On Referring to People Who Aren’t White

Before I started reading feminist blogs, I’d never heard the term “person of colour” as it’s not widely used here in Australia. Since then, I’ve heard it perhaps four times (my head always jerks up in surprise!) out of femosphere contexts as far as I can recall. The concept itself, I should note, was not new to me, it’s just one I would have signified with “non-white” or similar rather than person of colour.

Today, I’m not going to talk about what I’d like to talk about, which would be what that kind of experience means, about how dialogue around race goes when people from lots of different contexts funnel into one big space like the Internet. I’m going to lay some groundwork in the form of a brief and rough guide to referring to people who aren’t white while taking cultural difference into account.

Person of colour, while a great term a lot of people like to use, isn’t universally the best choice when referring to people who aren’t white. In the US context, for instance, it’s the polite term. However, in the Australian context, and I don’t doubt others, there are potential conflicts as it groups everyone who isn’t white in a system of alliance in a way that isn’t always appropriate. For instance, I as a non-Indigenous person am benefiting from the oppression of Indigenous Australians in living on stolen land, a situation which doesn’t exactly lend itself to automatic solidarity, something a lot of people feel the term person of colour assumes. That’s just one example of how the usefulness and appropriateness of this term is very much tied to context. There are loads of countries and cultures and contexts in which calling someone a person of colour is downright rude!

And similarly, some people’s preferred terms might be considered rude in your context. “Coloured person” is hurtful to a lot of people, and that needs to be respected. In someone else’s context, however, it might be the respectful term – or in fact might mean something else, such as “mixed race,” rather than being the equivalent of person of colour in that region. This is why it’s so important to use someone’s preferred term, because there is so much potential to marginalise them by doing otherwise.

“Non-white” is a term many people like. It’s my preferred term, as a matter of fact. However, many people don’t like it because it positions whiteness as a default trait and non-white people as the other, or because it doesn’t really acknowledge white components of one’s heritage, and so forth. (I, on the other hand, like it as it specifically calls attention to the construction of whiteness, but obviously the manner of doing so, with its heavier politicisation of identity, is not everyone’s cup of tea, and this is by the by.) All in all, I’m sure you get the idea: there are problems with trying to use just one term for everyone universally – particularly if you’re talking about those who are outside the English-speaking world!

For that matter, there’s a problem with trying to apply the idea behind these terms universally. One ought to consider that not everyone who isn’t white might want to be referred to using any of those terms at all! Maybe, as I touched on above, these terms speak to ideas around grouping different races that don’t reflect a particular person’s reality or context. There could be lots of reasons. Some people prefer to be referred to using only racial, ethnic or other group-specific terms. Even where that constricts your ability to talk more broadly, or structure what you want to say in ways you’re used to, you need to respect that. In any case, it’s a good exercise to try and operate within ways of thinking one is not used to. It’s a good idea to tread carefully when the need to group racial and ethnic groups arises in a context that is new to one.

So, not such a quick or simple guide, really – and there’s so much, so many terms I didn’t cover – because what on earth do you use? Well, that’s the thing. You can’t absolutely guarantee avoiding mistakes, avoiding insulting someone you come into contact with. You just have to go forth as respectfully as you can, take note when someone corrects you, and keep trying to engage. You need to look to the context you’re talking about and also realise that the term generally preferred in that context might not work for a particular individual with whom you are speaking. Your best bet, I need hardly say, is to ask. It’s a wonderful world out there, there are a lot of conversations about race to be had, and it is necessary to keep trying to get it right until we do.

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52 comments for “On Referring to People Who Aren’t White

  1. June 24, 2010 at 4:52 am

    I also want you to think about the way I’ve framed this piece. As will be pretty clear to readers from outside the US, I’ve structured it around decentralising US ideas around these terms in particular – starting off with person of colour, highlighting the meaning of coloured person in the US first and so forth – because that is the perspective that dominates in the Internet’s English-speaking social justice spaces. After all, I had to learn all that US-specific terminology when I entered the Anglophone feminist blogosphere, dominated by US bloggers and concerns as it is. It’s also largely aimed at white folks. Did you notice that particular structuring? What does that say about the ways in which you think about racial terminology and cultural difference? Maybe it’d be a good idea to think about how that one perspective becomes something we’re all expected to know, and how that impacts on non-white folks outside of that context, particularly in light of the tensions described in the post.

    Moderation note: This is not a thread for centering the US or US concerns, which includes facetious complaining about how the US isn’t reeeeeaaaaally centred in the Anglofemoblogosphere. If you have never encountered this idea before and have no idea what this is all about, please take a look at these previous related posts: Dear USians on the Internet by me and American Exceptionalism and You by s.e. smith. We’ve had problems with this sort of thing in the past, so be aware that the other mods and I are going to be delete button-happy in this thread. This is a thread for talking about preferred racial terminology and cultural difference and negotiating these!

  2. Glauke
    June 24, 2010 at 5:07 am

    It’s a problem I struggle a little with as well. I live in Holland. We have Surinamese-black, Antillean-black, Somali-black and other-black (=>sorry about that). We have Turks, Morrocans and people from Indonesia.

    So non-white in my (national) experience lumps together people of very different backgrounds.

    Additionally to acknowledging their different background, I’d also want to emphasise that they are all completely entitled to being part of this country. Especially now that 10% of my country voted for Geert Wilders who is very vocal that Muslims cannot be truly Dutch.

    Risking a delete here, that’s what I’ve always liked about terms like Asian-American.

    Sorry, it’s more questions then answers here.

  3. June 24, 2010 at 5:39 am

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. Absolutely brilliant post.

