This week, I made a little self-affirming, declaring-my-identity tweet, and it went like this:
Just a reminder, I’m Black. I’m not a Person of Color. It’s cool if you are but I’m not. I’m just Black. If using the term Black makes you feel uncomfortable, you should sit with it and examine why. Signed, A Black Girl in Maine.
It got some support. It got some raised eyebrows. It got some negative responses.
So, let’s have some real talk about the term people (or person) of color, or POC for short, and Black. And understand that while my tweet and this post focus a lot on Black (and blackness) because, well. I am, this is a post that could easily be substituted with “Indigenous” or “Latinx” or just about anything else besides “Black” (assuming you changed some of the specific historical examples and whatnot). But I’m blackity black Black, so lemme keep it real and personal, OK?
Yes, I am a POC. I live in a white supremacist, white-privilege-focused, white-centered nation in a world that in huge portions of it is pretty much the same way. POCs as a whole get pushed down and shoved to the side. That’s true. So, yes, I belong to the large group known as POC.
But you’ve heard of white-adjacent, right? Or “proximity to whiteness” maybe? OK, maybe not all of you. But the fact is, certain POC are treated less badly—sometimes way less badly than a Black person—because they aren’t as dark as Black people and because they are perceived differently by white people in terms of “threat level.” That’s a fact. And aside from how light (or not) a POC is, there are all kinds of cultural and historical differences (good and bad) that make us distinct as well from each other.
Black people and Indigenous people here in the United States and a whole lot of other places are pretty much the most maligned and abused POC groups. Blacks got chattel slavery and being seen as literal property with no agency for centuries, followed by brutal segregation and state-sponsored abuse and lynching that frankly continues to this day in many ways. Indigenous people were subjected to genocide and then their few remaining numbers put on reservations with few resources. And both groups have been subjected to efforts to dismiss their cultural traditions or stamp them out entirely, all at the same time as white people appropriated what they wanted from those cultural traditions.
Latinx people have had to deal with a lot of overt racism and cultural appropriation and disproportionate levels of police violence, too, but the history is different and the kind of hatred expressed toward them is different. And with other POC, like various Asian people, there is also a different flavor of racism directed toward them. And so on.
It’s true that as POC, we have a lot of shared goals. But the problem with casually and regularly referring to me as a person of color (when I identify as Black) or lumping any other non-white person into the POC category, is that you are ignoring their central identity. You are erasing the core of who they are for the most part. Because most people, at least in my experience, identify within their group primarily, and not primarily as POC.
In other words, when we are talking about issues that really affect all POC in a similar way (or most of them), by all means let’s say “POC.” But if you want to honor who I am and what I deal with day in and day out, you need to call me “Black.” Because my experience with racism, for example, day in and day out, is as a Black person. A Black woman.
And that’s another spot where I see an example of erasure. Being a woman under the umbrella called feminism. Because as has often been noted by women of color (Black, Latinx, Asian, Arab, Indigenous, etc.), much of feminism is white-centered, and the moment non-white women try to bring attention to particular sexism or misogyny tied to their race (or in the case of trans women, their sexual identification), they are called divisive and accused of derailing the movement. They are called upon to just be women and to follow a white-led party line and to put their specific concerns aside for now (which really means over and over again forever), no matter how horrible their specific experiences are compared to white and/or cis women.
I am not rejecting my shared plights with POC when I insist on being called Black. I am not being divisive when I say I am a Black person first and a POC secondarily. I am asserting my identity and my experience. I am embracing my racial history and culture and being proud of who and what I am. Being Black has a ton to do with how I was raised, the way I speak, the food I hold dear, the notions I hold sacred, the music I love and the way I dance—and so much more. The same is true of so many Latinx or Hispanic people and Asian people in all their varied forms, and other POC who are not just part of some monolithic group called “people of color.”
I am also identifying myself in a specific way because my blackness causes me to be treated in a way that other POC are not, just as their race or ethnicity or both cause them to be treated in a different way than me.
We have a shared struggle against white supremacy, but burying our cultural and racial identities under the term POC to me doesn’t feel like it will honor our ancestors, our history or our culture.
It seems to me it will only help to erase or obscure them, and that serves whiteness more than it serves us, I think.
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