by RJ Eldridge
A couple of years ago, before Baltimore and Ferguson reinvigorated an American conversation around black bodies and the law, an article about an often-used phrase caught my eye. Entitled, “What’s Wrong with the Term ‘Person of Color,’” it looked at how we use that phrase in far from universal ways, and how the phrase can sometimes exclude groups of people it was coined to embrace. The author, identified by the single epicene name, Janani, is an American of South Asian heritage. From this social and racial vantage point, the author engages what they argue to be a complex problem with the term person of color.
One of the article’s more notable moments occurs in a story about the time Janani spent at “a stay-away anti-oppression camp in Jefferson City, Missouri.” During one “fishbowl activity” in which camp counselors invite the youth to self-divide by race—people of color on one side, whites on the other—Janani, along with the other Asian students, goes to sit with the white students. This act foreshadows the inevitable moment of truth, when, during a conversation about race, the Asian students realize that they, too, are considered “people of color”—which is to say, non-white:
When the discussion on racism began, however, all of us Asian kids broke down and cried. It was clear to us that we didn’t have White privilege, but ‘people of color’ didn’t fit either when the only other context we had for it was a group of our Black peers using it as a solidarity term.
Janani’s revelation sheds some light on the racial black-white binary’s failure to reflect the experiences of many who identify as people of color. That the Asian students initially considered themselves white, and that they met a rude awakening when in conversation with Americans of European descent about race and racism, could have been predicted. But what is more interesting is that Janani refers to an understanding, shared among the Asian kids, about what the term people of color means. This understanding focuses on a group for whom solidarity regarding racial issues is apparently presupposed: black people. Janani speaks to specific historical experiences, such as New World enslavement, and suggests a link between those experiences and the way the term people of color is used today as a shorthand for black (or Latino) communities.
Perspectives such as this are not without justification. The term people of color in the United States dates as far back as the late 18th century, and possibly earlier. At that time, a free person of color was one of a class of persons who were neither bondspeople (slaves) nor white. This class largely comprised people who had some African heritage, but it also counted Native Americans as well as anyone not considered white (at the time) in its number. In at least this way, the term people of color has always implied a proximity to blackness, and a distance from whiteness. Yet proximal is not identical, and besides, by the 1980s, many used the term people of color to refer to a wide range of discrete non-white identities. Why, then, does it seem that in contemporary media and usage, the term has come again to mean, simply, black (or black-adjacent) people?
People of color is a term I barely grasp. I doubt I’m alone in this. Perhaps the greater part of my difficulty has to do with my confusion around the way the parts of the phrase work together. Take person: a kind of being limited by little more than the history of its own memory. A “person” is the plane of subjectivity itself. A “person” is just the singular form of people. A “person” is a human being. A “person” is all of these things and more. Notwithstanding the context of the term “person’s” etymology, there have been persons for as long as there have been members of the species scientists refer to as homo sapiens. There have been persons for as long as there have been self-conscious beings of any species.
Which is to say: person is immense. It’s a complex term as deep as the human mind. Add to it the modifier of color, however, and the bottom of the phrase reorients. For to say that one is “of” something is to say that one derives from that thing, developed out of that thing, is that thing’s descendant. And the thing we are talking about here is color. So really, to say that a person is of color is to put forth the strange ontological idea that the origin of personhood could be a color. If we stick with a strictly socio-historical meaning, we find it perhaps more easily compelling, but no less complicated. A person of color, sociologically speaking, is a person derived from “the colored races of Man,” to borrow a phrase from its explicitly racist roots. So to say people of color is to say these people derived from a particularly raced identity that is not white. Ultimately such a phrase defines what it isn’t more than what it is.
Certainly this is a question of semantics. Maybe it is also a confusion of terms.
Contemporary concepts of race in America inherit a legacy built on old patterns. For its own survival, white ethnocentrism has historically cultivated an oppositional relationship between racial identities. Call it what you will: the us versus not-us, civilized versus savages, center versus margins. Stanford theorist Sylvia Wynter has shown that this relationship manifests in the West as Reason versus the lack of Reason. In her exploration of how cultural paradigms shift, she’s traced this phenomenon back to the original Renaissance moment in the West—where the studies that would become the Humanities was formed. In her research she shows, furthermore, that whatever you call it, this oppositional relationship has always operated on the same fundamental logical principle—at bottom, a principle of order versus chaos.
