Standpoint

Why I Can’t Stand the Term ‘People of Colour’

For anyone who has social media and hasn’t been living under the rocks of Castle Sands for the last few months, you will have undoubtedly have heard of the ‘We Are St Andrews’ campaign. Sharing stories and images of diverse members of the student body, the campaign attempts to raise awareness of minority issues and create lasting positive change in St Andrews. And about bloody time! In 2018, it seems surprising it has taken this long for students to stand up to St Andrews’ glaring diversity problem and to make their voices heard. As a minority student, I cannot help but have utmost admiration and respect for the creators of the campaign and the many people who have bravely shared their stories in the hope of not only tackling existing issues, but also making St Andrews an inclusive community for generations of students to come. 

Photo: Visit Scotland

Then why did I find a distinct niggling peeve when the term ‘people of colour’ was briefly mentioned? Reflecting on it, I was always slightly uncomfortable at the term whenever I came across it, but had no idea why. The term is not offensive, largely accepted and commonly used, evidenced by the multitude of people who identify with it – so why not me? Was I missing something? In an attempt to justify my reaction (and to divert my focus away from the two deadlines I had) I decided to delve a little deeper into why I had the reaction I did and what exactly it was that made me baulk at such an innocuous term.  

First, there is the very sound of the term ‘people of colour’ which is basically a rewording of the redundant and offensive description, ‘coloured people’. Conducting some research on the social Bible of BuzzFeed, it appeared that the main distinction between the two was that the term ‘coloured’ was coined by white people to oppress others whereas ‘people of colour’ was chosen by minorities to resist this oppression. Evidently, I missed the ballot. Then there is the abbreviation POC, which makes the dermatologically darker sound like the dermatologically diseased. But these reasons seemed petty; if they weren’t the source of my dislike of the term, then what was? 

Photo: University of St Andrews

Digging further still, perhaps the real issue is not with how the term sounded but what it means. Referring to any person who does not identify as white European, ‘people of colour’ essentially defines someone by what they are not rather than what they are. One the one hand, this may help some feel a sense of inclusivity and solidarity. But in my experience at least, this solidarity is lacking. How can I compare my identity – as a mixed race man raised in leafy Sussex – to someone from an entirely different gender, ethnicity and background, who may have experienced race and racism in a way that I can hardly imagine? If the only thing you have in common with someone is that you both happen not to be white, is this really enough common ground to use the same term to identify yourself? This terminology risks erasing the diversity within diversity and hastily presuming a sense of commonality between people from vastly different walks of life. 

Describing an individual as a ‘person of colour’ also raises a multitude of issues for someone who identifies as mixed race. Separating society into what are essentially white and non-white camps forces mixed race people with white heritage to emphasise one aspect of their identities over another. It doesn’t matter if one of your parents is white, your cousins are white or if this part of your identity is important in forming how you understand yourself, the term ‘people of colour’ linguistically severs you from this half of your identity, pushing you into a clump of people who you may have significantly less in common with than your white relations. This ‘us and them’ dichotomy brushes over the complexities of ethnic heritage, reinforcing the same reductive ideas of race that have historically been deeply problematic for mixed race individuals like myself. 

Photo: The University of St Andrews

Coming to the end of this existential journey, perhaps the niggling peeve I feel at the term ‘people of colour’ is not so irrational after all. However, not for the first time, I know I am in the minority. If the term ‘people of colour’ gives you a sense of solidarity and belonging that I am too antisocial to appreciate, then by all means, use it, and use it with pride. But if we are allowing people to choose the terms by which they refer to themselves, then I’ll politely opt out of this one. And while we’re choosing our own terms, I think I’ll go for golden: shiny and only fashionable in small quantities. Now let’s get back to those deadlines. 

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