Living in the shadow of the United States, it is inevitable that Canadians will absorb and be influenced by aspects of American culture – good and bad. But one that, regrettably, Canadian media are adopting with increasing regularity is the American term “people of colour” to describe all those who are not white.
In newspapers, on radio and television, the term is becoming the accepted shorthand for Blacks, Latinos, Arabs, Asians and other non-whites. “Canadian people of colour,” “Canadians of colour,” and “Communities of colour” are not uncommon in headlines and stories. During last fall’s federal election, a TV anchor called NDP leader Jagmeet Singh a “person of colour.” Former Whitby Liberal MP Celina Caesar-Chavannes was described as a “woman of colour.”
Though not as widely embraced by Canadian ethnic communities as it is in the U.S., use of the term is, worryingly, very much on the rise.
I recognize that some non-white Canadians embrace it. I also recognize that those who use the term are not being disrespectful. They mean well. But meaning well isn’t the point. The problem is putting all non-white people in one box and assuming it’s fine.
I am African. I am Black. I am not a person of colour. If you feel the need to describe me by race or ethnicity, call me African. If you want to define me by colour, call me Black. That’s who I am. Don’t call me a person of colour. It undermines my identity and offends me.
Of course, there’s always the old question of why white, every bit as much a colour as black or brown, is left out of the debate about the colour of people.
“The term ‘people of colour’ is particularly problematic,” says Amina Mire, a Carleton University professor of sociology and anthropology whose speciality includes racialization. “It suggests that whiteness is not a colour. In my work, I often use ‘non-white people’ instead of ‘people of colour.’ ”
“If you think about it, all people have colour,” adds University of Ottawa sociologist and social demographer Fernando Mata.
The term however, is widely accepted in the U.S., where most African-Americans, Latinos, Asians and others, including politicians, civil rights leaders and activists embrace it as a term of solidarity and empowerment.
“People of colour” gained popularity around the 1980s as Black and other minority community leaders sought strength and power in numbers by coming together as one, powerful, unified force. The idea basically was that standing alone as African-Americans, Latinos or Asians, for example, did little to break racial barriers, and coming together under the banner of “people of colour” might be more effective. In a way, it acknowledges civil rights leader Martin Luther King’s injunction that Black people “cannot walk alone” in the fight for equal rights and social justice. They need allies to move the fight for racial equality beyond the traditional black/white divide. King indeed used the term “citizens of color” in his famous 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech.
But the term’s history rankles. Consider this paragraph in the 1807 Act Prohibiting the Importation of Slaves, which made unlawful, the importation into the U.S. of “… any negro, mulatto, or person of color, with intent to hold, sell, or dispose of such negro, mulatto, or person of color as a slave, or to be held to service or labour.”
I appreciate the need for solidarity and togetherness among historically marginalized people. Racial discrimination is not just the burden of Black people, but people of all colours. Standing against racial discrimination and injustice is an imperative for all people. But the painful history of the term makes it difficult to embrace. That history, with echoes of the word “colored” that was painted on segregation signs in the American South from the 1900s into the 1960s – and used to discriminate against Black people, is difficult to swallow. I see “colored” and “people of colour” as two branches of the same tree. That’s why I refuse to wear it.
Those who use “people of colour” should understand that it’s not a universal term of endearment. It’s an American term that should not be used blithely in Canada. Tread carefully.
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