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  • Writer's pictureVânia Penha-Lopes


I often note that a sign of subordinate status in the U.S. is the amount of terms there are to refer to a racial/ethnic group. Think about how that applies to all non-White, and then let’s take two examples: African Americans and Asian Americans.

"African American," the latest term used to categorize U.S. Blacks, appeared around the late 1980s. Before that, "Negro" (e.g., "Negro Baseball League"), "Colored" (e.g., "National Association for the Advancement of Colored People"), "black" (e.g., "Historical Black Colleges and Universities"), and "Afro-American" (e.g., "Department of Afro-American Studies") were all employed at different times. "Black" is arguably the most common, probably due to the positive connotation it acquired with the "Black is beautiful" slogan from the 1970s. On the other hand, "Negro" and "Colored" seem to have been discarded for good. Excluding a highly offensive term that shall remain nameless, those are five terms to describe a single group.

Likewise, before "Asian American" came to the fore in the 1970s, groups originally from the Far East were referred to either collectively as "Oriental" and "yellow people" or as their individual nationalities (e.g., "Chinese" and "Japanese"). Hyphenated terms (e.g., "Chinese-American") rose in the 1970s after Blacks affirmed their own ethnic identity, which led to attempts by all other groups to follow suit. Perhaps because the Chinese have been the largest Asian group in the U.S., and also because racists insisted on ignoring differences among Asians, at times members of other Asian groups were called at best "Chinese"; at worst, they would be called by offensive terms that shall also remain nameless. Nowadays, "Asian American" encompasses the several nationalities from that continent, including South and Southeast Asians, but excluding Middle Easterners.

Take, on the other hand, Whites. Except for the police and some African Americans when in mixed company or public settings, hardly anyone uses the term "Caucasians"; "European American" seems to find space mostly in academic circles.

Since the early 20th century, "minority group" has been available to refer to Blacks, Asian Americans, and other subordinate groups in the U.S. However, more and more object to that term. Some argue that if all so-called groups were counted together, they would come close to being in the majority. Others argue that the term has negative psychological connotations. Instead, I contend that both arguments ignore the fact that, for Louis Wirth and other sociologists since, "minority" has to do with their relative lack of power, not their numbers. South African Blacks, especially during apartheid, are the oft-cited example: though they constituted 90% of the population, they had practically no power in comparison with the Whites. In other words, lack of power derives from the pervasive social inequality in that country. The same can be said of the U.S., especially if we remind ourselves that U.S. racial segregation was the inspiration for apartheid.

In a 1998 article, Keith Ellison noted that "'[p]erson of color' is quickly emerging as a replacement for 'minority,' or for anyone non-White." He also claimed that it was "softer," with "less baggage"; it may be. In any event, over a decade later, that term has entrenched itself as the politically correct and often preferred replacement for "minorities."

I oppose the use of "people of color" to mean "non-Whites" for the simple fact that "white" is also a color. While it may seem politically correct and even advantageous to lump all non-whites together and single out Whites under the skin color criterion, all that does is mask the unquestionable fact that Whites have been the dominant group throughout the history of this country. Disregarding white as a color renders it invisible, thus masking its normative character. In other words, "White" is the norm against whom all other groups are measured—usually coming up short. Politically, that move ends up reinforcing its power. For instance, while women in general have less power than men, White women have more power than the other women and even often than non-White men; like that catchy American Express slogan told us, "Membership has its privileges."

I'm on the side of those who see "whiteness" as a category of privilege that has been taken for granted as "normal" and thus affords so-called Whites tremendous power--economic, cultural, social, and political (yes, even in the Obama era). To see that, however, we need to stop using "people of color" to mean "non-Whites." Whites have a color too.

Originally published on on June 3, 2010.

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