    Coming from a non-English speaking country I can attest that just translating the person of colour term and using that will probably net you a lot of hostility. Here in DK grammar makes it so that person of colour can only sound like coloured person, and that is also the ‘polite’ but pejorative way of saying “scandalously frivolous person”, and that’s not quite so neutral as you can see. We do have two words for colour, though, but using the other is also belittling, because that word is usually associated with descriptions of things rather than beings, though those boundaries are becoming more fluid nowadays, so it might eventually become acceptable. Still – not a fine thing to say.

    I’m not actually sure, what to say here in DK, so depending on the colour of the person in question, I usually go with “looked to be of [region] heritage”. Always region, never country.

    And if I’m in a situation where I don’t know how to describe a person in terms of race, I always stop to consider, whether that person’s race is even relevant. If I’m looking for the bloke who dropped his wallet, and I know him to be yey tall and black, a race descriptor will be a good help in finding him, but if I’m just telling somebody about this dude the other day, who told me this hilariousest joke evar! Is his race really relevant? Nah. So why risk using an offensive descriptor when the hilarity was the point rather than the race?

    “Some people prefer to be referred to using only racial, ethnic or other group-specific terms. Even where that constricts your ability to talk more broadly, or structure what you want to say in ways you’re used to, you need to respect that.”

    This is such an important point. Because wanting to speak broadly may not be appropriate, and this will be shown by people’s differing preferences on which group they belong to.

    Around here Vietnamese families who came here in the 60s and 70s and Turkish families who came here in the 70s and 80s belong to the same broad ‘group’ of “people of colour”, but they are not a group at all. The former came here because of a war, as I’m sure you’d already guessed, the latter came here because in those years we were lacking manpower and people were invited to come work here. The former are generally well liked, the latter are ferociously hated. Though I’m unsure as to why that is. Grouping them together would be ignorant, and wanting to broadly describe them as a group shows off that ignorance.

    So maybe, when people do not want to be described by the broad group-term, maybe we should re-consider yet again our view of certain people as a monolithic group.

  4. June 24, 2010 at 6:17 am

    Thank you, Chally.

    I generally tend to be wary of the “person of color is offensive” argument, but I think this was a great way of framing it and decentralize race discussions from US politics.

  5. syndella
    June 24, 2010 at 7:43 am

    I’m not a big fan of non-white, probably b/c I’m half white and it doesn’t adequately describe me.

    Put me in the camp that doesn’t like being referred to as catch-all terms. There’s no one word that everyone’s going to like (I would just about die if someone referred to me as a “person of color”) so just ask people.

  6. Paraxeni
    June 24, 2010 at 7:50 am

    Thanks for this Chally. I’m from the U.K. and ‘PoC’ isn’t really used here either, except maybe by bloggers who don’t wish to use regional terminology. In terms of census-based racial definitions people here tend to be categorised by their heritage or birthplace, so we have White British/Irish, Black British (+African, Caribbean or ‘other’), British Asian (+Pakistani, Indian, Bangladeshi, or ‘other’), Mixed race British+category and then African+, Asian+, White+, Mixed race etc. etc. I haven’t listed all the possible permutations, just the way that they’re presented. It’s up to citizens to self-select the category they identify with. I’ve known people born and brought up in Pakistan who are very recent immigrants select ‘British Asian’ as this is their chosen home, and second, even third-generation people who choose only the ‘Black’ or ‘Asian’ label as it reflects their identity best.

    I don’t use these terms when talking about a person unless I know how they identify (same goes for sexuality/gender ID) and I wouldn’t use terms like ‘Black’, ‘Asian’ or ‘Mixed’ online, not least because these things have different meaning attached to them by different English-speaking cultures, the best example being ‘Asian’, which seems to refer to Chinese/Japanese/Koreans etc. if you’re a USian, but here it tends to mean you’re from India, Pakistan or Bangladesh.

    So, I default to PoC in online discussions because it requires little explanation and has less chance of being misunderstood, even if it has the unfortunate side-effect of lumping anyone ‘not white’ into a monolithic brown blob. My partner complains that my online writing “sounds American” because I often default to U.S. terminology out of force of habit, otherwise discussion gets derailed while I explain what a ‘cot’ is, or a ‘coil’, or a ‘pie’.

  7. Somebody
    June 24, 2010 at 8:15 am

    Thank you for this. I always feel awkward about all the different irrelevant terms describing race, especially as a non-US citizen. The attitude sometimes seems like giving it too much importance, and by the wrong people (white Americans). I don’t think race needs to be a touchy subject at all, that a lot of people make it touchy by tip-toeing around it… but it does make sense when a term like ‘person of colour’ makes it into the mainstream. Yeah, I know, white isn’t a colour, but neither is black. So the only persons of colour are various shades of brown? I can’t get around how that doesn’t include “white” people.

  8. June 24, 2010 at 8:17 am

    Thanks for this, Chally.

    In Germany both terms POC and non-white don’t really make any sense because round here it was always about being “aryan”, not just white and although hardly anyone uses that word anymore, that concept is deeply rooted in people’s perception of race.

  9. Iona
    June 24, 2010 at 8:53 am

    Great post. I’m British, and I absolutely hate people calling me a “person of colour”. I have never used that term to refer to myself, I have never heard it outside of the US/outside of US-dominated discourse. It’s not this catch-all always-appropriate term that people seem to think it is.

  10. insomniac
    June 24, 2010 at 8:59 am

    Thanks for this interesting post, and other commenters for the comments so far.

