Language of Color

decorative image of dictionary opened to the word dictionary

After centuries of racial pejoratives and terms focusing on the absence of whiteness, the commonly standard term describe those whose ethnicities can be described as something other than white is “person(s) of color.” This is leaps and bounds better than more archaic terms which were used, with “colored” being similar linguistically but becoming pejorative socially and “negro” being a word borrowed from a language other than English, thereby further emphasizing the “otherness” of people of color. It is indisputable that we have grown more sensitive to the experiences of non-whites in this country, especially to the unique experiences of black people. But in my opinion, there may still be a ways for us to go before we find the best term to refer to those who are affected by systemic racism in America.

After doing some research, I learned the term “person(s) of color” has been in use since at least 1796, so the term is nearly as old as America itself. But the reason it has gained such popularity today is because it doesn’t have the pejorative overtones inherent in other terms and because it is people-first language. While “colored” just means any?thing? which is not white,“person of color” is unmistakably talking about a human being. It acknowledges the subject’s dignity as a person, something America has a long history of not doing. But I still see it as a work-in-progress because it still is designating those it describes as“other.” It implies white is the default, and those who aren’t white aren’t “natural” or “normal”or “standard.” It is by far the most respectable term to see common use, but it is still describing people in comparison to whiteness. Flipping that script would mean adopting a term like“person(s) without color” to refer to white people, but that also feels clunky and awkward to use in conversation. Using “black and brown people” both decenters whiteness as the default and still describes the populations affected by systemic racism regardless of what their specific ethnic background is, but it is still clunky and awkward.

All of this is to say that while I don’t have a better alternative to the term “person(s) of color,” I think it could be helpful for Americans, especially white Americans, to sit down and think about what term can be used to describe the relevant populations without reducing their existence to being something other than white. So now I’d like to ask you, do you have any ideas for what term can be used that still respects the dignity of those being spoken about without simply contrasting them to a white default?

What do you think? Join the conversation!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.