I was flipping through radio channels and a Black Lives Matter event was being covered. The announcer was describing a specific activist in the crowd and referred to that person as a “person of color” and I just thought to myself that the phrase “person of color’ is definitely really racist, isn’t it? How is it any different from calling a black person a “colored person?” I hope you guys can shed some light on this.
Thank you very much for that letter, Dave. First and foremost, we’d like to say that we love all people, regardless of how colored they are. All readers are important to us here at American Public Radio.
To answer your question, the term is not racist. When you see someone on the street, the first thing you notice about them is their skin color, correct? Say you have to be able to quickly describe what you’re seeing; how do you do that? If they’re white, the answer is obvious. You just say you saw a white person. Easy enough. What if they’re non-white? Asking them how they identify is much too personal and an educated guess is far worse, so you would call them a person of color. You make a good point that the term sounds anachronistic, but that’s because we made the mistake of making a new term using an old one as a base. The solution would be to go back to using the terms “colored person” or —for simplicity sake— “colored.”
You bring up a good point about why you believe the term is racist. It makes sense. But we ask you to ponder this question: How different are all of these races, really?
In our world, the biggest line of demarcation between people is whites on one end and everyone else. All other minor subsets of “colored people” are irrelevant today (much like subsets of white people in America: Dutch, Irish, German, Swedish, etc.) and it’s easier to bring them together as one group. In fact, Dave, it’s racist to presume that they have different experiences just purely based on their skin color, so why not just group them all together? It saves time and it’s the least intrusive way to label someone.
When you see a man in a hoodie approaching you at night and your instinct is to cross the street, you don’t care what kind of colored he is. You just care that he is colored at all, and you cross the street.
Need we remind you, getting it wrong also makes you look a fool! Office Intern Anna Holland just today told of a time when she ate crow after mislabeling a Northern Cuban with a Southeastern Cuban. Classic mistake, but imagine the situation if she skipped the embarrassment and offense by just calling them colored? It’s impossible to mix up two inconsequentially different ethnic groups if you refer to both by the same name.
Race is a tough issue and racism is even harder, but think about it this way, Dave. You can’t be racist if you are trying not to offend people. When you minimize the potential miscategorization of someone’s race, you are showing that you care about the feelings of the feelings of those groups. And to show that you care, you’d call them colored.
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