What’s in a name? A lot (double participation)

Published August 31, 2014 by djlwsu

Language is so important.  These two articles talk about naming and language, so please keep this in mind within our conversations, within your writing, and within our outside class contexts.  Part of expanding conversations and having the most conversations is being precise and reflective of language we use.  Please read the two articles below, reflect on them, and talk about why how we say things can be as important as what we say 


March 30, 2014 9:25 PM ET
Can race and ethnicity be represented by the colors found in a crayon box?

Can race and ethnicity be represented by the colors found in a crayon box?


Language is and always will be an essential element in the struggle for understanding among peoples. Changes in the words and phrases we use to describe each other reflect whatever progress we make on the path toward a world where everyone feels respected and included.

A Google Ngram search comparing the frequency of the use of “colored people,” “minorities” and “people of color” delivers interesting results. The use of the phrase “colored people” peaked in books published in 1970. For “minorities,” the top-ranked year was 1997. Since then, the term has steadily declined but continues to significantly outstrip the use of “people of color,” which reached its apex in 2003 (although it is important to note that 2008 is the latest year for which results are available).

Let’s consider the evolution of that ubiquitous phrase, “people of color.” It’s not new.

A little research into early sources turns up “An Act to Prohibit the Importation of Slaves into any Port or Place Within the Jurisdiction of the United States” (signed in 1807), which applied to “any negro, mulatto, or person of colour” — indicating that the term was well-enough established to be used in the text of legislation.

People who fit this broad category could no longer legally be brought into the country for the purpose of involuntary servitude. But the precise definition of “person of color” has varied among the states and over time.

As the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper noted in November 1912:

“The statutes of Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee and Texas assert that ‘a person of color’ is one who is descended from a Negro to the third generation, inclusive, though one ancestor in each generation may have been white. According to the law of Alabama one is ‘a person of color’ who has had any Negro blood in his ancestry for five generations. … In Arkansas ‘persons of color’ include all who have a visible and distinct admixture of African blood. … Thus it would seem that a Negro in one state is not always a Negro in another.”

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest reference for “person of color” is from the Frenchgens (or hommesde couleur, in the late 18th century. A 1797 survey of the population of what is now Haiti described three classes of people, including “The class which, by a strange abuse of language, is called people of colour, originates from an intermixture of the whites and the blacks.”

“Person” or “people” as a term for human beings, that’s pretty much uncontroversial. But color — which can be used as a noun, an adjective or a verb (transitive and intransitive) — is a word packed with history, prejudice and confusion when it’s used to describe someone’s complexion as an indication of race or ethnicity.

The adjective form — “colored” — we hardly need the OED to confirm, but it says the term is now:

“Usually considered offensive … Coloured was adopted in the United States by emancipated slaves as a term of racial pride after the end of the American Civil War. It was rapidly replaced from the late 1960s as a self-designation by black and later by African-American, although it is retained in the name of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. In Britain it was the accepted term for black, Asian, or mixed-race people until the 1960s.”

In a 1988 New York Times column about the phrase, the late great language maven William Safire pointed out that Martin Luther King Jr. referred to “citizens of color” in his speech at the 1963 March on Washington. Safire also quoted an NAACP spokesman:

” ‘Times change and terms change. Racial designations go through phases; at one time Negro was accepted, at an earlier time colored and so on. This organization has been in existence for 80 years and the initials NAACP are part of the American vocabulary, firmly embedded in the national consciousness, and we feel it would not be to our benefit to change our name.’ “

Safire continued in that 1988 essay:

“Colored people (which in South Africa means ‘people of racially mixed ancestry’) has in the United States a connotation different from people of color. … Colored is often taken as a slur, even when not so intended, and so this term — first used with this meaning in 1611 by the historian John Speed as ‘coloured countenances’ — is better replaced by its synonym as noun and adjective, black. People of color, on the other hand, is a phrase encompassing all nonwhites. … When used by whites, people of color usually carries a friendly and respectful connotation, but should not be used as a synonym for black; it refers to all racial groups that are not white.”

When I was a kid, the “flesh” crayon in a box of Crayolas was pink, even though no one actually has pink skin (except maybe after a day on the beach without sunscreen, when I could go all the way to orange-red). The company renamed it “peach” in 1962, and now promotes a “Multicultural” box of crayons in eight “skin hues” — Apricot, Black, Burnt Sienna, Mahogany, Peach, Sepia, Tan, White.

The first thing I learned in color theory as an art student was that, when you’re talking about light, white means all colors and black is the absence of color, but if you’re referring to paint, then white is no color and black contains all colors.

Contemporary artist Carrie Mae Weems produced a series of photographic portraits of African-American children and called it Colored People. A New York Times review of an exhibit of her work described how she “tinted the prints with monochromatic dyes: yellow, blue, magenta. The results were beautiful … but the colors carried complex messages. They are reminders that the range of skin colors covered by ‘black’ is vast.”

“Person of color” is a useful term, because defining someone by a negative — nonwhite or other than white — seems silly. But some white folks object to the phrase, too, because, hey, we do have color.

