“Colored People” vs “People of Color”
If you have found yourself watching the news lately and asking yourself, “Why is this such a big deal?” I’d like to share some background with you.
But first, an analogy: Think of a time in your life when you made a seemingly innocuous comment only to realize that you hurt someone. We’ve all done it. You find out later that the fun story about something your cat did was hard for your coworker to hear because their cat just died. Or when you shared your pregnancy story it was hard for your friend, who unbeknownst to you, just had a miscarriage. You lacked this information and what seemed innocuous became hurtful when you were informed and understood the context. Had you had that information you would likely have rethought the telling of your story or not told it all.
So, let’s make sure that you have information that will help to make clear why some things are a such BIG deal and give you the ability to think about or rethink the way you respond.
Though we hope to make this part of a series, today I’d like to start with the difference between “colored people” and “people of color.”
All language has a literal, historical and contextual meaning.
If we look at these terms from a literal perspective, they seem to communicate the same idea and it is an idea that is not inherently good or bad. These terms in these literal meaning are neutral descriptors.
However, when we look at them from a historical perspective, we must recognize that “colored” and “colored people” were terms used to degrade and demean the black community. A negative meaning was inserted into them as soon as they were deployed by white people to assert power and supremacy and threaten violence. This was also a way to define segregated spaces as in “Colored Restroom” or “Colored Water fountain” and had the power to keep people apart and send explicit messages of inequity.
When terms are used to communicate racism and bigotry the communities that they reference will likely seek to self-identify – to use the terms of their choosing not those chosen by the oppressor. Hence a shift to using the terms black and African-American. Eventually, as civil rights movements grew within additional groups, new terms were adopted to describe this collective community and their efforts – people of color (POC), communities of color, black indigenous and communities of color (BIPOC), queer people of color (QPOC) among them. POC was inserted with positive meaning and it still used that way.
So I hope that helps you understand why the difference between “colored people” and “people of color” is such a BIG deal. Now that you have this information you can’t say you didn’t know.
Know it. Understand it. Change it.
– A message from our CEO, Alison Edwards
For Anti-Racism Resources, see: https://www.ochumanrelations.org/anti-racism-resources/