The first time someone used the term “person or people of color” in my presence was at a conference workshop in the US almost two decades ago.
I quickly raised my hand to ask the question: What informed that descriptive term? The speaker responded to me quickly with a very simple answer: “I have asked similar question in the past and no one has given me a response till date”.
Wikipedia cited Houghton Mifflin Company as the source, while tracing the origin of the term back to The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style. It confirmed that the term, “people of color” has been in “usage as far back as 1796” to describe the “light-skinned people of mixed African and European heritage.”
Anna Brickhouse referred to “the term gens de couleur (“people of color”)” as one used by “French colonists to refer to people of mixed African and European descent who were freed from slavery in the Americas”. So, a 1796 concept could be so prevalent in 2020 when other less crude terms have been discarded over the years.
The same Wikipedia referenced Adebola Lamuye’s criticism and serious objection to the term ‘person or people of color’ on three counts. First, Lamuye sees it as “racially offensive”. Second, she objects to the term’s “lack of specificity”. Third, she concludes that “the term lessens the focus on individual issues facing different racial and ethnic groups”. In this piece, my own reservation will focus on the anomaly behind the term and the mistake of those who continue to use the term till this day. I will argue under seven headings to show why the term ‘person or people of color’ was never meant for anything good.
Fantasy with fallacy
Only those who derive pleasure in misleading others, or those who delight in mischief will ever contemplate using or promoting the concept of ‘person or people of color’.
While Ted Gibson and Bevil Conway explicitly stated in “The Conversation” that “People with standard vision can see millions of distinct colors”, the duo also submitted that “In an industrialized culture, most people get by with 11 color words: black, white, red, green, yellow, blue, brown, orange, pink, purple and gray.”
In referencing the above in her article in the Smithsonian Magazine, Julia Leonard, among others, concludes that “we label things that we want to talk about”. If we have to believe Wikipedia’s statement that “The modern categorization [on the basis of color] was coined at the Göttingen School of History in the late 18th century”; and if we sheepishly accept their idea of “dividing mankind into five colored races: “Aethiopian or Black”, “Caucasian or White”, “Mongolian or Yellow”, “American or Red” and “Malayan or Brown” subgroups”, we will end up having no one without color.
The idea of having a person or people of color connotes having some without any color. It is then obvious that just one group of people with a particular skin color is singled out from the community of Homo Sapiens while all others are lumped together as people of color. Two things could be happening here. It could be due to what Julia Leonard said about labeling something for a reason.
For whatever reason under heaven, I personally believe that only an individual who enjoys a stupendous fantasy with fallacy will continue to promote this misnomer in 2020! No one is colorless, hence the term ‘person or people of color’ is a fallacy that belongs to the “trash heap” or garbage dump of history.
Divisive and derisive pigeonholing
Although some can argue persuasively that the term became handy for lack of a better way of classifying Homo Sapiens for administrative and governance purposes, it still doesn’t excuse the term from being divisive, derisive, and contemptuous. It exposes those lumped together in that group to ridicule.
The term is a negative pigeonholing. It leaves a very bad taste in the mouth. It creates the “we” against “them”, “insiders” against those “outsiders”, the “forward-looking” against the “backward people”, the “developed” against the “undeveloped”, and most likely, the term creates a great wall between “heavenly angels or those without color or sin” with “earthly devils with color or sin”.
We are in 2020 and despite the so-called progress made, it is often a lopsided one. Despite our highly touted credentials about reaching the zenith of civilization and being the epitome of post-modern sophistication, we continue to keep the divisive erected wall standing while feigning ignorance.
If we must flip this picture around, some sharks and vultures would have been crying foul, using the media and the court of law as tools of revenge to avenge what they would have termed as offensive, insensitive, and outrightly discriminatory. Sadly, those on the other side of the wall have no such access to such tools. And life goes on!
It is also important to call out the term as condescendingly cruel because the origin was a technical way of preventing the products of White and Black from being classified White or Black depending on the preference of the products from mixed race marriages.
What other reason on earth could justify the reference “to light-skinned people of mixed African and European heritage” as people of color when they could easily have passed as White. Why should a child procreated by two individuals from two distinct races end up carrying the distinctive race description of just one of them?
Is this a silent way of calling it contamination? Why did the world classify President Barak Obama and Princess Meghan Markle as Black or persons of color despite the reality that both could easily have claimed being White as a result of being born by a White parent?
If both are easily classified as Black or persons of color without having the power to claim otherwise, then something condescendingly cruel is going on. I cannot tell why no one has brought this up in an age when people can wake up and change their identity. Does that mean President Barak Obama and Princess Meghan Markle were not good enough to be exempted from the persons of color category?
There is only one option left here. Both, as with those fully classified as people of color in similar circumstances, are all judged and classified in the group described by what Anna Brickhouse referred to as “people of mixed African and European descent who were freed from slavery in the Americas”.
Let’s assume that this could be stretching that reality – but why should these two be classified as “Black” or “people of color”? Why should the system automatically classify them in a specific way despite their mixed-race heritage?