    I’m from the UK, and the first time I came across the term ‘person of colour’ was online, on US blogs. I have never heard this term used in real life by a UK person… Politically, one of the main terms to refer to people who are not white here is ‘BME’, which stands for ‘Black and Minority Ethnic’. This is supplanting the previous term ‘Ethnic Minority’, meaning someone from an ethnic community which is not the majority in the country. Of course this term only makes sense within a majority white country. It also leads to some odd phrasings, for example my city is set to be one of the first ‘Ethnic Minority Majority’ cities in England. Wrap your head aroud the logic of that one.

    To put this into context, I work in the arts sector, which is becoming very concerned with reflecting the diversity of our contemporary society (often in a superficial way, which is an ongoing debate). The main term we use is BME, and we also use more general terms such as ‘diverse backgrounds’ and ‘politically/socially/economically marginalised communities’. The term ‘Black arts’ still exists, which some people use as the political category ‘Black’, i.e. not white. So ‘Black arts’ can in some cases include artists from South Asian, East Asian backgrounds, etc etc. For more context, I am a white person working for an arts company whose artistic ethos and artistic background is from a BME community. In official circles we have ‘tick box’ style categories which we have to use, otherwise I tend to refer to people by what category they choose, if they choose one. Or I ask them…

    I think one problem with ‘person of colour’ is that it implies that white is not a colour. In UK terms, you can be white and from an ethnic minority community, for example large Bosnian, Polish communities here. ‘Person of colour’ reminds me a little of the way ‘ethnic’ is mistakenly used as a catch-all term for ‘not white’. Each person of each background has a colour and an ethnicity. In a way these ideas contribute to cultural appropration, if some white people grew up thinking that they did have a colour and an ethnic background, they may be less inclined to objectify or appropriate those of other people (by this I do not in any sense mean that ridiculous white pride, I intend this as a way of pulling the rug from under those people). ‘Person of colour’ also can seem to position whiteness as a separate default category. There is ‘whiteness’ and there is ‘colour’.

    These binary categories do reflect to a large extent many of the power relationships in the world today. But in other ways they are too simplistic. I think we should be working towards dismantling these skewed power relationships and binaries, dismantling ‘whiteness’ itself as a powerful thing, and working towards finding more inclusive and nuanced ways of referring to ourselves and each other.

  11. June 24, 2010 at 9:12 am

    I really like this post, largely because it does decentralize USA perspectives (and I’m a sucker for that).

    I personally identify as Métis, which leads to issues because it’s a fairly Canada-specific term and not all people from elsewhere recognize it.

    But non-White doesn’t work–I’m more than half White. And I look white enough that PoC seems…disingenuous somehow, like I’m trying to claim something that doesn’t really belong to me.

    I pretty much just settle for defining Métis to people who don’t recognize it, right now.

  12. Brian
    June 24, 2010 at 9:19 am

    Person of Colour (and whatnot) do exactly the same lumping as white & nonwhite. Person of Colour really only gets a pass (mostly) because it’s jargon related to progressive politics – we trust (or we’re supposed to) that the person isn’t othering the People of Colour. But if reactionary-types got a hold of it, I’m pretty sure it’d be called othering in a half-jiffy.

    But if you intent is really to bundle up everyone who isn’t white, what can you do? (Maybe the answer is: “Examine why you want to bundle everyone who isn’t white.”?) Statistics Canada uses “Visible Minority”, so that’s usually the go-to term in Canada (though Indians, Inuit and Metis are not Visible Minorities). Context is important, and we might just have to accept there’s no cross-cultural universal way to do it. (For instance, I’ve used “Indian”, which is the government term, but which is sometimes offensive – but Americans might prefer Native American, which you wouldn’t use in Canada, since Canadians are not Americans, and emphatically so. I can pick Native Canadian or First Nations, but maybe that’s localler than I want to be? Those don’t seem like they’d include, say, a Native American immigrant to Canada. Eskimo is a term I see Americans apply to themselves, but isn’t a term I’d touch with a 10 metre pole – even if someone self-describes that way, the term is simply too loaded in my cultural context; I don’t think I’d be able to apply it to anyone, ever.)

  13. flora poste
    June 24, 2010 at 9:20 am

    I suppose that “person of color” is meant to emphasise the person before the colour so that a person’s race doesn’t define hir, but that’s a bit pointless if the topic being discussed is race, and it usually is when “POC” or “WOC” is being used.
    More problematic is that POC is a euphemism which pretends to refer to all people who aren’t pure white, but which really only refers to black North Americans, the ones descended from slaves. Other non-white Americans, even if they are being held for months without charge in US prisons after racial profiling, just don’t seem to be of much interest to US anti-racism bloggers. As for the non-white rest of the world, forget it.

  14. Holy!
    June 24, 2010 at 9:20 am

    Person of color is as problematic as “white person.” Plenty of people considered white have more skin color then some of those considered “people of color.” For example: A Sicilian person and northern Chinese person.

  15. marrrkat
    June 24, 2010 at 9:29 am

    Longtime reader, first time commenter.
    In the spirit of “talking about preferred racial terminology and cultural difference and negotiating these,” I’ll share my experience, and what I’ve learned, granted that it is not the “center of the universe.” I am from the United States. Perhaps I can elucidate on the “person of color” designation. My speculation is that “person of color” is used rather than “non-white” because it includes more ethnicities. “Person of color” suggests some degree of racialization, even if the group a person is associated with is officially considered white. For example, people from India, Pakistan, almost anywhere in the Middle East, and Latin people of all stripes are categorized as white in the United States. However, in the media I consume, I often see people of non-racialized ethnic groups identify as “people of color.” People from Arabic-speaking countries who live in the United States, for example, were pretty much universally considered white before the WTC disaster. Since then, anyone falling into this category has been increasingly racialized, and therefore, subject to more racism and bigotry. As another example, Mexicans were once considered a “race” in the United States, even appearing as one in the 1930 U.S. census. Now only the most ignorant people in the U.S. would deem them as such.
    Using “person of color” as opposed to “non-white” asserts a difference of experience from the white normative experience, yet doesn’t invalid one’s claims to whiteness.
    I am not by any means promoting the “person of color” terminology. I find it problematic and find myself more often talking about “blacks,” “whites,” “Indians,” and the country-specific identifiers we have in the United States. I can see many applications for “non-white,” but I would never use it to describe a single person or a community. It makes a lot of sense for demographic study, however.
    Difference in race construction among countries is impossible to avoid. Every country has its own history, not only of racial groups, but racialization, and associated vocabulary. How simple things would be if race really were genetic.

