By Dr. Joy Martinez, Staff Writer
Black people in America have been called by many names – African American, Negro, colored and the unspeakable word that rhymes with bigger. In the last year, as protests against police brutality and racism have flooded the streets and social media, another term has been ascribed to the population: BIPOC. The term seems to have been first used in a 2013 Tweet, but is not the first trend used to classify a group of people without acknowledging their actual preference.
As a phrase, “people of color” dates back to 1796. It was first cited in The Oxford English Dictionary, with the British spelling “colour,” and is often abbreviated as POC. The other two letters, for Black and Indigenous, were included in the acronym to account for the erasure of black people with darker skin and Native American people.
The BIPOC Project says, “We use the term BIPOC to highlight the unique relationship to whiteness that Indigenous and Black (African Americans) people have, which shapes the experiences of and relationship to white supremacy for all people of color within a U.S. context.” Akin to BIPOC, BAME is most often used in the UK and stands for Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic.
But when the Black Lives Matter protests reignited in 2020, a refrain began across social media, particularly among Black people: Stop calling me a person of color.
Many felt that using the term POC sidesteps the truth: that certain effects of racism — things like mass incarceration, police violence, a lack of access quality health care — disproportionately affect Black and Indigenous people. It follows then that BIPOC, the term minority, and the few variations that come with it, is an inclusivity industry term that is more disrespectful than inclusive.
Diversity specialist, TEDx Speaker and CEO Amber Booth-McCoy of The Diversity Booth explains, “I think these shifts in language and the terms we use to identify people of African descent largely attempt to define Black people in a way that knits them together as a tribe and political identity. The terms also reflect the social and political climates in which they are used, and so their appropriateness just shifts based on geographical context. BIPOC seems to be another attempt to refine and define, with a focus on solidarity among non-white racial and ethnic groups.”
For many Black Americans, using the acronym BIPOC suggests an interchangeability in being Black or South Asian, Korean, Chinese, or Mexican where no interchangeability exists. For many, the term flattens the unique cultures and the specific battles each racial group faces in America. Bias against Chinese Americans, for instance, looks completely different than bias against Mexican Americans, and mixing them together in the same pot ends up leaving both flavorless.
Jennefer Witter, Public Speaker, DEI advocate and Founder/CEO of The Boreland Group believes there is a disconnect between understanding the Black diaspora and respect for individuality. “BIPOC, no matter how well-meaning, is one of those flash terms that came out of nowhere and suddenly has become en vogue to describe a cornucopia of people who are nonwhite. My mother and father hated to be called African American because they were not, they were West Indian American as I am. Just because you’re Black doesn’t mean you’re American, that you’re from the South, or that you have been in this country for 200 years. My father came after World War II, my mother in 1956. My roots are in Jamaica but I am 100 percent American. You can’t see us as a whole with no individualities because that’s just not the way it is. It’s the same with any group. That uniqueness, that specificity is something that this country overlooks, especially when it comes to Blacks.”
That uniqueness, that specificity is something that this country overlooks, especially when it comes to Blacks.” Jennefer Witter
What the phrase BIPOC does – even if inadvertently, is lumps all these groups together, so that the suggestion is made that we are having the same experience. So the acronym BIPOC fails to articulate the differential ways that people experience race and racism. If there is no acknowledgement of the different experience, then the solution need not be different. Take the response to COVID as an example. “We’re all in this together” has become a rallying cry during the coronavirus pandemic. While it is true that COVID-19 has affected everyone in some way, the magnitude and nature of the impact has been anything but universal.
There are three main groups of workers in the COVID-19 economy: those who have lost their jobs and face economic insecurity, those who are classified as essential workers and face health and safety insecurity, and those who are able to continue working from the safety of their homes. Unfortunately, Black workers are less likely to be found in the last group. They have suffered record numbers of job losses and have disproportionately high COVID-19 death rates and are more likely to live in areas experiencing outbreaks.
One would think access to treatment and the vaccine would follow the obvious inequity. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is reporting demographic characteristics, including race/ethnicity, of people receiving COVID-19 vaccinations at the national level. As of March 1, CDC data indicated of the people who had received at least one dose of the vaccine, nearly two thirds were White (65 percent), 9 percent were Hispanic, 7 percent were Black.
Booth-McCoy has an explanation, “The Black and Indigenous parts of the acronym were added to make efforts toward equity. But often it’s in term and usage only. Companies will acknowledge the need for spaces and positions specifically targeting the Black and Indigenous as necessary due to the systemic barriers placed on those groups, but then hire a person from South Asia and consider their diversity work done.”
Companies will acknowledge the need for spaces and positions specifically targeting the Black and Indigenous as necessary due to the systemic barriers placed on those groups, but then hire a person from South Asia and consider their diversity work done.” Amber Booth-McCoy
In a moment when Black Americans are asking that the names of those killed at the hands of the police be said aloud, and when Black people are asking for equal treatment on a global scale, trying to fit all people of color and Native Americans in one term is tone deaf. This is the first time the Black population has had the autonomy in the eyes of society to name ourselves, we have been labeled negro, colored, mulattos and quadroons, we have been African American and we are saying of our selves, we are Black. Say our names. Take the time to show me that you know the difference.