Or ordered versus chaotic bodies and ideas. In prevailing American racial logic, whiteness orders and blackness chaoses. Examples of this can be found almost anywhere a public conversation about real-life race comes up. It’s in the difference between “organized crime” and “thugs;” between a “raucous revelry” that burns cars and destroys property, and a “riot;” between being an “individual” and standing in for everyone associated with you by race.
What people think about a body like yours affects what people think about what you do and what is done to you. It affects how your actions will be read and translated for consumption by the public. The ordered body, identified with the orthodox or normal identity, gets the benefit of the civilized doubt; whereas the chaotic body, outside of the norm, is judged more harshly for its actions, and punished like an outsider.
In general, the media presentation of this dynamic aligns with a central orthodox perspective. If the body is white, often it is represented in the media as a hyper-purified body, a body more pure than the global mean—which, after all, is non-white. A hyper-purified body is afforded a comparatively wide boundary for its thoughts and actions. It is not immune to orthodox sanction, it just takes more to get there.
The black body, on the other hand, is represented as hyper-chaotic. It is considered by the orthodox perspectives more likely to introduce disruptions to order, and all other things being equal, is punished more harshly for transgressing official codes. Sometimes this chaotic potential is framed in attributes that the orthodox perspective considers positive, such as raw strength (as opposed to intellect), animalistic or magical intuition (as opposed to calculation), or talent (as opposed to focused work). National or ethnic representations of this framing can be found throughout American history, from the African “savages,” Irish “white niggers” and Chinese “Yellow Peril” of the 19th century, to the Haitian “refugees,” Mexican “thugs” and Islamic “terrorists” of today. It is not that there are no dangerous members of non-American groups, it is that when those groups are considered non-white, they lose the benefit of the doubt. In terms of American racial logic, whiteness and Americanness have always aligned with order, whereas the state of being non-white (non-American) is understood to be, inasmuch as it is non-white, a kind of chaos.
As white and black are perfect opposites, we can imagine a correlation. The black is chaotic precisely to the extent to which the white is ordered; the white is ordered exactly to the extent to which the black is chaotic. But the person, the human being, is, by definition, openness; it is the opposite of the closed thing. The human being is the subject, is subjectivity itself, and can always expand the world in which it lives through inquiry. Yet the human being, which in this paradigm is rarely considered modified when white, when it is of color (black), encounters a series of difficulties that can move from semantics to psychology to ontology real quick.
A young man I know says that he’s white, even though his parents are black Americans. Rachel Dolezal has made a living as a black intellectual, even presiding over an NAACP chapter, even though her parents say she is white. Iggy Azalea has been nominated for a BET Award. Is this progress, or is something strange going on? Or is it both?
Claiming racial identities different from the one you were assigned by the public or at birth has deep roots in American culture (see: blackface, “passing,” Tiger Woods). When it comes to blackness, the performance of what appears to be the chaotic body has been an important ritual for orthodox culture. Realities of culture and experience become stereotypes so that the non-white person, marginal and abnormal, can be more easily integrated into a system of signs that make whiteness central and normal. If you can more clearly delineate through behavior the chaotic, then order, its opposite, becomes more clear. Blackness has always been performed, can be performed by anyone. Where orthodox requirements give whiteness no room within the order to innovate, it reaches to the exotic.
The exoticized other, while named chaotic from the orthodox vantage point, when appropriated grants whiteness the opportunity to transcend itself, to do things unallowable while embodied solely in whiteness. On the internet, furthermore, non-white culture is more widely available and mutable than ever. With this in mind, it makes sense that play around signifiers of non-whiteness would find resurgent prominence. It also makes sense that when it emerges as play around blackness it would be accepted from orthodox perspectives as “cultural” rather than racial, despite the obvious connections these signifiers have to racial history. The late controversy around white appropriation of “black people” features of speech and body illustrate a form of this dilemma. You can imagine being introduced to Miley Cyrus’ “twerk,” Iggy Azalea’s “rap accent,” or Kylie Jenner’s “lip challenge” with the ironic Explanatory Note at the outset of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, reminding the reader that the author painstakingly researched the text’s affected dialects, and that the reader therefore should not “suppose that all these characters were trying to talk alike and not succeeding.”
