A strange thing happens when you say the word “Black” as it pertains to race. People will often curl their lips up, as if you’ve said something distasteful or inappropriate; the color might drain from their faces in an expression akin to dread. The phrase “Black Lives Matter” triggers the knee jerk response of “All Lives Matter.” The FBI identifies those that fight for Black American rights as a terrorist group under the title of “Black Identity Extremists.” And. increasingly, “Black” is used interchangeably with “Person of Color,” POC, which ostensibly is much less racially charged. This is a strange and disturbing phenomenon, since Black is not synonymous with POC: all Black people are persons of color, but all persons of color are not Black. And non-Black persons of color, or NBPOC, still benefit from and can practice anti-Black racism.
A recent example is Jordanian-American author Natasha Tynes, who is a non-Black person of color that regularly writes about the struggles of being a minority. She unsuccessfully tried to get a Black female Metro employee fired for eating on a train, and after tweeting rude remarks and a photo of the woman to the official Washington, D.C. Metro Twitter account, Tynes publisher dropped her book deal. The reasoning behind the drop was her perverse persecution of a Black woman when she quite literally writes about the struggle of being a WOC, and the hypocrisy of the fact that being a woman of color did not stop her from perpetuating anti-Black racism against a woman whose ‘crime’ was eating while also being Black. This type of entitlement to and criminalizing of Black bodies is rampant amongst non-Black persons of color, who oftentimes give themselves a pass for their behavior because they are non-White minorities that struggle themselves and therefore feel they can’t be racist. Tynes deleted the tweets before removing her entire account, but the damage had been done.
The success of Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther – so Black it literally had “Black” in the title – spawned a thousand think pieces on what it meant for ‘people of color.’ Crazy Rich Asians, the next blockbuster success to come out with a POC cast was inextricably tied to Black Panther, despite the fact that Crazy Rich Asians boasted a questionable Chinese character who adopted a ‘ghetto’ Black American affectation and spoke in a Blaccent. When Black director John Singleton passed, articles ran saying he paved the way for ‘directors of color.’ But in Singleton’s own words, he specifically used the phrases Black and African-American to describe himself and his work, emphasizing the importance of putting Black faces onscreen, and not just vague ‘faces of color,’ which can be literally anyone non-white. Everyone non-white does not have to deal with the specificities of global anti-Black racism, or the echoes of American Chattel Slavery (ACS) in the United States specifically. It is hollow and almost crass to reduce the work of Black artists as belonging to all communities of color.
Accusations of exclusion also rampantly follow those that utilize the term Black specifically, especially in the so-called melting pot culture of the United States, where various races and ethnicities have a claimant on oppression. As reparations for ACS becomes a contentious issue in the upcoming 2020 election, various politicians have questioned what, exactly, constitutes Black or DACS (Descendants of American Chattel Slavery) in order to be eligible, and many have also mentioned other nationalities, ethnicities, and races in a “Well, what about us?” manner, in terms of receiving retribution for American oppression. Current Democratic darling Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) questioned, “…what does it mean to be Black?” when questioned about reparations for the Black American Descendants of American Chattel Slavery, who are a distinct ethnic group. She has also insisted that reparations should not, in fact, be for slavery — despite that institution’s vast building of the American economy — and instead should focus on those discriminated against by Jim Crow laws and especially redlining, which would include Latinos such as non-Black Mexicans and Puerto Ricans like herself.
Again, Black Americans have specific issues that need to be addressed by the United States government. Use of POC instead of Black muddies the waters further on who is entitled to what here in the United States, and often becomes a self-serving obstruction of justice as to mask our specific issues so Black Americans do not receive the assistance we are owed, while other minority groups do. This is not to say that other POC groups should not fight for their individual causes; rather that the crowding of all minority causes under the umbrella of POC makes for an uneven formula wherein Black people are ridden like mules to the Promised Land and end up with nothing or, at the very least, having to share what we receive. Imagine if White Germans lobbied for reparations along with Eastern European Jewish people after the Holocaust under the terminology of, “Well, we’re all White?”
As a racial identifier in the U.S., it was a long road to Black. Those enslaved during American Chattel Slavery (ACS) were known as ‘chattel,’ or property, and were often pejoratively referred to as ‘n*ggers,’ ‘darkies,’ and ‘coons’ (as in ‘raccoon’), among others phrases. Post-ACS, those insults hung around until a wave of political correctness accompanied, by the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, made such things improper to say aloud. ‘Colored,’ ‘Negro,’ ‘Black,’ and later, ‘African American’ became considered the appropriate descriptors for Descendants of American Chattel Slavery (DACS) in the United States; post-Civil Rights era, a proliferation of immigrants who would be categorized as Black but specifically not African American, led to the term “African American” or “Black” on the U.S. census.
Yet a stigma has clung specifically to the phrase Black, with many moving in and out of the racial signifier as they see fit. Those like AOC will question how do we define Blackness when Black people fight for race — and ethnicity-specific causes, with many POC identifying as ‘politically Black’ — a term that essentially equates struggle and oppression of all kinds with Blackness, as if that’s all there is to it — in an effort to utilize Black support. Others crowd under “Black” on paperwork and documentation to claim benefits from official government programs like Affirmative Action. But more casual advertising, news articles, media commentary, and day-to-day conversations lean towards the less politically charged POC, especially in advertising and in reports meant to tout diversity. In a recent diversity report, fashion researchers rejoiced that four of the top ten most booked models of Fall 2019 were ‘women of color.’ Out of that four, however, three were Asian. So while this report espouses the rising diversity in fashion (which is a good thing!), use of the term ‘woman of color’ glosses over the fact that diversity meant to combat the serious issue of specific anti-Blackness in fashion is not improving. WOC is not Black.