  16. June 24, 2010 at 9:45 am

    Thanks for this, Chally; I remember reading about how “person of color” wasn’t the best choice in Australia and I did not understand what the issue was, but you’ve laid it out here very clearly, and it makes much more sense to me now.

  17. Paraxeni
    June 24, 2010 at 10:18 am

    insomniac – brilliant comment. I know exactly what you mean about people using ‘ethnic’ almost as a noun, it’s infuriating to hear someone say “Oh s/he’s an ethnic”. Last time I heard it I muttered “Aren’t we all?” and then had to spend half an hour explaining what I meant. Also, the ‘ethnic minority majority’ cracks me up, our local council used to love using that term to mean ‘area full of brown people’, not realising how ridiculous their phraseology was.

    I like ‘BME’ because it’s not restricted to labelling by colour. Like you said we’ve always had immigration from countries made up of people who appear ‘white’, Eastern Europe or even Australia and NZ, or people like Afrikaaners, Greeks, Turks, Cypriots etc. who are often indistinguishable from anyone else unless they speak with a non-English accent, or their background is given away by their name or something they’ve said. My old home town was heavily populated by Turkish Cypriots, mostly Muslims who did not identify as ‘White’ but certainly appeared that way, especially the newer generations who’d grown up in our climate.

  18. Paraxeni
    June 24, 2010 at 10:23 am

    My last para. should say “Who did not identify as ‘White British‘” because even if their skin was white, their identities were informed more by their ethnic background and culture, than their place of residence/birth.

  19. June 24, 2010 at 10:25 am

    Nthing a dislike for “non-white”, for exactly the reason Chally pointed out in her post: its anglo-normative.

    My partner prefers the term black and uses it exclusively when referring to herself.

    I think, in large part, because due to the legacy of slavery there is a new ethnic group [1] that is distinct from any of the historic African ethnic groups. Recent African immigrants in the USA often tend to identify by their actual ethnicity or nationality (e Akan, Zulu, Sudanese, etc), and I suppose that pattern might hold elsewhere.

    Since slave descended Americans are mostly the result of a mixture of the various enslaved West African ethnicities plus whatever European ethnicities were mixed in due to the rape of slave women by white owners, that makes referencing their historic ethnicity mostly impossible, which leaves USA-ians with the need to invent new terms.

    That situation mostly doesn’t hold outside the USA where the population that isn’t white is often going to be of a distinct historic ethnic group.

    Our son has a solution that I think is typical of the direct nature of three year old thinking. He says that he and his mother are brown and that I’m pink. However, Molly Ivins to the contrary, I don’t really think that will really work in most discourse.

    It could be argued that ideally we’d refer to a person’s actual ethnicity [2], but that isn’t really practical in most situations unless you know the actual ethnicity ahead of time. If you know that Person X is, say, Akan, you could describe them that way, but if you don’t then what? And, of course, we’re seeing an ever growing number of multi-ethnic people which renders that approach less than optimal. Take my son, his genetic father was a black American (ie: a mixture of several mostly West African tribal ethnicities, plus ancillary European genes), his genetic mother was half European melange and half Mexican indio/European mix. Trying to identify him by the ethnicities that went into his making is impossible in casual conversation and certainly not something that can be easily identified.

    “Dark skinned” and “light skinned” might work in English? I have no idea. As a privileged white male I follow my partner’s lead and use the term black unless I know that the person I’m speaking to has an objection.

    And, of course that’s just the US centric difficulties in identifying our own non-Hispanic dark skinned population, then we get into Arab vs. Persian. Mis-identifying various East Asian ethnicities or simply using the generic (and to some offensive) term “Asian”. I think the term “linguistic minefield” applies.

    [1] Well, new in the historic sense.

    [2] Many Americans descended from the indiginous tribes vastly prefer this, and find the term “Indian” offensive. They’re Crow, or Cherokee, or Soux, or what have you.

  20. ysabet
    June 24, 2010 at 10:59 am

    Growing up, I never heard about white people, except for the English who came to Australian shores. They were the only white people in a cultural context. I wasn’t white; I was a redhead of Irish descent. Most of the people I knew weren’t ‘white’ – they were Africans, or Indians, or Vietnamese, or Spanish, or Italian, or Greek, or Dutch, or South African, or Indonesian, or Malaysian, or English, or Polish, or Russian, or Australian, or whatever. I recall being very confused, because I didn’t know anyone (except for family members) who was really pale enough to be considered white, in any literal sense. And I got *really* confused when I went online and heard Americans talking about being white, when they clearly had tans and brown hair, and were really rather brown or olive or yellow. The term People of Colour … well. The first time I heard it, I thought ‘Wow, that’s really rude’. Part of this may be because I really hate being referred to by my hair colour (especially the words ‘ginger’ or ‘ranga’), so I guess I’m a bit sensitive to people being referred to by a term that implies they look funny. And, frankly, in my mind … the use of People of Colour to describe specific nationalities and racial subtypes is like saying ‘this big group? they don’t look normal (despite making up greater than half the world’s population)’. I mean, you may as well say ‘non anglo saxon’ (which, actually, would be politer in my personal lexicon – it doesn’t assume anglo as a normal, as much). Personally, I prefer to use terms based on preferred region or descent therefrom. It makes for long lists, and makes it difficult to generalise, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing if it forces me to think about what I’m saying or writing.

