A few months ago, as I completed a survey for my workplace, I came across the question: "Do you consider yourself a person of color?" My gut reacted, surprisingly, with confusion.Literally, "of color" means "colored," a term which the United States, undeniable champion of political correctness, shied away from using to describe African-Americans because it was offensive – it implied difference and inferiority.
So, it chose instead to use a synonym.
The phrase "of color" as we know it today was first used by Martin Luther King Jr. in his historic "I Have A Dream" speech – a fact which might seem to give the term a sort of iconic legitimacy. But let's not forget that in 1963 arguments about race still very much centered on skin color and considered little else; terms like "ethnicity" and "heritage" were not part of the general discourse like they are today.
The reasons for using the phrase "of color" are generally well-meaning and stem from political correctness, but if we are truly moving toward a country that embraces the many cultures of its citizenry, we need to call things by their true name.
Some insist that the phrase "of color" avoids the negative connotations of words like "minorities" and "non-white," and while it is true that "of color" defines people by what they are rather than what they are not, it is also true that it lumps together disparate groups by one common factor: that they are not Caucasian.
This kind of implication – that there are "whites" and then everyone else – points to a conception of race whose baseline is this so-called whiteness and whose sole determiner of race is skin color. "Of color" suggests that the standard, and therefore the quality we should all be striving for, is Caucasian in culture, heritage and, of course, skin color. Anything – and anyone – else is a deviation, an undesirable anomaly.
There is no doubt that we need descriptors to better analyze and understand the society in which we live. America's cultural diversity is one of its most distinguishing traits; after all, this is still a country borne of immigration that continues to open its doors to millions of people a year.
As of 2011, more than 40 million people living in the United States were foreign-born. If we are to better understand them, their experience and their needs, we absolutely need words — the right words.
We can't pretend difference doesn't exist, as French president François Hollande did when he claimed that "there is no room in the Republic for race" after France's National Assembly passed a bill to remove the word "race" from the French penal code.So, let's use words that help us understand the difference between people so that we may better embrace it.
The phrase "of color" creates the illusion of a cohesive sameness in values and culture between all non-Caucasian populations which simply does not exist.If understanding and addressing the differences between African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Caucasians, Hispanics, Latinos, Middle Easterners, Native Americans, Pacific Islanders, means using that many words, then let's do it.Let's pick the right, most accurate words, and quit relying on dated phrases because they were, 30 years ago, thought to be "politically correct."
Saying someone is "of color" is absolutely no different than saying they are "colored" or "non-white." It just happens to sound nicer.Ultimately, the words we use to describe things end up shaping our view of them.If we keep expressing race, ethnicity and culture through the language of "whites-and-everyone-else," we stifle our ability to understand and perceive nuances of difference (and of sameness) between ourselves and others around us.
Marianela D'Aprile is a senior in architecture. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.