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.