Last year, a Detroit festival known as Afrofuture Fest made headlines when it charged different prices for tickets to POC (“people of color’) and NONPOC (i.e., white people). I was happy they reversed their decision, as I could not figure out how much to pay for me, my “POC” wife, and my biracial children. (Some friends suggested I split the difference in price for the kids.)
The justification for the different prices was based on the observation that white people are generally wealthier than brown and black people. This is true. But why not then charge even higher prices for Jews and Asians?
This incident could certainly provoke a number of important cultural observations. The one that I would like to address is the whole problematic concept of this category: People of Color.
There are three problems with it: (1) The category itself is nonsensical. (2) It suggests an identity group that does not exist. (3) It implies a singular dynamic of race relations that is sloppy scholarship at best. This is more than just imprecise terminology; it creates a new tribalism when we should be working to bring all kinds of people together.
First, the name itself is silly. Are there really people with, and people without, color? This careless shorthand for non-Caucasian undermines a view of humanity consisting of a wide variety of ethnic groups. It creates a qualitative distinction. No longer do we come in a variety of shades that really are irrelevant to our shared humanity. Now there are two essentially different types of people.
This creates various problems. On which side of the line do we place different groups? How do we label Ashkenazi versus Sephardic Jews? Greeks, Serbians, and blue-eyed Puerto Ricans? What if Koreans have lighter skin than Italians? Again, how I should classify my two young sons, who are biracial—do they, or do they not, have “color?” Can they have “half-color?”
Currently, they are mature enough not to waste much time on such matters. Yet it won’t be long until they are in college, when such things will become of monumental importance to their very identity!
The second problem is that this faux identity group suggests a common character or experience that does not exist. “People of color” come from countless different cultural, religious, linguistic, economic, political, and ethnic backgrounds.
Do Vietnamese and Japanese people share myriad common characteristics, other than that they both come from Asia? Are Egyptians and Brazilians more similar to each other than to people of non-color? Even when we limit ourselves to the United States, what is the shared experience of the son of wealthy Pakistani immigrants and the daughter of a black auto-worker in Detroit? We must acknowledge that there is no common identity and experience of non-Caucasians.
So why is this phrase used at all? This brings us to the third point. Sometimes it is lazy over-generalizing. At other times it is used to enable a popular, albeit deeply flawed, narrative of race relations. It suggests that all “POC” share the common trait of having faced unjust discrimination and bigotry by white people. Why else even invent such a category? Thus, America is made up of the two categories of people of no-color and all their poor victims.
To be certain, our country has a history of numerous white people denying others their full rights, and sometimes doing some unspeakably awful things to members of different ethnic groups. This is real and should be taught and discussed in our schools. A complete picture of our history, of course, would also include examples of different people, of all colors, who worked and sacrificed to change things for the better.
While white hegemony has been real in America, an educated person should also know that members of dominant ethnic groups have routinely oppressed members of weaker groups all around the world. We find it from Bosnia to Myanmar to Rwanda. The offenders have come from all different racial groups.
Ethnic discrimination is a human phenomenon, not a Caucasian one. When history is taught as the domination of whites over “people of color,” it is not only being taught poorly, but in a socially destructive manner.
On today’s college campuses, there is special treatment of students and faculty “of color” that does not move us toward a greater appreciation for our common humanity; it creates a new tribalism. We introduce new discriminations, with privilege and resources presented to people simply because they are not white. These are resources that cannot then be directed toward community members who are more deserving of assistance, regardless of skin color.
When the son of a Kosovar refugee is part of the oppressor class, while the daughter of a Korean stockbroker gets the mark and benefits of privilege, we have a problem. On today’s campuses, that type of senseless preferential treatment is far from rare.
And now it seems it has spread from the academy more and more into popular culture. So, let’s drop the “POC” category and strive for more precision in our language, perspective in our history, and overcoming of the tribalism that separates us.