“People of color” does not describe the Black experience

André Williams

Here at UT, I can look around the classroom and see many people of color, but very rarely are there other Black students.

The lack of representation is a problem felt among many in the Black community at UT. Diversity efforts often group people of color together, but effectively addressing issues of inclusivity will require specific acknowledgment of Black issues. 

Ashley Bowen, a government and theater and dance junior, has noticed this trend in the classroom. On her first day of a course, she saw that other people of color had representation, but Black faces were few and far between.

“I look around, (and) immediately I (ask myself) how many other African Americans are in the class,” Bowen said. “I saw two other Black students … and there (were) like 15 Hispanic students, and there might (have been) five Asian students and so on.”

The term person of color attempts to unify nonwhite people in their fight for racial justice in America; however, as Bowen’s experience illustrates, Black people are often ignored or relegated when it comes to the distribution of that justice.

Black people are ignored in the discussion of people of color because the term still bases value on one’s proximity to whiteness.

Not white is not synonymous with Black. The value placed on whiteness creates a hierarchy that continues to position whiteness at the top. Black people and Blackness are the bottom of the pyramid, to be rejected and ostracized, and non-Black people of color are viewed as a lesser evil who can work toward eventual acceptance into a society based on exclusion, contingent on the unequivocal rejection and condemnation of Blackness.

Although seeking to unify, the term people of color reinforces social hierarchy and racial bias by ignoring that non-Black people of color benefit from and contribute to systemically embedded anti-Blackness.

Civil engineering freshman Brionna Williams talks about experiencing anti-Blackness from non-Black people of color.

“On (a) daily basis, because it may be more obvious that we are African American, I feel like it’s easier to discriminate against us,” Williams said. “Our other people of color, if they can pass for a certain look that is favored by those doing the discriminating, I think they are okay with it.”

Non-Black people of color propagate anti-Blackness in many ways. Whether through cultural appropriation, or co-opting attempts to shed light on Black-specific struggles, or blaming Black people for their own misfortune, or intracommunal colorism that associates beauty with those whose appearance least resembles Black features, or microaggressions, or stereotyping, or saying the n-word — anti-Black attitudes are commonplace. Grouping people of color creates a singularity that fails to admit reality.

Another reason why the term people of color is harmful to Black people is because it continues the history of erasing our culture. Many non-Black people of color can trace their family to a specific land or country and the associated cultures — Latin American countries, Asian countries, and so on. Black people, specifically Black Americans, often cannot do the same because of the cultural erasure associated with chattel slavery.

Blackness, though, is a culture defined by defying the odds in the face of adversity. The common fight of all Black people, no matter the socioeconomic background, has become our culture. White and other non-Black people of color are allowed to embrace their cultural identities in a way Black people cannot. Unlike identifying with an Italian or Mexican heritage, a person standing proud in their Blackness is often seen as a threat. Blackness is villainized and devalued, and those who claim it are condemned.

The nuanced approach “person of color” takes to race is performative rather than action-oriented. The Black identity has never been nuanced. As such, in order to tackle discrimination against Black people, we must acknowledge the specific troubles Black people face and the complexity of the Black identity.

Williams is an international business junior from Fort Worth.