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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

people of color

(1980’s | officialese? academese? | “non-whites,” “non-white persons,” “dark-skinned people OR races”)

The expression feels old because it is. “Free people of color” was ordinary in the first half of the nineteenth century to denote descendants of white Europeans and Africans, particularly around the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. (As opposed to descendants of white Americans and Africans, who were enslaved people of color, but no one called them that.) The phrase did not disappear altogether after a sharp decline in the mid-nineteenth century, but it needed well over a hundred years to regain, and surpass, its former strength, according to Google Ngrams. Although the phrase was not used generally (as far as I know) under apartheid in South Africa, it recalled the racial designation “colored” — of mixed race, somewhere between white and black. “Colored” was a respectable term in the U.S. well into the twentieth century — almost always referring to African-Americans — but lost legitimacy during the civil rights movement.

When late twentieth-century Americans finally adopted “people of color” — which took a while because “colored” had become a thoroughly retrograde word — they took a concept intended to do harm and turned it into an honorific or at least neutral term, a common enough process, as I have noted elsewhere. According to Safire in 1988, the phrase received a definitive boost from Martin Luther King in a 1963 speech; the corpora offers little doubt that the first to use the term regularly and revive it were, in fact, people of color (“person/persons of color” is not used nearly as often). Jerry Brown said it in 1979, by which time more advanced white people had begun dropping it into speeches. It has been and remains a polite term, acknowledging the sort of difference we can’t help noticing while avoiding insidious older expressions, and it is intended to cover everyone who does not count as white in U.S. culture.

The boundaries of whiteness have changed quite a bit over time. (For some purposes, the category now includes those of East Asian descent, which would have unthinkable 150 or even 50 years ago, when Caucasoid, Negroid, and Mongoloid might still be encountered in anthropological texts.) They still matter because we have not freed ourselves of the framework of white vs. everyone else here in America, which makes it useful to have a single term that covers everyone else. That seems to be the primary purpose of “people of color,” which at least does not include the word “white.” The phrase betokens resignation in the face of racism that persists regardless of all the cogent and powerful arguments against it. Maybe because of them; one response to proof that you are an idiot is to press the idiocy harder than ever. It may be a luxury we cannot afford much longer. If China keeps growing and Russia keeps threatening, even our most benighted white-ists may conclude that we need contributions from everyone, and may go so far as to admit that people of color are needed to keep the nation afloat. If so, that would be a historically unusual though not unprecedented development, one that runs counter to current trends.

I did a little experiment in LexisNexis, searching the phrases “men of color” and “women of color” at roughly ten-year intervals starting with 1989-1990 and ending with the past year. In each of the four searches, “women of color” outnumbered “men of color” by convincing margins, usually four or five to one. That agrees with my own observation; I’m quite sure that “women of color” is more common. To me that suggests that we use “of color” (I distinctly remember Jimmy Breslin’s striking use of the phrase with no noun in front of it, back in the nineties) when we are focusing on discrimination and its victims. In one sense it is a neutral term and applies perfectly well in stories of uplift or empowerment. But “people of color” are people who suffer because they are not white, and women of color suffer more because they are neither white nor male. Fairly or not, “of color” harbors a touch of victimhood; the more oppressed a group is, the easier it is to use “of color” when talking about their non-white members.


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