I don’t think I’ve ever been referred to as a “woman of color” until I started college.
It’s not like I never looked in a mirror or anything. I knew I was black, and so my racial identity was centered around just that — not around being non-white.
While I recognized the commonalities I had with other non-white people around me, I didn’t try to base my racial identity around common experiences we shared. I based it off of what I alone experienced.
So when I first arrived at Pomona College, I didn’t see myself solely as a “woman of color” — that was too imprecise, too vague, too widely encompassing of experiences I might’ve never even had.
I still don’t.
A lot of the time, people tend to use the term “people of color” to lump all racial minorities together. I think we can all agree there’s a problematic aspect to this line of thinking, seeing as each racial group is subjected to different methods and intensities of oppression under white supremacy. While there are similarities between the methods of oppression each group faces, the history and nature of their respective struggles are still inherently different.
What most people tend to look over, though, is the fact that some people of color attempt to co-opt other racial groups’ suffering or liken themselves to be “the same” under this gigantic umbrella term.
I remember having a very heated debate with another student of color at my high school concerning his attempts to co-opt the fear and sense of hopelessness that comes with being at high risk for police brutality. He was of Asian descent.
He kept trying to give me (bad) advice on “how to not get put in those situations,” because despite never personally having any bad experiences with police, and despite Asian Americans being the racial group least likely to be killed by police in the United States according to CityLab, he still considered his opinion to be “valid” because he was a person of color.
I don’t think I need to explain why he was full of shit. The point stands, though: Both Asian Americans and black Americans are “people of color,” yet coming into contact with police for the same crime (or no crime at all) can result in wildly different outcomes.
If you lump all these different groups into the same category and assume they go through the exact same things by virtue of being non-white, it can imbue people with the confidence to speak on things they have no personal experience with.
This is not to say that Asian Americans are “less” oppressed than black Americans, because Oppression Olympics is a stupid game we’re all tired of playing. It’s just that the methods of oppression that Asian Americans and black Americans face are inherently different from one another.
Lumping all racial groups together isn’t just ignorant — it can be legitimately harmful. Assuming that all “people of color” have the same experiences can contribute to the erasure of hardship that might only apply to one specific group. People can start to assume that because one non-white group doesn’t experience a certain hurdle or isn’t subject to a certain method of oppression, it can’t be a “race thing.”
It also contributes to our current “age of colorblindness” — the idea that racial inequality is a thing of the past and that you shouldn’t “see” color. This is often a tool used to ignore or erase racism when it happens in the present. By likening all minorities to be essentially the same, it becomes easier to make this distinction.
You can’t see individual “colors” because you mixed all the non-white ones together, so it becomes harder to contextualize systemic violence that happens to one “color” when you only see it as a component of a different one. If you’re “blue” and you only see yourself antithetically positioned to “orange” people, you’re not going to understand individual “red” and “yellow” struggles.
But there are some contexts in which using the term “people of color” is completely appropriate. There are clearly issues that all people of color experience, like the wage gap. Clearly, the term has gained traction because it can serve to unite groups in spite of their different histories, struggles and experiences.
I’m not saying to never use the term again, because this kind of solidarity can be helpful in establishing what problems affect certain groups. However, solidarity only proves beneficial when the unity it’s predicated on acknowledges difference. Just like how we realize that we have different experiences than those of white people, we should also take the time to realize that we have different experiences than each other.
We need to be more discerning in our usage of “people of color.” While contextualizing a problem that one group can face, people need to consider whether racial groups different from their own are subject to that issue with equal intensity.
Brooke Sparks PO ’22 is from Las Vegas, Nevada. When she’s not complaining about racism in an article, she’s complaining about video games on Twitter.