Time to retire “people of color”?

Posted on June 16, 2008. Filed under: American history | Tags: , , , |

I was reading Lacy Ford’s fantastic article “Reconfiguring the Old South: ‘Solving’ the Problem of Slavery, 1787-1838” and had reached page 116 where Ford discusses how slaveholding American southerners began to sour on the idea of sending black Americans “back” to Africa because the slaveholders felt that it was really a plan to end slavery rather than a plan to get freed black people out of the country and “whiten” it. I found this statement:

“As the Georgia legislature later explained, whatever support the [colonizers] initially enjoyed in the lower South resulted ‘from the general impression in the Southern states’ that its object ‘was limited to removal’ of the ‘free people of color and their descendants and [not slaves].”

What phrase leaps out at you? “People of color.” This phrase was being used in 1827 by slaveholders as a euphemism for formerly enslaved black people.

I was under the impression that “people of color” was a 21st-century phrase (hey, my specialty is the 1600s; I’m not up on everything). But now we see it has a long and ugly history, just like every other word used for black Americans, from Negro to the other n-word to darky and even colored.

In fact, “black” seems to be the least-baggaged term used to describe black Americans.

The real problem with “people of color” is that it makes it so that black people are the only people on Earth who have a race. If a black person has “color,” that implies that a white person does not. Therefore race remains a stigma, something white people are free of. All other people are raced, but white people just are. It’s as if whiteness was the norm and all other people have been tainted with a color.

“People of color” reminds me of a conversation I heard years ago. Someone described another person as having an “ethnic name.” To which the other person replied, “What name isn’t an ethnic name?” That is, what name is not from a geographic place? Jones is an ethnic name. Mitchell is an ethnic name. All names are ethnic.

And all people have race. We are all people of color. To cleanse white people of race by referring to black people (and sometimes Asian or Latino people) as people of color is to say, “Normal people are white, but other people are colored.”

White is a race. It’s even a color. Everyone has a race, everyone has an ethnicity. Whites are not magically free of racial markers or racial history. For too many centuries white people have been tempted to see themselves as distinct from people of other races. But they’re not. We’re all colored and we’re all people, and it may be time to retire yet another term that seems to contradict that.

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