The term POC (“person of color” or “people of color”) has become prominent in the last few decades, especially in the United States. It is a very useful term for discussing the way that all people who are not white may be subject to racism in the United States and many other countries, and for allowing us to build coalitions against racism in solidarity across many different ethnic groups.
We must be careful to remember, however, that not all POC have the same experiences, because the broad phenomenon of racism impacts different individuals differently.
Kimberlé Crenshaw introduced the theory of “intersectionality,” and in the last thirty years, it has been widely embraced as an important concept.
Intersectionality refers to the way that the different components of a person’s identity intersect one another and produce effects that result from their combination of identities. For example, a black woman’s experience of racism is impacted by her identity as a woman, and her experience of sexism is impacted by her identity as black.
These effects are not additive and instead need to be looked at in their complex interactions. For instance, a black woman’s experience of racism and sexism does not look like just a black man’s experience added to a white woman’s experience, because the combination of racism and sexism results in a new set of effects.
Intersectionality can examine a wide range of identity categories, including but certainly not limited to gender, race, class, sexual orientation, ability, religion, immigration status, immigration generation, language, and age. When we talk about sexism or racism, we need to remember to think about how these forces of oppression impact not just people with our same set of identities, but also those with identities that differ from ours.
Although people of different races can all experience racism, the process of racialization can look different for each racial group. Racist structures and concepts can function differently or even oppositely for different racial groups, to the overall advantage of the institutions that benefit from racism.
One example from the early history of the United States is the difference between how multiracial Native Americans and African Americans were legally classified.
For Native Americans, “blood quantum” rules were used, which meant that a multiracial person had to have a certain documented “percentage” of Native American ancestry in order to count as Native American. The racist advantage of this system to colonial government was that they could limit the number of people who counted as Native American, and therefore limit the number of people with whom they were legally obligated to respect their treaties. Nowadays, different Native American tribes have come to different decisions on how to respond to the complicated issue of blood quantum rules.
For African Americans, however, “one drop” rules were used. This meant that a multiracial person was counted as black if there was even one documented black person in their ancestry. This system had the racist advantage of increasing the number of people who could be enslaved or, later, subject to discrimination. Even though this was the opposite racial logic to the one that was used for Native Americans, these two contradictory systems flourished under racist structures.
Another example of different racialization in more recent years comes from the model minority myth. The myth claims that some racial minorities have managed to be successful in the United States, particularly Asian Americans.
This myth allows the discrimination and inequalities faced by Asian Americans to be ignored. The averages in statistics on income and educational attainment, for instance, mask the challenges that appear when the numbers are broken down into smaller categories. The focus on so-called “positive stereotypes” cloak the damages of any kind of racial stereotype, and also cloak the reality of racial prejudice that Asian Americans can encounter.
The model minority myth also pits Asian Americans against other racial minorities, including African Americans, Native Americans, and Latinx, by claiming that hard work is all that is needed to overcome racism in the United States. It erases the different histories of each of these populations, which include slavery, colonialism, and immigration law.
What we need is an accurate understanding of the distinct challenges that racism can pose for various ethnic groups, and the goal of eliminating racial disparities with an open mind to where and how they may occur.
Finally, we cannot forget that the United States is not the only country where racial and ethnic dynamics occur. Furthermore, the way that race and ethnicity function in the United States is often not the same as the way that they function in other countries. The term POC has been particularly rooted in the history of the United States, but in our multicultural and international world, especially online, we need to make sure that our conversations are attentive to the national context from which we are speaking.
Indigenous people all over the world have nuanced histories, political goals, and terminology. In Canada, where I was born, the chosen terminology is usually First Nations, Métis, and Inuit, rather than Native Americans as is common in the United States.
The racial divisions that may be familiar to you from the census and doctor’s forms will likely look different in another country. The term mestizo is an important one in Latin American countries and Latinx communities, although it may be encountered less often in the United States as a whole and has different connotations than the terms “mixed race” or “multiracial,” carrying with it attention to colonial history.
As CBE-VOC explored in an Admin Speak webinar just this past May, although both African Americans and Africans would be considered racially black in the United States, African Americans and Africans often have vastly different experiences of racialization, both in their respective countries of birth and while living in the same country, and they may hold different and even hostile views towards each other.
A country’s specific history has an enormous impact on how race and ethnicity function within it. Recognizing this variation not only helps us understand one another better, but exposes how race and ethnicity are socially constructed, and encourages us that how they work can always be changed.