People of colour (POCs) have been the most marginalised in terms of socio-economic, political and environmental policies of oppression and exploitation; but they have been long overlooked by well-meaning individuals and organisations until Black Lives Matter took centre stage and racial justice movements began to enjoy wider consciousness in the mainstream. Environmental and climate movements, for example, have been deemed “too white” by people and communities of colour for failing to recognise the struggles and contributions of racialised movements. But do whites and POCs really face different struggles? What can we learn from them? Why do activist movements need to include their experience and knowledge to enrich their advocacies and activities?
As a phrase, “people of colour” dates back centuries — it was first cited in The Oxford English Dictionary, with the British spelling “colour,” in 1796 — and is often abbreviated as POC. The other two letters, for black and Indigenous, were included in the acronym to account for the erasure of black people with darker skin and Native American people, according to Cynthia Frisby, a professor of strategic communication at the Missouri School of Journalism. (1)
BIPOC, which stands for “Black, Indigenous, and People of Color,” is a person-first language. It enables a shift away from terms like “marginalized” and “minority.” (2) BIPOC is pronounced “buy pock” (“pock” as in “pocket”). You don’t pronounce each letter separately, so you wouldn’t say “B-I-P-O-C.”
“Black” generally describes a person of African or Caribbean descent.
Many people in the United States consider the term “African American” the more polite and correct choice, but this isn’t always accurate. Some Black people may not be American, while others may not trace their ancestry to Africa.
Some may prefer to identify themselves by the country their family came from — Kenyan American or Jamaican American, for example.
“Indigenous” (as used in the United States) describes the native inhabitants of North America. Indigenous is a broad term encompassing all tribes of the original residents of the continent.
More specific terms might include:
These terms themselves remain broad: In the United States alone, 574 recognized Indian Nations exist. It’s always best practice to use specific tribe names when referring to just one or two people or a small group of individuals.
“People of Color” is a blanket term that describes people who aren’t white. This term has been criticized for its broadness since it collectively refers to many different people as one group of “other.”
The following list is far from exhaustive, but “People of Color” can include people who are:
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On a global level, POCs face numerous but varied challenges stemming from harmful cultural stereotypes and systemic racism, from the slave trade in Europe and America, through the internment of Japanese Americans in concentration camps during World War II, to the incarceration of children whose parents were attempting to immigrate to the United States. There has always been a historical notion that white people have more superior knowledge and a better understanding of everything under the sun, and indigenous cultures have been erased just for POCs to be able to assimilate into white societies either by force (slave trade, colonisation) or unconsciously by POCs themselves (immigration).
Moreover, POCs are at the forefronts of various social and environmental issues: women of colour have relatively the smallest pay per one unit of currency a white man earns; families of colour get the least chances in education and are the most likely to fall out of social security; communities of colour are the most vulnerable to environmental problems (pollution, chemical and other leaks etc.), which in turn affects their health the most ; and countries from the Global South and indigenous communities around the world are at the frontlines battling the effects of climate change (flooding, landslides, forest fires, etc.) .
It is not enough to advocate for antiracist policies when your organisation is deemed as “too white”. Be willing to listen to whoever raises this problem. Try to find out why POCs feel like they don’t belong in the movement. If you work in or for a local community, get to know it. Chances are there is a substantial POC population that has been overlooked for quite some time, and it’s okay. Go to where they are and listen to them, too. Know the barriers which hold them back from taking part in your movement.
Racism is a systemic product of long-going biases which have been deemed socially acceptable by white communities over decades, if not centuries. Hence, systemic and organisational manifestations of racism are harder to recognise than interpersonal racism.
When speaking or working with people of colour, listen attentively when a person of colour calls your attention to a certain action or social interaction which they deem as possibly discriminatory or offensive to their cultural or ethnic identity. Learn as to why this is the case. Try to also attend anti-oppression workshops, trainings, and conversations to put them into practice.
“To perpetuate racism, people don’t have to be ill-intentioned, or even aware they are contributing to injustice. By not actively resisting racist dynamics—and sometimes even by attempting to do so without proper understanding—we can contribute to a system that sustains inequality and racism.” –Megan Lietz, “Not That Kind of Racism: How Good People Can Be Racist Without Awareness or Intent”
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