The term “People of Color” (POC) is deeply rooted in the identity of many individuals on campus. Predominantly used in the United States, the term “People of Color” encapsulates all non-white people to underscore their common experience of racism. The Stanford Graduate School originally proposed the term as an alternative to “non-white” and “minority” because the former describes the same population through a negative definition (all people who are not white), while the latter implies subordination. Even Martin Luther King Jr. used “citizens of color” during a speech in 1963, but the term did not become widely used until the late 1970s.
The racialization of American society, which gives preference to marks of biology over other forms of identification, may not be noticed by many Americans simply because they are not aware of its ubiquitous nature. However, it is readily apparent to many international students who study at the University. The labeling of defined physical characteristics such as color is not as prevalent in non-Western countries where white people do not make up the majority of the population. The propensity to group around racial characteristics is a Western concept that appears untranslatable to other forms of organizations, particularly around nationalistic or regional lines. This is why if someone identifies as being Indian back in India, the same person might be labeled as Asian in the U.S.
Although the purpose of the term POC is used to create solidarity among students who share the common experiences of racism, the term is reductive by failing to capture the nuances of racial experience. Even among subgroups within POC, there are stark differences in experiences and personal histories. Someone coming from the Caribbean may have a very different experience than someone who is from Nigeria, but both would fall within the vague category of “Black” in the U.S.
“Chinese people are foreigners in South Korea, but then in the United States people associate Chinese people with Japanese people even though there is so much antagonism between China and Japan and Korea and Japan,” said Gayon Yang ’19, an international student from Jeju Island, South Korea. “I’m not Japanese, but I had a lot of people come to me and try to talk to me in Japanese. Back in South Korea, Chinese and Japanese people are foreigners. They speak foreign languages and eat foreign food. But in the United States, it is seen as the same thing.”
When addressing the reductive nature of the term POC, it is also worth acknowledging that giving special significance to an arbitrary feature like color may be inherently problematic. For instance, students who have been exposed to racially diverse environments—whether that be through international schooling, through being a part of a diverse community, etc.—may not give special significance to color over, for instance, musical taste. In fact, color may be completely arbitrary to these individuals. If the purpose of the term POC is to create unity around a shared experience of racism, it is crucial to acknowledge that skin tone or biological descriptors may not always be the primary motivation behind solidarity. Unity around the same color is a very Western concept, and other manners of organization are possible as well.
“I think it’s stupid how some people use the term student of color, because they are making a point out of you being a student of color,” Andy Lei ’19 said. “I don’t want someone to call me a student of color. Call me a student. What’s the difference? We should stop using terms like student of color. We should stop using the term as a differentiator, but rather see it as a fact. Some people have different backgrounds, and that’s what they should celebrate.”
It is also essential to note that the term POC by definition may create a divide on campus, whether that be the intended purpose or not, because it gives the impression of exclusion to white people who want to actively contribute to ending racism. If the purpose of the term “People of Color” is to identify the common experience of racism that a certain part of the population fights against, the movement requires spaces that often only white people have access to. Thus, organizing efforts to stop racism seem counterproductive if they are built on the division of white students from students of color.
“People saying that it’s people of color versus white, just people spreading that around on campus emphasizes on the fact that we are two different people,” Sahil Shah ’19 said. “Why can’t we all just be together? Of course we look different. Everyone dresses differently too; it’s like that but based on color. Everyone is going to be different in some way, which makes it all the more exciting to what kind of people there are on outside of their own categories.”
Yet, there is more than one way to use the term “POC.” Among many other uses, the term can be used as a biological descriptor, political label, or to describe a specific group of people. If POC is used as a biological descriptor, then individuals who may pass as white would not be considered POC, even though they may face some level of racial discrimination. If POC were used as a political label, it would provide a sense of unity at the cost of crudely simplifying all forms of racism as the same.
“When people actively use it to promote solidarity, that is where the term becomes questionable,” Amira Leila Suntana ’19 said. “If you are purely using it for descriptive purposes, that makes sense. But when some activists say ‘We have to have POC solidarity and SOC solidarity,’ it leaves out a lot of experiences, especially on this campus. There are a lot of students that are American who say this, but some of the international students I’ve talked to are asking if we are a part of this bigger collective—in solidarity with each other. My experiences are still much different than yours. My struggles are different from yours. As an international student, it felt to me like I was being slapped a label.”
Although POC may be used as both as a biological descriptor and a political term, the line between the two is not as clear as it may initially seem.
“I don’t think the biological and the political are necessarily separable in any sense,” Sahil Singhvi ’18 said. “You just have to look at queer theory to really observe the way biology has misled generations of scientists in terms of accepting deviant bodies as human. But I think that, yes, it’s necessarily a political term. However, it stems from the biological process of having melanin or having differently proportioned or shaped body…. Everything would be a little bit better if you were white. That’s just an indisputable fact measured by statistics, it’s measurable by anecdotal evidence, and—as much as people want to play it down—it is a pervasive fact.”
“That’s not to say that white people have it easy, because there are plenty of poor white people, disadvantaged white people, white females, queer white folk who have a heavy dose of oppression on their own shoulders and constantly feel invisibilized,” he said. “But people of color is a politically charged statement because it speaks to a phenomenon that is inescapable on a daily basis. I would argue that it’s not only the intention but it’s the necessary function. At some point, we had to admit the fact that there is a disparity there. Whether or not that’s created around racial boundaries for any reason beyond just it being easy to other somebody based on their appearance and then make them part of the capitalist system and make the work for you.”
Though “POC” may be both reductive to different experiences and a questionable frame of organization, the term does highlight the racial inequality in the U.S. and global context, while providing a unifying label to a movement intended on ending racism.
“I identify as a student of color, as Black, and as Nigerian…all of those things are possible,” Rilwan Babajide ’16 said. “We see that in all the student groups we have on campus. But there is also that umbrella term [students of color] that allows us to unify as a whole. It’s something that we saw in the Is This Why campaign movement. It wasn’t a Black student movement or a Hispanic student movement: It was a Student of Color movement. We all have issues that we are dealing with together as students of color, as non-white students, and we can unify under this umbrella label of ‘students of color.’ I think it’s very important for me to be able to say I’m a black student because my experience as a black person is your experience as an Indian student. But it’s also important for us to recognize our similarities, our shared identities, and our shared experiences as students of color.”
It must be noted that there are many people who fall within the category of POC that have not yet contributed their time and energy to the Is This Why campaign. It must further be noted that there were many white allies who have actively contributed to making the Is This Why campaign successful.
“One thing that I learned was, being white, I have the privilege to speak on this issue and talk to other white people on this issue–and to be an advocate for people of color and marginalized voices on campus about certain issues,” Noah Kahan ’19 said. “But I do understand other white students on campus don’t feel comfortable talking about this either because, ‘Oh this is not your cause,’ or people don’t want to tamper with POC causes and say ‘you do your own thing, I’m cool with it, I don’t want to be a part of it.’ That’s a lot of what I got from white students.”
Given the variety of sentiments expressed regarding “POC” one thing remains clear: further discussions must be had in order to acknowledge the complications, advantages, and disadvantages of using the term.