Why there is no “one size fits all” language when it comes to talking about race.
“Y’all know where the term ‘women of color’ came from?” asked Loretta Ross, the co-founder of SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, at a reproductive justice training hosted by the Western States Center in 2011.
The moment was documented on video, in a clip that has traveled the internet with increasing speed since the George Floyd protests all across the US reawakened a national conversation about race and racism. After posing her rhetorical question to the audience, Ross went on to describe the alliance formed between different minority women’s groups at the 1977 National Women’s Conference in Houston.
“It was in those negotiations in Houston that the term ‘women of color’ was created,” Ross said. “It is a solidarity definition, a commitment to work in collaboration with other oppressed women of color who have been minoritized.”
But Ross also explained that in the decades since those minority women’s groups came together to form their alliance, the term “women of color” has been flattened and lost its political meaning. “Unfortunately, so many times people of color hear the term ‘people of color’ from other white people that they think white people created it,” she said, “instead of understanding that we self-made ourselves. This is a term that has a lot of power for us. But we’ve done a poor-ass job of communicating that history so that people understand that power.”
The slippage Ross discussed in 2011 is part of a familiar pattern when it comes to the language we use to talk about political oppression based on identity. An in-group will develop a new label for itself as part of a way of talking about the experiences members of that group hold in common. And then out-groups will begin using that language in a flat, unspecific way. (Think about the term “sexual harassment,” created to discuss a violent abuse of power, which became bowdlerized over the decades.) They rob the language of its political power.
This flattening does not necessarily stem from an active desire to do harm. Often, it’s rooted in a desire to be seen as “not racist” or more broadly, as one of “the good guys.” Anxious and indiscriminate and mostly white liberal speakers vaguely grasp that old terms like African American, minority, and diverse are outdated, and that new terms like people of color and BIPOC are in. And so they begin to slot in the new terms for the old without thinking too much about how the new terms are different.
“There’s this anxiety over saying the wrong thing,” says deandre miles-hercules, a PhD linguistics student who focuses on sociocultural linguistic research on race, gender, and sexuality. “And so instead of maybe doing a little research, understanding the history and the different semantic valences of a particular term to decide for yourself, or to understand the appropriateness of a use in a particular context, people generally go, ‘Tell me the word, and I will use the word.’ They’re not interested in learning things about the history of the term, or the context in which it’s appropriate.”
But miles-hercules argues that while people may not intend harm when they use identity labels inaccurately, their inaccuracy is still harmful. “People tune in to this, ‘What is the word? Do I call you African American? Do I call you Black? What is the word that people are preferring these days? I know I can’t call you Negro anymore! So just tell me the word so I can use it and we can go on from there,’” they say. “But that lacks in nuance. And that lack of nuance is a violence.”
“People want to be named and recognized, not as part of an amalgam”
This summer, a debate is looming over the words we use when we talk about the people who are disproportionately the victims of police brutality. When do we use the phrase “people of color”; when do we say “BIPOC,” which stands for Black and Indigenous people of color; and when do we just say “Black?”
The phrase “people of color” itself predates the “women of color” etymology that Ross laid out in her video. In the 1960s and ’70s, says miles-hercules, “groups like the Black Panther Party for Self Defense and the Brown Berets came together in solidarity as people of color, which was a new instantiation of the idea of people having color.” The new solidarity term used person-first language, as opposed to the idea of “colored people,” meaning Black people, that emerged in the late 19th century.
But over time, miles-hercules says, the term “people of color” lost its political force. “It then became a way to just kind of group all nonwhite people together in ways that weren’t necessarily productive,” they say. “In my own work as a linguist, and from my own perspective as a linguist, I see this as an erasure, which I consider a linguistic violence.”
Sometimes, miles-hercules says, the inclusivity and solidarity of the term “people of color” remains legitimately useful. They point to the work of Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, an organization founded in the 1970s to provide resources for Black and brown queer and trans people. Using a term like “people of color” while discussing their work “would be highly appropriate,” miles-hercules says, “because it’s honing in on the mission of that specific organization.”
But for many activists and linguists, it feels disingenuous to have a conversation about police brutality against “people of color” when we know that police brutality disproportionately targets Black people. “In this particular moment where we’re thinking about the particularity, the specificity of anti-Black racism and anti-Black police violence, you have a lot of people who are saying, ‘What is this category of ‘people of color?’” says Jonathan Rosa, a sociocultural and linguistic anthropologist at Stanford. “It presupposes a kind of solidarity and a shared positionality that doesn’t play out in practice for a lot of people, and in fact obscures more than it reveals from some perspectives.”
