to the Fugees’ song “Ready or Not,” in which she says the word “nigga.” She was immediately called out, and when she offered an apology, she did so to “communities of color.” “Say ‘people of color’ when you mean people of color and say ‘Black’ when you mean Black,” Prescod-Weinstein tweeted.

Michael Arceneaux, a cultural critic and the author of I Can’t Date Jesus, shares a similar viewpoint. He believes the harm is in how the phrase is weaponized against black people. “What does irritate me is when it is employed to essentially erase black people as if that term is interchangeable with black,” he said over email. “It’s not.”

For me, and for many others, Rodriguez’s fumbled apology highlighted the thoughtlessness that now occupies space around the phrase. For media personality Scottie Beam, the matter is clear-cut. “I am not People of Color,” she tweeted this month, which set off a wave of responses.

Once a tag of antiracist coalition building, today in its modern, wholesale application, the term has become a bruised signifier. People of color means well—honestly, truly—but doesn’t really do the work it’s supposed to do anymore. Ostensibly, it looks and sounds nice in a sort of “We Are the World” kind of way, but its overuse has rendered it hollow.

Aside from the Kelly incident, the examples I cited earlier were not especially harsh—in part, that’s the point I am trying to make. Even the well-meaning, the most progressive among us blindly tack the phrase onto cultures as varied as the rainbow. In doing so, we turn the plural into the singular, an action that betrays all the ways we have come to understand contemporary identity.

We live in a time of expanding cultures, genders (or nongenders), and sexual orientations. Why limit that? We can never escape who we are and where we come from; we will never be culture-free, but we can be culture-specific. More and more, we are becoming a society of in-between identities, of fluid selves, and I have come to believe that the phrase people of color—to recklessly lump nonwhites into a bland monochrome—does a disservice to that reality. Broad, all-inclusive sweeps are convenient and comfortable—and sometimes, for the sake of progress, we need them—but they can also do great damage.

Earlier this year, Os Keyes wrote for RealLife on why they feel data science—as a rigid, self-reinforced structure that inflicts control around gender and personhood—causes harm to queer people. “Trans existences are built around fluidity, contextuality, and autonomy, and administrative systems are fundamentally opposed to that,” Keyes wrote, arguing that what is required is a data science premised on “plural ways of being” and the preservation of context.

As our identity classifications evolve, that’s my hope here. That people of color will no longer do—that we won’t give into the illusion of identity it creates. Let’s get even more particular in our language, and the ways in which we allocate identity. I don’t see our society abandoning its lust for roles and categories at any point in the near future, but we should be wary of letting those restrictions become impenetrable walls. Prescod-Weinstein tells me there is still potential for “a coalition that could operate under a repoliticized people of color.” She believes we can still make the word ours, something truer and more authentic to our dazzling plurality. Until then, she says, “corporate America will take any language we develop, and co-opt it and chew it and us up, and spit it out.”

Not long ago, a colleague who works in marketing shared with me how he feels his white clients are fearful of saying “black,” preferring instead “African American” or “person of color.” I’ve heard similar stories before and I find all of them pretty ridiculous. It’s ironic, really. Instead of using the words we should, we rely on a lazy catch-all; we let fear dictate our actions and err on the side of caution. But I am beginning to believe there is a danger in that safety. It is all the more reason to say what we mean. Language, after all, is meant to enhance our understanding of each other, not dilute it.

More Great WIRED Stories

Read More