And similar usage of the term POC as synonymous with Black can be found everywhere. The Washington Post ran an article that literally stated that Latinos and Asians are gaining in homeownership while Black Americans specifically are remaining stagnant — then went on to use the term ‘buyers of color’ when describing Black Americans who were denied loans: “When buyers of color are turned away, it can sour them on the process.” Yet it’s not an issue with ‘buyers of color,’ it’s an issue with Black Americans specifically. Other ‘buyers of color’ such as Asians and Latinx do not have the issue, which was literally the point of the article, to highlight the ways in which anti-black racism very specifically targets Black people out of all ‘persons of color.’ And, as such, issues that affect Black people very specifically are not properly addressed when using the term POC. It’s a way to avoid the uncomfortable truth of saying Black and recognizing that Black Americans in the United States and Black people worldwide are specifically oppressed in a way that lets other groups, particularly other racial minority groups, get ahead. Even in Africa, Chinese developers – POC — have been questioned for utilizing predatory practices intended to exploit the continent, which is predominantly Black. The fact that the Chinese are POC and the Continental Africans are also POC does not make the exploitation of Black resources by non-Black persons of color any less harmful.
We are not all vaguely ‘persons of color.’ Specificity matters, as we are members of various groups with various issues, especially on the racial and ethnic spectrum. When POC is used interchangeably with Black, the fact that NBPOC (Non Black Persons of Color) are directly benefitting from anti-Black racism becomes hidden from view. Non-Black immigrant success stories in the United States have also historically been made possible by anti-Black racism. Non-Black – meaning NBPOC as well as white — immigrants have directly benefited from programs & opportunities that explicitly left out Black Americans. European immigrants like the Irish, for example, who were initially seen as ‘less than’ in the U.S., directly benefited from positioning themselves as ‘not Black’ and assimilating into ‘whiteness’ via anti-Black racism. This process has been rinsed and repeated with non-Black persons of color via the concept of ‘model minorities,’ which also benefits non-American Blacks to a certain extent as well. All of this serves to reinforce a social hierarchy wherein ‘white’ people are on top, non-Black persons of color are second, and Black people are at the bottom, with descendants of American Chattel Slavery considered the lowest of the low.
In 1991, when Korean storekeeper Soon Ja Du killed 15-year-old Latasha Harlins in Los Angeles after falsely accusing her of shoplifting, tensions boiled over between Black American Angelinos and Korean American Angelinos. A year later, when the videotaped beating of Black American Rodney King by the white Los Angeles Police Department was released, many Korean American shops were targeted during the L.A. Riots. The incidents were linked in the minds of Black America, as they both involved anti-Black racism against Black Americans specifically; one at the hands of Whites and the other at the hands of Koreans, who would be classified as ‘persons of color.’ How odd, then, would it have been to use the term POC as one all encompassing, when describing the very specific sequence of violence enacted against Black Americans in Los Angeles at that time? Tensions between Asians and Blacks have remained high in L.A., and can also be found elsewhere across the country. When NYPD officer Peter Liang killed unarmed Akai Gurley in Brooklyn, for instance, Asian Americans protested after Liang was arrested. We were not all POC on that day, as those protesting Liang’s arrest aligned themselves very specifically against Black protestors in opposition to the treatment of Black bodies in this country. Doesn’t the umbrella of POC also deny NBPOC accountability for their internalized anti-Blackness, which is a societal global affliction? NBPOC get ‘passes’ off the strength of being ‘persons of color,’ and are never required to decolonize their own thoughts and behaviors.
Similar again to the concept of ‘political Blackness,’ wherein non-Black collectives utilize ‘Black’ as a political signifier and not a racial one, this use of ‘POC’ in place of ‘Black’ minimizes the very specific strain of anti-Black racism virulent in the United States and worldwide. Blackness cannot be eroded into a political tool and concept rather than a race. As the saying goes, “radical is grabbing by the roots.” Say what you mean. Say Black if you mean Black. The name matters. Because even if it was done on a subconscious level, does using the term POC as opposed to Black make things more palatable because it isn’t immediately associated with Blackness? And at what point do we even question the use of the term POC as an umbrella for racial issues because it categorizes all people of color together via their relation to whiteness — aka via our non-whiteness? Is this not a centering of whiteness in our collective racial identity as ‘persons of color?’
POC is not Black. To be ‘non-white’ does not a Black person make. The issues of Black people are not the issues of all POC. And, contrary to popular belief, a rising tide does not lift all boats, so the improvements of POC do not magically somehow benefit Black people, especially for POC that are upholding anti-Black racism. We need to own up to these truths, or they will destroy us.
Featured Image courtesy of Vera Wang of The Columbia Daily Spectator
Seren Sensei (@seren_sensei) is an activist, writer, cultural critic and new media maker. Focusing on finding the bonds between race, politics, and pop culture, she creates race-based video content and also released her first book, entitled So, About That… A Year of Contemporary Essays on Race and Pop Culture, in 2015. She was a 2016-2017 fellow for at land’s edge, an art and activism fellowship program in Los Angeles, and her work has been exhibited in the art space human resources la as well as the Vincent Price Art Museum.