  21. Quercki
    June 24, 2010 at 11:35 am

    I’ve recently seen in a couple of museums how the same subject was handled in Spanish America
    Casta – Wikipedia

  22. June 24, 2010 at 12:00 pm

    @marrrkat, excellent point. White has historically been more a term of in-group identification rather than a reference to any actual ethnic group or skin tone. Today in America, Italians are considered to be “white”, back in the 1890’s they were “swarthy” considered inferior. Heck, the Irish weren’t considered “white” originally.

    I think we’d be better off talking about “people of European descent” or “pink people” rather than “white people”.

  23. Ruchama
    June 24, 2010 at 12:04 pm

    I remember once, several years ago, I was having a conversation about immigration with a classmate from France. (I’m from the US, and the university we were attending is in the US.) She asked why Americans have so many complaints about Mexicans coming into the US, since, “After all, they’re white. It’s not like the Arabs we’ve got coming into France.” Incidentally, she shared an office with another classmate who was from Mexico. I’m not sure how this Mexican classmate identified herself or what her actual ancestry is, but she was very dark (significantly darker than me, and I’m sometimes mistaken for Hispanic or Arab), and her facial features looked (to me, anyway) much more North American Native than anything European. But in this French classmate’s eyes, she was white, but people from Lebanon or Morocco were not.

  24. R. Dave
    June 24, 2010 at 1:28 pm

    Honestly, I think people put way too much emphasis on this whole descriptive labeling thing and use it mostly to signal their own “enlightened” perspective. It really seems pretty simple to me. When speaking generally, people should just use whatever non-pejorative term is commonly used in their own culture, and when speaking to a specific individual or group, switch to whatever term that individual/group indicates they prefer. In other words, just do your own thing, but don’t be a jerk about it if you know your particular audience or interlocutor has a different preference. *shrug*

  25. June 24, 2010 at 1:57 pm

    My question is this. Should we expect the nomenclature and terminology to be in a constant state of flux, or rather is there any particular term agreed upon that could be used as an umbrella designation?

  26. June 24, 2010 at 2:24 pm

    I am Brazilian, Jewish, Black and host of other things. I grew up outside the US, despite being born stateside. I use “POC” or “brown folks” because regardless of what I wish to claim for myself – I claim multiracial; people see “black person” – I am pragmatic about how this all works. Ideally, I would like more inclusive terms, but since my activist goal is not to win hearts and minds, but alter behavior, I tend to stick with the terminology that is recognizable, because I’ve run into some trouble, universalizing terms for marginalized racial identities culled from posts such as these, where similarly identified folks said, “hey, that’s NOT how I choose to identify myself and it’s really problematic to do so.”

    Just a thought.

  27. Bagelsan
    June 24, 2010 at 2:30 pm

    As a white American, I think we really do work ourselves into a silly position when it comes to race. When I was a kid I was taught you absolutely had to say “African-American” and shortening it in any way (or heaven forbid saying “black“) meant you were probably a horrible racist.* So now you have people in my generation who try to refer to any darkish or African-descended person as “African-American” which leads to people getting halfway through saying stuff like “that exchange student is African-Amer– uh…” and trailing off in the realization that no, he’s not American, but OMG saying the word African all by itself sounds racist oh crap oh crap…

    And then everyone gets bogged down in trying to sound like a decent person and forgets to actually act like a decent person…

    *It should also be noted that this was invariably white teachers instructing mostly white students.

  28. Meghan
    June 24, 2010 at 3:32 pm

    Thanks for this, Chally, and for everyone else who has left a comment. I’m a ‘white’ USian… so whenever I can get opinions on how people refer to someone who isn’t white, I try. I’m an education major, and they always harp on us being so extremely politically correct and not grouping or offending anyone anywhere anytime at all or wemightbesued, but we’re never offered any good solutions, either. And living in small-town white bread America doesn’t exactly give me much global perspective. It’s a silly human thing of us to have caused such a big deal over ‘identifying’ people by their skin tone.

    I’m with insomniac on this whole color-identification issue as well. When it boils down to using Crayola crayons, I’m more of a peach-with-sepia-spots. I think it’s weird that when filling out a form asking for my racial identification, I have the options of White, African American, Hispanic American, Pacific Islander… and so on and so forth. Wait, why not Caucasian? Or Irish? Or “My Ancestors Came Across the Ocean Once Upon a Time”?

    Again, thank you, everyone, for the insight. And Chally, I loved the “Dear USians” article. It made me laugh to picture all of the people in my life that fit the article so well.

  29. June 24, 2010 at 3:37 pm

    ‘I think we’d be better off talking about “people of European descent” or “pink people” rather than “white people”.’

    Thing is, not everyone descended from Europeans is white. And a lot of people who look pinkish aren’t white, you know?

    ‘My question is this. Should we expect the nomenclature and terminology to be in a constant state of flux, or rather is there any particular term agreed upon that could be used as an umbrella designation?’

    I don’t think cultural difference and all these histories are going to allow an umbrella designation.

  30. June 24, 2010 at 3:43 pm

    Meghan: Glad you liked it. :)

  31. June 24, 2010 at 4:06 pm

    Hi Snarky’s Machine – just fished your comment out of the spam trap. I’m not precisely sure what you’re getting at; the point of the post was that universalising terms such as are in this post is problematic, and that it’s important to stick with the terminology folks themselves recognise and identify with.