“When you say ‘people of color,’ then you’re erasing the fact that Black people are being shot down on the street looped in videos across the nation,” says miles-hercules. “It is not South Asian people, right? And that’s important.”
Crucially, miles-hercules adds, this distinction doesn’t mean that the issues South Asian people are facing are unimportant. “We absolutely should be paying attention to what’s going on at the India-China border right now,” they say. “But when you say ‘people of color,’ you’re not actually honing in on any of those things specifically.”
Some activists have responded by turning to the term “BIPOC” in an attempt to center the voices of Black and Indigenous communities. But using the term “BIPOC” indiscriminately carries its own problems.
“I think it’s an earnest attempt to be inclusive,” says Adrienne Dixson, a professor of critical race theory at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. “There is this attempt to be inclusive of the histories of oppression, and there’s a desire to not create a hierarchy or to stratify.” But, she adds, the political solidarity created by a term like “BIPOC” can also come with a loss of nuance. “People want to be named and recognized, not as part of an amalgam,” she says.
When you use a term like BIPOC indiscriminately, you erase differences
“BIPOC ends up being a US-specific kind of label,” says Rosa. He says the term “BIPOC” is valuable as a way of thinking about how violence against Black and Indigenous people is foundational to the United States, a country founded on the enslavement of Black people and the genocide of Indigenous people. He thinks it can help us think about the ways in which those violences continue to persist today in systems like mass incarceration. But Rosa argues that the term can also blur the differences between the two groups it is meant to center.
Rosa points specifically to the way that the US has historically determined who is allowed to identify as a “member” of Black and Indigenous groups. Under the one-drop rule of the antebellum and Jim Crow South, which arguably persists today, anyone with as much of “one drop” of Black heritage is automatically Black. But the inverse logic applies when it comes to identifying as Indigenous: You have to prove that you have enough Indigenous heritage to belong in the group.
“What that ends up doing is maximizing the Black population in the United States,” says Rosa. “Why would the Black population in the United States be constructed in that way? Well, if that population is enslaved, then you can see why that logic would prevail.” The rules of identity allowed enslavers to maximize the number of people they could exploit.
The Indigenous population, meanwhile, is minimized, which allows for the romantic founding myth of the United States to persist without conflict. “If foundational to the United States is the logic of manifest destiny, and the idea that this is ‘virgin territory,’ then there are no Indigenous people in the United States, or there were very few, and there was no mass genocide,” says Rosa. “By minimizing the Indigenous in the United States, you end up legitimizing the idea of the United States as this territory that was discovered and was uninhabited.”
Rosa argues that when well-meaning white progressives adopt terms like “BIPOC” indiscriminately, they end up erasing such differences. And they can also end up projecting US-centric ideas of race into racial conversations in other countries, where groups are constructed differently. “What I’m worried about with BIPOC is that US nationalist logics are informing some of the ways that a label like that gets taken up,” he says. “Which then amalgamates all the millions and millions of people who fit into that person of color category. And then we end up not being able to understand all the unique relationships among these populations.”
“Naming and self-naming is powerful”
For miles-hercules, all of these racial group names are in a sense renamings. In North America, people of African descent were originally just called Africans. “But I would note that also is a violence,” they say. “At the moment the first free person stepped into the ship, they lost the name Igbo, Hausa, Yoruba. You went into the hold of the ship, and you came out African. You came out black. You came out chattel. If you had any name at all. So naming and self-naming is powerful. Coming up with the language to be able to tell our stories is powerful.”
When people find themselves struggling to find the best language to talk about identities, miles-hercules argues that they should think more critically about what exactly they are trying to say. “There is no one size fits all,” they say. “What language do you need? Maybe it already exists and you need to do a little research. Maybe it doesn’t exist, and you need to create that.”
“The question is how language is being taken up,” says Rosa. He argues that we often talk about systemic racism as an individual problem: This bad cop who killed this Black person. But, Rosa says, “If it’s just an individual problem, then you let everyone else off the hook.”
Rosa argues that this focus on individualism is baked into US culture. “That’s part of the US notion of meritocratic, rugged individualism,” he says. “But part of the power of Black Lives Matter as a social movement is to say the narrative that surrounds the US is a false narrative.”
And Rosa thinks reshaping that narrative and dismantling systems of oppression will require more than just new labels. “A new label is not a solution in itself. It’s a strategy or a tool for framing a broader dialogue, a broader discussion, and for collective action that is taking place on multiple levels,” he says.
“That’s where I end with this kind of conversation: Language is crucial, and yet not the answer.”
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Author: Constance Grady