Were they considered inadequate even today, just as those classified as such during the brutal and heartless period of slavery and colonialism? Why label someone with a term that is supposed to position such an individual at a disadvantage? Is it morally right?
Lacks universality of usage or application
What term would you use to describe Chinese people, with their massive population, in China? People of color? What about the Indians in India? How can people with such huge population figures be referred to as “people of color” in their own countries if one must classify them?
And if they are so labeled, how do they refer to all others who do not look like them? Colorless? Colorful? If “most people get by with 11 color words: black, white, red, green, yellow, blue, brown, orange, pink, purple and gray” in the words of Gibson and Conway, does that make every living human being a person of color or not?
And if this is so, why do we shy away from referring to everyone as person or people of a specific color from the list above? If we continue to throw around the term ‘person or people of color’, we will soon realize that it lacks universal application, assuming we do not already know this.
I wonder what an average Canadian tourist standing in the middle of a huge supermarket in China will call the tens of hundreds of people around him in that particular location at that point in time. Simply put, the term ‘person or people of color’ has no universal application. It should be discarded forthwith!
Smacks of intellectual laziness
While the term may have come handy for expediency reasons some centuries ago, the continued use of the term in 2020 smacks of intellectual laziness or ignorant arrogance, or both! Why do we adopt an archaic slogan while boasting of advancing?
Why are we pretending to be running a car race at over 230 miles per hour while using our rear mirror? It is time to call a spade exactly what it is and stop pretending to simply classify it as a mere farming tool.
For the sake of proper classification, and in line with reality, we may use more obvious terms like a person of White color, Black color, Yellow color, Red color or Brown color.
To lump everything together under such a broad brush is to openly display an embarrassingly annoying insensitive ineptitude. Besides, there is nothing to lose by simply adding the specific color code each time we are desperate to pigeonhole a human being.
Even then, we must think deep and come up with a better descriptive term for both President Barak Obama and Princess Meghan Markle – possibly refer to them as people of White and Black color. And we have nothing to lose for doing so – in addition to being closest to the truth on proper classification.
The continued use of the term ‘person or people of color’ is a highway back to the Stone Age. It is crude and outdated. It gives some people the power to look down on those so classified as either inadequate or inferior.
It gives an undue advantage to those who are not so pigeonholed. It puts undue pressure on those pigeonholed to feel like an outsider that may never measure up. No matter the intentions of the originators, such are no longer relevant in the 21st century.
The term ‘person or people of color’ is dangerously retrogressive in 2020 and beyond. It makes a mockery of our self-proclaimed progress and civilization. It exposes our hypocrisy in how we slice and dice the system for manipulative ends. It runs contrary to democratic ideals of equality and fairness.
It drags our gallant human progress back by over 200 years. It gives fuel and oxygen to the emergence of dangerous ideologies that could tear the entire human race apart, especially now that few different groups are coming up with racially driven preservation agenda.
We need more terms that will highlight the beauty of our shared humanity, demonstrate our inevitable mortality, and confirm our joint vulnerabilities as Homo Sapiens. We need terms that will define human race for what it is – just ‘human’, no more, no less!
Serious assault on the status of true citizenship
Finally, continued use of the term ‘person or people of color’ constitutes a serious assault on the status of true citizenship.
If a nation-state claims that all citizens are equal before the law, and if the system as well as the state apparatus of such a state gleefully classify some as persons or people of color while others are not, a wrong message has already been sent to those who are labeled.
It is either the system is telling the people in the labeled side that they do not measure up because they look different on the outside and on the inside, or that their patriotism or loyalty is ever under serious scrutiny.
It gives power to those that are not labeled to think, feel, and believe they are better and privileged. It calls into serious question the quality of the citizenship of those in the labeled group – a constant reminder that such people are outsiders with sub-standard citizenship status and are people who may never belong or adjust!
It creates the great divide between the visible minority on one side, and the invincible as well as the invisible majority on the other side, within the same nation-state. This reality is only obvious to those in the labeled group, whether in Canada, the US, China, India, or Nigeria.
Whether you are classified under businesspeople, craftspeople, tradespeople, tribespeople, salespeople or laypeople, if you refuse to trample, topple, or cause unnecessary ripple, but instead grapple the country’s multiple guiding principles like a simple disciple with good ample examples, you should be regarded and respected as a full citizen without any pigeonholing along racial lines.
If you live your life as a patriotic citizen with legally logical reason in every season, and if you live as a person who has learnt a good life lesson that abhors arson, treason, poison, and prison, there is no reason for anyone to wall you out with a concept like ‘person or people of color’!
It does not really matter the kind of skin color you may have – but whether you are a chancellor, councilor, counsellor, bachelor, tailor, sailor, bailor, or jailor, you will remain caged as long as you are classified as a person of color. When next you hear that term, ask the question, “which color”?
(❚ Dr. Sunday Akin Olukoju is the Director of Distance Education of Providence Theological Seminary, a community newspaper correspondent, and the president of a community organization)