  32. June 24, 2010 at 4:23 pm

    Hey Chally,

    The way I understand it, “POC” came to be used in US progressive circles because it was a term created at a conference by and for POC working on anti-racist activism together. The intent was to create a term that did not designate POC simply in negative terms, centralizing whiteness (i.e. “nonwhite”).

    Each country is different, and I try to switch my terminology appropriately. For example, in South Africa, the way I understand it, the appropriate term in progressive circles is “colored people.” I don’t know all the history behind that, and it feels really weird to say because in the US it’s derogatory, but I’ve been told that is what South Africans prefer.

    You can pretty much expect that the ways people refer to oppressed people will be politically charged, and will vary from place to place. As you say, I just ask, and go with what people say is respectful.

  33. Lance
    June 24, 2010 at 4:37 pm

    I generally wait until I know what the preferred terminology is for a group before I really do any speaking about that group. I figure that if I don’t know enough to know the terms that are generally preferred, I probably don’t know enough to make any informed statements about that group.

    That said, preferred terms can change depending on audience, and even if a particular term happens to generally be preferred by a group, it doesn’t guarantee that everyone in that group (much less everyone in general) prefers it or isn’t offended by it. In those cases, I generally just hope that the content of my statements is informed enough that it gets over the flaws in the presentation.

    So given that it can be difficult to refer even to specific groups, and that terminology in reference to them can shift depending on audience and the passing of time; I think it’s a fool’s errand to try and come up with an umbrella term that will be acceptable to everyone.

  34. bxley
    June 24, 2010 at 5:32 pm

    thanks, Chally. “people of color” bothers me a bit too, mostly because of the US-centrism thing, but also because it inevitably makes me think of rainbow people.
    I wanted to add that when terms for race (or related aspects, like the broader-but-overlapping ethnicity) vary from place to place, it is not only a reflection of the different frameworks used to make sense of the concept; it can also indicate how a particular person would be treated in one society or another. so if I’m not a WOC in Mexico, it’s not just because we don’t use that term here, it’s also because I –a Spanish-speaking, middle-class mestiza, like 80 per cent of the population, and completely a part of Western Civilization– am privileged in every way except for my gender, much like a USian white woman. when I’m in the US, I’m part of a marginalized minority, but while I’m Mexico, I benefit from the oppression of Mexico’s Othered Ethnicity of Choice, its indigenous peoples.

  35. JK
    June 24, 2010 at 9:28 pm

    I have a question that relates. I was talking to a co-worker recently, and she told me a story about a customer who was a certain race. Now, the race part had nothing to do with the story, and yet she specified. I left the encounter feeling it was strange to mention it, and yet, I couldn’t quite tell her that she must erase the person’s heritage because discussing it made me uncomfortable, nor do I want to imply everyone is white unless specified otherwise, or demand that everyone be identified. So, generally, when, if ever, should race be mentioned when discussing something that does not relate directly to the story? Is it better to say because it paints a fuller picture when story-telling. I don’t want to derail, but I have no idea how to google that.

  36. June 24, 2010 at 10:04 pm

    Chally, I love you. This post is brill!

  37. June 25, 2010 at 1:22 am

    Goodness me, I haven’t thanked you all for your comments yet! Thanks, everyone!

    JK: Thanks for the question, because it’s a good one. I would rather we not discuss that here, because we’re already having an important conversation as it is, and I don’t want the topic you bring up to be a mere sideline. Just as a suggestion, what I like to do to gently nudge people who engage in that sort of behaviour is to start describing white people as white and everyone else according to features other than their races, just to make the person or people I’m talking to go ‘huh’. Getting back to my first sentence in this comment, if anyone has any links relevant to JK’s question, please feel free to drop them in here, but I’d rather not have the two conversations at once.

  38. Nadia
    June 25, 2010 at 7:10 am

    Love this post, Chally. Even though I spent some of my formative years in the US and I get why it’s used, I really hate the term ‘person of color’. Frankly, I would rather be called ‘not-white’ because, even though the latter term is problematic in that it normalizes whiteness and casts those of us who are not white as deviant from the norm, I find it a more honest term and consequently a more respectful one. (note that I don’t find it all that intrinsically respectful – I’m talking degrees here.)

    To my ears, referring to me as a POC means that my personhood is something that can be modified and therefore questioned and that puts my back up. I realize that ‘not white’ pretty much does the same thing if you think about it, but it does so openly and anyone using the term has to articulate exactly what they mean. Person of Color is broad and fuzzy and slides off the tongue too easily. If you’re going to talk about my race and my color, then I need you to say what (you think ) you know – that I am not white – and then back off and let me define what I am in the terms that I choose. I get to tell you what the color of my skin does and does not mean. You do not get to lump me into a pre-defined category of your choosing.

    At least that’s the idea.

    Then there’s this weird idea that ‘white’ is some sort of ethnicity in and of itself. The term ‘white’ as a racial category is primarily North American in origin and is more a marker of a *lack* of ethnicity. When you lose your ties to the ‘old country’, stop speaking your ancestors’ language(s) and become an English monolingual is when you get to be ‘white’. (If you’re visibly of European descent, that is. If you’re some other color, then you’re just a big ol’ problem.) That’s partly why many Afghans and Central Asians who fit the bill physically still ‘can’t’ be white.

    I think the commenter who suggested using ‘pink’ or to describe white people is on to something. Maybe ‘pale-person’ or ‘persons who lack melanin’ would do too?

    Seriously though, sometimes I find the term ‘heritage’ can be cool because it describes where your ancestors have come from but stops short of defining you outright.