One definition of white, from the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, is “marked by slight pigmentation of the skin.” And the term seems to be replacing “minorities,” which makes sense, since minorities can be a demographic inaccuracy. In U.S. history, “person of color” has often been used to refer only to people of African heritage. Today, it usually covers all/any peoples of African, Latino/Hispanic, Native American, Asian or Pacific Island descent, and its intent is to be inclusive.

I think professor Salvador Vidal-Ortiz summed it up well in the Encyclopedia of Race, Ethnicity and Society:

“People of color explicitly suggests a social relationship among racial and ethnic minority groups. … [It is] is a term most often used outside of traditional academic circles, often infused by activist frameworks, but it is slowly replacing terms such as racial and ethnic minorities. … In the United States in particular, there is a trajectory to the term — from more derogatory terms such as negroes, to colored, to people of color. … People of color is, however it is viewed, a political term, but it is also a term that allows for a more complex set of identity for the individual — a relational one that is in constant flux.”



Opinion: Minorities? Try 'people of color'

New Census numbers show the marjority of children under 1 are of color.
May 18th, 2012

Opinion: Minorities? Try ‘people of color’

Editor’s Note: Rinku Sen is the President and Executive Director of the Applied Research Center (ARC) and the publisher of Colorlines.com

By Rinku Sen, Special to CNN

(CNN) –With the news that, for the first time in U.S. history, the majority of American babies are not white, it should put to rest use of the term “minorities” as a reference to America’s black, Latino, Asian and Native American residents.

Nearly 30 years ago, I learned to think of myself as a person of color, and that shift changed my view of myself and my relationship to the people around me.

It is time for the entire nation, and our media in particular, to make the same move.

I am an Indian immigrant, and became a citizen in 1987.

My family came to the States in 1972 when I was five, just seven years after Congress passed the
Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which removed bans on Asian immigration.

My father was a metallurgical engineer and we lived in predominantly white factory towns in New York and Pennsylvania.

All I ever wanted was to be fully American. But everything around me, from the population to the television, taught me that being American meant being white.

I lived in a household, similiar to others, where only white people were called Americans, and everyone else got a more specific title (black, Indian).

I grew up with the weird mix of pandering (“You’re such a genius like all your people! Let’s skip you to seventh grade!”) and exclusion (none of the white girls showed up to my 13th birthday party, and no, they didn’t call) that I would later learn characterized the “model-minority” experience of many Asian Americans.

Not yet aware that it was not only me who was treated this way, I had to develop alternative explanations to deny the racial reality in which I found myself, searching for “anything-but-race” reasons for my experiences.

At the beginning of my sophomore year at Brown University in 1984, the African American, Latino and Asian student groups ran a campaign for campus-wide policy changes – more professors, new curriculum, a new Third World Center.

There had been meetings and a rally, and I had skipped them all, just as I had skipped the school’s pre-orientation program for incoming students of color when I entered college.

One night I was with my friends Yuko, a Japanese national who had been raised in the U.S., and Valerie, a biracial black and white woman, who wanted me to attend a rally the next day.

I gave them the 1980s version of “I’m not feeling that.” And they gave me a serious talking-to. “You’re not a minority,” Yuko said. “you’re a person of color.”

I went to the rally.

It was the first time since immigrating that I felt I belonged in an American community.

That was the moment I realized that being an American wasn’t about looking like Marcia Brady. It was about making a commitment to the community you were in, and doing all you could do to make that the most inclusive, most compassionate, most effective community possible.

I have been building multiracial social justice organizations ever since.

Long before the press starting talking about changing demographics, community organizers needed to connect the communities that fell under the “minority” rubric.

Our specific groups were outnumbered by whites. But when we came together, the proportions shifted in a way that forced institutions to deal with us.

The term “people of color” has deep historical roots, not to be confused with the pejorative “colored people.”

“People of color” was first used in the French West Indies to indicate people of African descent who were not enslaved as “gens de couleur libre,” or “free people of color,” and scholars have found references to the term in English dating back to the early 1800’s.

American racial justice activists, influenced by Franz Fanon, picked up the term in the late 1970s and began to use it widely by the early 80s.

As an Indian immigrant, calling myself a person of color enabled me to identify with African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans.

The new identity freed me from the model-minority slot that I had been given by the media, politicians and by Americans themselves.

To build a multiracial movement, I had to expand my identity in a way that tied me to African Americans’ struggle to access the promise of the American dream, rather than as the ringer that would suppress that struggle.

“People of color” is now commonly used far beyond political circles, as “minority” fades into the category of things that used to be true.

It is past time for the media and the general public to embrace the phrase.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Rinku Sen.


One comment on “What’s in a name? A lot (double participation)

  • I think that both articles make great points on the ways “people of color” are used to identify people or a group of people. They both talked about the history of the word and how it came to be which made both arguments well thought out. I believe that it depends on the person to decide if they think that using the term “people of color” is appropriate or insulting. I don’t believe that there will every be(or at least to date) a mutual decision among everyone that the term “people of color” is the right term to use or the wrong term to use. Every one identifies themselves differently.


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