Any category or concept is going to leave important things out. It’s the nature of abstraction. Using the term ‘Black’ to describe a group of people can obscure more than it reveals. As a biological category it is meaningless, as is the concept of race generally. There is no clear biologically relevant distinction between blacks and non-blacks. There are some genetic diseases, such as sickle-cell anemia, that are more prevalent among those with African ancestry compared to those with European ancestry. Other diseases prevalent in the Black community, like hypertension, however, are related to social, not biological phenomena.
Even as a social category, it abstracts a lot of differences. Within the group of Black people, there are men and women, there are children and adults, there are wealthy and poor, there are powerful and disenfranchised, there are those with access to resources and those without, there those with legal status and those without. So a lot of detail and nuance is lost in the use of the concept.
Despite this, it is still very meaningful as a social category. Black people in the United States, for example, have less wealth, less income, suffer poorer health, and are disproportionately incarcerated compared to people who are not Black. To say that the concept of race has no biological value and that individuals are what they are, cannot be made into an argument to deny the social reality of racism. Racism is real. It is brutal. And in the system of caste that is US racism, Black people, and indigenous people, are at the bottom.
What about the concept of ‘People of Color’? That, too, obscures a great deal. It obscures differentials in political power; it obscures class differences; it obscures gender differences; it obscures questions of imperialism; it obscures the crucial distinction in this world of those who have papers and passports and can cross borders and those who do not, cannot, and are ‘illegal’.
Does it, however, have merit, like the concept of Black race or ethnicity, that countervails what it costs in abstraction? It has the merit of excluding whites, who, while they can be oppressed on gender or class lines, are at the top of the racial caste system. It can be a useful substitute for the term ‘non-white’. But it can also lead to simple-minded analysis.
When whites in movements argue that everyone needs to get over race, transcend it, and work on common issues of class, against capitalism and the ruling elite, antiracists are unimpressed because such an approach enables the most privileged and powerful groups to impose their agenda on the rest. Such an approach denies problems of privilege and differentials of power within movements and organizations for social change. Denial is no basis for solidarity. As a substitute for denial, antiracists ask white activists to think about privilege, to be attuned to hierarchies and exclusion that can happen in organizations, and to work to overcome them. Pretending equality is already here is a recipe for maintaining inequality. Addressing and attempting to make structural redress for inequality can make a group, or a movement, stronger.
The way to fight racism is not to deny differences and hierarchies of privilege but to bring them out in the open and try to change them. But if that is the case, the ‘People of Color’ label is often not helpful, for several reasons.
First, because it leads to the same kinds of denial as comes from denying race altogether. There is a hierarchy of privilege within the group ‘People of Color’. At the bottom are poor African Americans, indigenous people, and Latinos. At the top are an elite of people from different ethnicities selected and adopted into the ruling class. In between are groups of immigrants, some of whom have historically had a degree of upward mobility and are used against those below them as rhetorical devices: ‘model minorities’ who are supposed to have ‘made it’, proving that racism does not hold ‘People of Color’ back and thus that African Americans (as an example) have not ‘made it’ through their own fault. There are also groups of brutally exploited and oppressed immigrants and refugees, who work at low wages to try to remit money to support their families in poor countries under constant threat of deportation. These groups are treated differently within the racial system. They are subject to different stereotypes. They have different, and sometimes opposed, interests. Black people, for example, have an interest in a tighter labor market, while immigrants have an interest in the chance to go to the US to work. Many institutions, and often the law, think affirmative action obligations to Blacks to redress centuries of slavery and Jim Crow segregation and violence are met when an upper class Asian is hired.
Collapsing all of these groups under the rubric of ‘People of Color’ does exclude those at the top of the hierarchy (white people) but it leaves the rest of the hierarchy intact. As a result, people at the top of the new hierarchy – in movement organizations these are often drawn from the ranks of class-privileged academics from the least oppressed racial groups - can claim the oppression of everyone below them as their own. Rather than trying to understand and addressing our own privilege and hierarchy, we can posture and be righteous. This does not help those we ought to be most concerned about – those who are most oppressed, those who are at the bottom of the hierarchy.
If addressing privilege and working against it within social movements and organizations is onerous, then why should whites shoulder the burden alone, since they are not the only ones with privilege? If, conversely, as antiracists claim, addressing privilege and working against it is a positive personal growth experience, then why should whites monopolize such a wonderful thing? We could all benefit from understanding how privilege and hierarchy work, and taking an honest look at where we stand. Perhaps we could start by being a little more specific about the racial system and its impacts, which do not come down on everyone equally. Using a better set of categories might help. The categories I use for North America, with their own flaws and problems, are: European or white, South Asian, East Asian, West Asian, Latino, African or Black, and Indigenous; always with the question of citizenship and status (immigrant, refugee, status/non-status).
Recognizing these differences is particularly important when ‘People of Color’ groups, caucuses, and organizations are formed. A ‘People of Color’ caucus in a community antiwar group is an example. The idea here is good: to create an autonomous space where an oppressed group can work and develop without constantly negotiating boundaries and issues of privilege. So long as the creation of such a space does not come at the expense of representation of the oppressed in larger, integrated groups (in the antiwar example, the existence of a caucus should not prevent people of color from being represented in the leadership of the larger antiwar organization or coalition). But if the autonomous space is a ‘people of color’ space where highly privileged people of color interact with much less privileged people of color, the most oppressed still have no space, and can now be denied a voice, of their own.
It’s true that no set of categories or concepts is perfect, and it would be easy to come up with arguments against the set I’ve chosen. But starting with a concept like ‘People of Color’, which obscures privilege and hierarchy within the racial system itself, can often make work harder for antiracists.
Justin Podur is a writer and activist based in Toronto.