  39. flora poste
    June 25, 2010 at 8:17 am

    Thanks, insomniac, for bringing up “the way ‘ethnic’ is mistakenly used as a catch-all term for ‘not white’ “, a real bugbear of mine. I couldn’t even convince my TEFL trainer that “ethnic” doesn’t mean “non-anglo”, or that it isn’t a noun.

  40. Kai
    June 25, 2010 at 4:31 pm

    “Person of color” doesn’t come from feminist blogs. It became popular among certain activist and academic groups because it’s a convenient US-centric shorthand to describe a racially delineated political body in which many of us have worked for years or decades, in cross-racial coalitions. It’s not regarded as particularly polite, in fact it’s more sociological or activist than polite. Some white people might think it’s polite because they don’t want to call someone Black or Mexican or Chinese, but the problem is their racist feelings, not the term itself.

    Regardless, you should use whatever term best suits the subject and scope you’re discussing. As long as your meanings are clear, that’s what matters. No need to apologize for using or not using any particular terms from sociology or any other disciplines, use the language that feels the most correct to you and allow others to do the same.

    In North America, I’m East Asian, Chinese, and a person of color. In China, I’m Manchu-Han, though I’m not about to make everyone I interact with outside of China learn what this means. In Australia (where by the way I encountered belligerent racism more toxic than what I’m accustomed to in the US), I’m Chinese, Asian, non-white. All fine by me, plus I have no choice in the matter

    It’s important to emphasize that race and ethnicity are related but not the same. Any East Asian kid growing up in the US will be called a chink, not just Chinese kids, because ethnicity is not the point of racist slurs. I suppose one comeback could be “I’m Filipino, not Chinese, nyah nyah!” but that would kinda be missing the point.

    Generally speaking, I would say that race is imposed by political power, not by self-identification or the details of one’s genetic lineage. The terms “white” and “person of color” are strictly racial in this sense, not ethnic. Of course, this terrain is to some extent being renegotiated, so maybe that’s what this discussion is ultimately about.

  41. arachne
    June 25, 2010 at 5:40 pm

    Longtime lurker coming out of the woodworks.
    I’ve absorbed the US-centric terms of “POC” and “WOC” in reading feminist blogs without much question, so far – even though a direct translation to my native language would result in something highly offensive.
    Like Jemima above, I tend to use region of origin as a descriptor rather than skin colour. In my socio-political context, that is preferable to the (formerly?) mainstream equivalent to POC (the clinical “allochtonous”) which, while never without its problems, now has irrevocably devolved into a right-winger euphemism for “troublemakers and/or muslims”.
    (At the risk of parenthesis overdose, I’ll add that “allochtonous” never was a favourite of mine even before the shift in meaning. It exists to draw a sharp divide between those who “belong” and those who don’t. The racist roots of which were obvious: white-skinned non-nationals would not be called that, somehow – they weren’t Other enough to merit that term.)

    R. Dave hits upon what my initial thought was: don’t complicate matters, just be sensitive and go with local preferences. Yay! Except that online, where identities and nationalities are obscured for the most part, it’s very easy to give offense if you stick to that rule. So I find myself defaulting to US-centric progressive speak to at least avoid that battle, even though those descriptors make little to no sense for my experience. What can you do.

  42. arachne
    June 25, 2010 at 5:44 pm

    Spelling boo-boo: allochthonous, apparently.

  43. June 25, 2010 at 7:11 pm

    I liked the point you made: ask.

    I am honestly *not* trying to troll here. However, a couple weeks ago, I was chastised for taking that position. I was told that asking means I’m not being sensitive to the fact that people may be asked questions like this all the time and resent it.

    So to be honest, I agree. Asking is the best policy. I would rather ask someone than make an assumption about what is appropriate and offend a person. But I’ve also been told that by asking I am being offensive. I’m beginning to think there is no good way to deal with this because no matter what, I am going to be viewed as a bad person because I come from a positive of cultural privilege.

  44. Nadia
    June 25, 2010 at 10:04 pm

    Kai: “Any East Asian kid growing up in the US will be called a chink, not just Chinese kids, because ethnicity is not the point of racist slurs. I suppose one comeback could be “I’m Filipino, not Chinese, nyah nyah!” but that would kinda be missing the point.”

    Reminds me of one of Margaret Cho’s earlier jokes about being called a ‘chink’ and responding, “I’m Korean! I’m a gook!”

    I also agree about the belligerent racism in Australia vs the US. That I was in the US in the 90s and am in Aus now makes a difference, obviously – I’m older, the world has changed quite drastically, etc. – but there’s an insularity to Australian culture that I never really experienced in the US. It’s hard to pin down, but even in close relationships the spectre of race seems to be almost constantly present – like not seeing my skin color is just not an option to them. I put it down to a comparative lack of racial mixing here. The Australians that I know can mostly trace their heritage pretty clearly to one country or region while in the US a significant part of the population has very diverse, mixed heritage and so isn’t really all that bothered with pinning down exactly what your lineage is. It often makes me think of the obsessiveness of dog breeders.

  45. Miss S
    June 26, 2010 at 1:16 am

    Great post. I have identified here as WOC (woman of color) which is to basically say that I’m not white. I don’t really use ethnicity/ancestry for the reasons some above have mentioned: it’s not that simple.

    We have this one drop rule, right? But if I meet someone, and they ask, and I say “black” they say “no…what are you mixed with?” I have a mixed background (parents are mixed). So then I say mixed, and they want the breakdown. With percentages. But, I have seen/heard mixed race people who have identified as mixed get mocked, because according to some, they are “basically black.” Because, ya know, there is a one drop rule. But it doesn’t apply all the time. And I never know when it does. So I say WOC because it saves time, and I like to think it gets the point across.

