When I went to Minnesota, I was confronted with being a minority. It is not that I thought that I, as a black woman, was the majority. It is just that I had never been personally referred to as a minority.
I had a similar but different experience when I went to Georgia. Again I was assigned an identity in which I was not familiar. The difference this time was the context. I was engaged in a series of face to face conversations with whites about social justice and being black. In response, the other person in the conversation bypassed my self-identication as black and referred to me as a person of color.
In the newness of this designation, I silenced myself. I needed to know more about this phrasing and I needed to sit with my reaction. Inwardly, I did not like it but as is the case with my new self (certainly not my old self), I don’t like having knee-jerk reactions. As a result, I politely nodded and continued on in the conversation. And afterwards, after the conversation was over, I processed it. I processed my feelings and I processed the syntax of the people of color designation. And finally, after repeated occurrences in which I was confronted with the designation, I realized why I did not like it.
This post outlines my thinking… my rationale of why color is not black and why we need to rethink the designation.
I processed the syntax of the people of color conversation. And after repeated occurrences in which I was confronted with that designation, I realized why I did not like it.
Let us start this discussion by dealing with the issue of logic. I saw an excellent conversation online where those who were white argued that they were people of color. Naturally, other people got really upset because they felt as though this treatment of white erased, or at least minimized, the political treatment of those who are not white. And while I agree that politically, whites are not of color, I totally understood and respected the argument.
Think about it. It’s quite reasonable in terms of how we treat white as a color outside of the political landscape. When children color in their coloring books, there is a white crayon in the box. When we choose colors for our interior walls, white paint is an available option. Finally, and maybe only a few will understand, when Labor Day arrives, we suspend wearing white garments and shoes… until Easter grants us permission again to access the color. So in all of these examples, white is a color.
Now I know that whites are not typically included in the people of color schema. And that is because color is really not about color. It is about politics. But for those that do not want to consider the political dimensions of the designation, I agree. It is illogical because, yes, white is a color.
Color is really not about color. It is about politics.
This point about politics leads me to my second concern with the people of color identity. But before saying more, let me offer some qualifiers. I do respect the term when trying to distinguish the political experiences between whites and non-whites. And truthfully, while I have never in a face-to-face conversation given any of my students a person-of-color-identity, I have used the phrase in my writings in terms of trying to draw a line of distinction between students who have access to race as a currency and those who do not.
But even though I have used it, I struggled with it. While I was trying to find a way to politically distinguish and categorize those who are not white, I knew the designation was not clear. It was not neat. And in many cases, it was not accurate.
Here is why.
The person-of-color designation does not take into consideration the political distinction of what it means to be brown, to be yellow, to be red, and to be black. And, it does not take into consideration of what it means to leverage whiteness– to even have the capacity (or not) to leverage whiteness even while being brown, yellow, red, and black. And finally, it evades the issue of class as a dimension of race.
Consider it from this point of view. While reflecting on my experiences with teaching urban students, I can think of many little white girls and little white boys, by their poverty and geopolitical proximity to blacks, who were left in the margins. Likewise, the of-color designation obscures race as an access point to resources and does not convey economic means as a mechanism to mitigate the of-color experience.
I have (tried) to draw a line of distinction between students who have access to race as a currency and those who do not.
And finally, this notion of mitigating the of-color experience through socioeconomic means as an asset or a liability of race leads me to my last issue with the people-of-color designation. It relates to the specific conditions of being black.
In short, I am not color. I am black. And while I fully agree and argue that being black is not a monolithic condition, I do contend that it is one that defines a sociopolitical history that warrants recognition in race-based discourses.
The treatment of blacks in the U.S. Constitution, in America’s social institutions (the housing market, employment rates, and the prison industrial complex) and in the day-to-day cultural practice of fear, distrust and even hate toward the black body dictates a black-specific designation. Black is not brown, it is not yellow, it is not red. It is black. And while each of these groups (including whites) could rightfully say the same, in that each can argue that it has its own unique story of pain and suffering (as suggested in the previous paragraph), it is almost deceitful to not make the distinction …regardless of where you fall in the color spectrum.
Do not erase, obscure, or minimize the politics of my body when I make a political distinction of identifying as a black woman. It is insensitive to my right to identify as I want. It is dismissive of what it is like to walk in my shoes when I leave my house each day. And in some cases, when the conversation is about racial justice, it is insulting that “of color” is used as a replacement when black is stated specifically.
Do not erase, obscure, or minimize the politics of my body when I make a political distinction of identifying as a black woman.
It is interesting, if not contradictory, that I wrote this post. You see, lately, I have been critically examining the way that I self-identify. At the end of the day, I think saying that I am a black woman is reductive as it reduces me to social constructs that someone else has created. I would love, love, love to engage in a world where I am just human.
And, just as much as I am concerned about the racial dimensions of this identity, I am also concerned with those relating to gender. Frankly, what it means to be a woman is loaded, sometimes misleading and often times misappropriated, but, lol, that is another post for another day.
For now, let me just conclude that one day, I hope that we can drop all labels (in terms of their political limitations) and simply identify as human. But for now, it is what it is. I am in this body and like all other bodies, it carries with it degrees of assets and liabilities that must be discussed …even when it is uncomfortable.
The day-to-day cultural practice of fear, distrust and even hate toward the black body dictates a black-specific designation.
So to clarify, I am of color in terms of being non white. But, politically I am black.
s a distinction that speaks volumes.
That’s right. I need my non of-color friends to stop telling me what I am and just start listening.
This piece was slightly modified from it’s original publication.