Let’s get one thing straight. I am an African woman. I am not a “person of colour”.
Martin Luther King Jr coined “citizens of colour” in his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech, and later the term became popular with justice activists in the 80s. But the phrase’s origin dates back further than the civil rights era. In 1807 the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves, a federal law that stated no new slaves were permitted to be imported into any port or place within the jurisdiction of the US, describes slaves as “any negro, mulatto, or person of colour”. That’s right: “person of colour” is a term to describe slaves.
In US history, “person of colour” referred to people of African heritage; today it’s used to cover all those of African, Asian, Latino heritage and so on – a verbal shorthand for all non-white people. In its coverage of the anger over the death of Rashan Charles, The Guardian wrote: “The disturbances in north-east London are a reflection of longstanding frustration over police conduct towards people of colour.” In this instance, the people being written about were black.
I understand “person of colour” is intended to recognise the disadvantages and discriminations faced by those who are not white and to highlight how non-whites are marginalised, so their realities can be acknowledged. But how can that be done when we are lumped together as one homogeneous mass? How can police brutality be addressed if those very black men are overlooked?
The fact that us “non-whites” are lumped together into some absurd category of being “people of colour” further reinforces whiteness as the norm. It strips away our individual experiences, and instead decides the colour of our skin is what’s relevant.
There’s also another reason why this term is so distasteful when it is specifically used to describe black people. When I am called a “person of colour”, what I hear is being called a “coloured person” – a phrase that has only recently slipped out of common parlance. Apart from the N word, it is one of the most offensive terms used to describe a black person.
Black people have apparently reclaimed the N word. We hear it being said in most rap lyrics or in casual conversation as a term of endearment. But no matter how much hip-hop culture tries to normalise the word, it just is not a phrase we should claim. The same can be said for “person of colour”.
I understand that words can change their meaning and there are those who seek to reclaim these terms, but when it comes to those phrases, this is not something I believe to be true. These words are used as trophies, as if we have taken them from the mouths of our oppressors, extracting the power from them. But the fact is, we haven’t. Those words are still used to hurt us – perhaps not explicitly, but they exist in people’s minds when they deny us jobs or imprison us.
Next time you use “people of colour”, remember it’s OK to be specific, not “one size fits all” when you’re talking about marginalised people. James Brown said it first and said it best: “Say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud.”
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