    I like this post. I know it’s about how we identify others, but I think it’s worth pointing out the troubles in racial/ethnicity identification that may be invisible to some.

  46. Miss S
    June 26, 2010 at 1:21 am

    If I’m identifying someone else, and I know how they identify, I’ll use that. Otherwise, it’s white or non white. And if it’s casual conversation, I’m going to be honest: I’ll guess. Like “did you see that one girl? No the tall one, I think she was Peruvian or something…with the red shoes? We should ask her where she got them.”
    It’s late, that was the best example I could think of :)

  47. June 26, 2010 at 2:57 am

    Kai, I wasn’t suggesting that the term originated with feminist blogs, but that it was where I first heard the term used. Thanks for all the food for thought!

    ‘there’s an insularity to Australian culture’

    That’s such a good point, I think that’s a good deal to do with it.

  48. spigliatezza
    June 27, 2010 at 10:37 pm

    I completely agree with your comment, except for one thing. “Coloured” in South Africa (and Namibia) refers to people of mixed race. People who are black will refer to themselves as such.
    But otherwise, yes. Right on.
    I think, in any discussion of race, it’s important to recognize that different people will have different experiences based on perception of their identity as well as their actual identity. I also agree that these discussions need to be contextual by region. One of things I realized when I lived in Namibia was that most of what I knew about race in America simply didn’t apply, and it wasn’t appropriate to apply my Ameri-centric attitudes about race to the Namibian context.

  49. calyx
    June 27, 2010 at 11:28 pm

    In Australia, other terms I’ve heard include “non-anglo”, NESB (non-English speaking backgrounds, now an outdated term), and People from Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Backgrounds, which tends to be government and community-sector-speak and ties itself in knots really – does it really mean to exclude the English-background people? Anglo should really be Anglo-Celtic or Anglo/Celtic, though these days the Irish don’t really get the ostracism here that used to be prevalent; more recent immigration waves of “Otherness” made the Irish Catholics seem relatively familiar I suppose and there’s now lots of intermarrying without much issue. There aren’t that many people in Australia from wealthy pale-skinned-Euro places that aren’t (officially) English speaking, so non-Anglo-Celtic tends to describe being at an economic and/or cultural and/or racial disadvantage in white-majority Australia, same with NESB and uh, PFCALDB.

    The other one I hear in Australia is non-Caucasian for non-white, which kinda drives me nuts, because you can have really dark skin and be Caucasian; eg some people from India; pointing this out seems to cause all kinds of paroxysms. And Caucasian is kind of an icky term anyway to include in social discourse.

    I’ve also heard a few people who were descended from 1800s Chinese goldminers object to being described as NESB, because they themselves didn’t speak any language other than English!

    Once in an activism circle addressing racism someone (Anglo/Celtic) used non-white and non-Anglo interchangeably, which pissed off someone from Eastern Europe mightily; “hello, I might not be as privileged as you in terms of background but I’m clearly white here!”

    Also, of course, in Australia, when people and organisations wish to conglomerate people for reasons of lacking privilege due to coming from/being perceived as not from majority culture, indigenous folk get separated out a lot because of the often really different issues affecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. Fortunately the latter seems to be a fairly widely accepted term, it’s considered pretty racist to use “Aborigine” these days.

    Immigrant is sometimes used here as a term with an attempt at respect for referring to non-indigenous non-whites, but forgetting if you’re not indigenous, then you’re an immigrant by default! It tends to be more pejorative though.

    Sorry for rambling. But yes, I agree, unless there’s a particular reason for needing an inclusive catchall term (and it’s very much context-dependent), probably better not to use it.

  50. June 29, 2010 at 4:14 am

    Whoa, so much food for thought here. Thanks for this post Chally, and for this conversation. I *do* think how we refer to non-white people(for ease of use today!) matters, and a great deal, and that it is important to be sensitive.

    Calyx, I also had thought of the people of Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CALD) term. (Allied health worker here!)

    I had kinda liked the term, I always took it to mean CALD from the dominant culture. I liked it because it removed the colour aspect entirely and I thought it could be useful to use in other countries, without the whole people of colour argument. I do see how it could be problomatic, but maybe less problomatic than other terms? Thoughts anyone?

  51. PosedbyModels
    July 3, 2010 at 9:55 am

    I really appreciate this post. This is something I’ve been trying to wrestle with lately, especially since reading Chally’s post on people from the US and US-centrism on the internet. Since I started becoming more involved in politics, activism and feminism (usually in a US context, from a US perspective) I’ve used “POC” pretty much without question, because that was the terminology most frequently used in the spaces where I was introduced to these kinds of issues and discourse. I try to be more specific when it’s appropriate (Black, Native, Chicana, etc.), but it’s hard for me to ditch the term POC completely because it has such strong associations with safe and activist spaces, or at least spaces where people are learning and having constructive discussions about race. But obviously (being white and from the States) it’s not about me, so I’m trying to get better at broadening my perspective and the language used to accompany it, as well as talking to people about their identities and preferred terms.
    A related story: The other night I was driving home from the airport with my roommate who had just returned from a study abroad trip to South Africa. During our conversation he used the phrase “coloured people,” which made me squirm even though I knew that was acceptable in the context he was talking about. I tried to embrace my discomfort and use it to step out of my US-centered comfort zone. I was in a similar situation during the winter Olympics, and in the middle of a rant about those Russian ice dancers appropriating Australian aboriginal culture, I equated their darkening of their skin for their costumes to black face. A good friend of mine immediately called me out, saying “NO, that is not what that is,” and even though I felt super embarrassed and foolish I’m so glad she said something, and that experience has also helped me keep my language in check.

    Point being, thanks again Chally.

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