Unpacking the Term “Person of Color”

June 13, 2016
By Christina Acuna Castillo


As a Latina who could just as accurately be called a “person of color,” I have some trouble with identifying as such. It’s not that I hate the term “person of color” or that I hate folks who use that term as a descriptor; it’s just something about its construction that rubs me the wrong way. I mean – I totally get that “person of color” has been labored through the activism that went on in the 80s, but still. It just doesn’t feel right to me.

In terms of structure, the word is designed to highlight the person/subject before the adjective (i.e. humanity, first) – which is awesome. Making sure that all people are humanized, even in categorized language, is important especially during a time where social and political forces aim to take than kind of humanization away.

But if you reverse engineer the entire term, “person of color” then becomes “colored person.”

And the only difference between the two terms is that “colored person” is no longer a socially acceptable term to use for folks who aren’t white. It’s super antiquated, and it’s seeded in some deep-set racism, which is why the term has largely fallen out of use.

Interestingly though, if you were to say “colored person” now, most people would understand that you meant to say, “Black person.” This makes sense because “colored person” was NEVER a used descriptor for those of us who are neither black nor white. So if “people of color” was created to be inclusive, I think it’s a huge misstep to give it recognition since it’s a phrase that’s strongly reminiscent of a specific referent.

Of course I understand that the term was engineered to be comforting and respectful of the marginalized. It puts our humanity up front, making sure you acknowledge us as a person before our color.

But the way it operates is slightly counterproductive and unfaithful to its supposed purpose. While I would say that “person of color” sheds a lot of importance on person-first language, that language is super inconsistent, which brings up the question of whether or not the term achieves its goals in the first place.

We say people of color, but we also say white people.

We say people with disabilities, but we also say able-bodied people.

We say people with mental illnesses, but we also say neurotypical people (or sane people).

So, if we are going to insist on person-first language, we’ve got to cover the privileged and marginalized in the same syntaxes. Otherwise, “person of color” only serves to highlight and remind people of our ostracism, which makes me think of the term, and myself, in a negative way.

Another reason why I find the term uncomfortable is because although person-first language is a cool idea and it has good intentions, we only really ever use it when referring to disabilities. The examples above were the first things I thought about when looking for person-first examples. And that strikes me as odd.

We use person-first language mostly as a means of empowerment for people with disabilities. We don’t say person who is homosexual. Or person who is transgender. Or people with money. Or people without money.

We say gay/lesbian/trans/queer. We say rich. We say poor.

So, what sorts of things are implied when using person-first language when it comes to race? Does that mean that my coloredness is a disability? Should I be shameful about it? Why do I have to remind people of my humanity before my heritage?

It reminds of when people try to eliminate the existence of race with the argument that “we are all people.” Which, of course, is true. But we are all different people. Acknowledging and embracing the ways in which we are different is so much more powerful than pretending the differences aren’t there.

Anyway, I think ultimately I’d prefer if you call me by my name than by a label. But, if you were going to use a label, ask me of my preference. It’s no different than asking me for my preferred pronouns.

Christina Acuna Castillo is a writer, digital maker, diversity enthusiast, and animal conservationist. Christina interns at the Thomas Merton Center as NewPeople’s Print Editor.


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