But the contemporary practice of playing outside one’s race might also have something to do with a culture forced by its own development to consider the body in new ways. When a person with white parents calls herself black, she engages with a popular contemporary ideal that you are what you say you are, and not just what your body or your heritage says you are. I won’t interrogate the soundness of such a claim here. But think of the following: it is troubling to be kept from things you want to experience. If for tedium and annoyance alone, barring contrary elements, it makes sense that in American culture, which prides itself on the ideas of freedom and access, an ideal of transcending the body would become popular.
Furthermore, in our time, another, even more powerful incentive away from the physical body as the reference point of limitation has emerged through technology. The internet, biotech, and robotics are expanding the body’s limits. In social, political and economic terms, space and time don’t mean the same things to a millennial that they did to the Baby Boomers when they were our age. A lot of us question the assumptions we inherit about the bodies we’ve been born with, and problematize definitions based on embodiment. Race, defined and informed by the body since its inception, now finds itself in a moment where its defining referents are being altered to fit a technological age.
Look at contemporary culture. We see phenomena of detachment from the bodily referent for meaning all over the place. Social media provides prodigious examples. On Facebook, we correspond with avatars of one another that change as quickly as our minds do. Though a central identity is assumed, the fluidity with which we can shift self-presentation to curated social groups is a new phenomenon. On Twitter, we affect speech personae, exploring modified acts of language fit into new character limitations. As comfortable as we may be with the emergence of new shorthand means of communication, we have yet to clearly determine how such changes in language affect or reflect changes in identity. If we are what we say we are, then what happens to us when the contexts of our most frequent speech acts shift? Where does identity in contemporary time require new kinds of inquiry, and where is it the same old song?
One can’t think fully of people of color without also thinking about what it means to be non-white, and what alternatives for identity present themselves in our world, where more and more of us must ask questions about identity and come up with answers that might not have been imaginable in the past. Ultimately, this must be done in order adequately to address a system still undivorced from white supremacy and heteropatriacrchy, a system that dons the guise of disinterested technologization informed by the market economy.
Notably, it was a Japanese American neoconservative political scientist, Francis Fukuyama, who in the 1980s proclaimed history is dead. Conscious of it or not, to be a contemporary American is to have to engage deeply a series of conflicts of and with history. Avoid them and they rear their heads in the words we use, and in the definitions that leak out from between them to re-emerge, brazen and conspicuous, in this latter day’s light. Clarifying the relationship between capital, history, and technological disembodiment will help us see why things we all believe should change as a result of apparent progress do not. Not everyone is living in the same historical narrative. And conversations like this seem necessarily to shift between narratives and even dimensions. Such is the nature of our entanglement with them.
RJ Eldridge is a writer, emergent multidisciplinary artist, curator, educator, and thinker. He lives in Chicago.
Curated by Phillip B. Williams.
Phillip B. Williams is a Chicago, Illinois native. He is the author of the book of poems Thief in the Interior (Alice James Books, 2016). He’s also co-authored a book of poems and conversations called Prime (Sibling Rivalry Press). He is a Cave Canem graduate and received scholarships from Bread Loaf Writers Conference and a 2013 Ruth Lilly Fellowship. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Anti-, Callaloo, Kenyon Review Online, Poetry, The Southern Review, West Branch and others. Phillip received his MFA in Writing from the Washington University in St. Louis. He is the poetry editor of the online journal Vinyl Poetry and the 2015-2017 Creative Writing Fellow in Poetry at Emory University.
His book of poetry Thief In The Interior comes out January 12, 2016, and is currently available for pre-order.
Whereas to say that a person is “colored” (a term, now widely considered outdated, used to refer to American blacks and mixed-race people for much of the twentieth century) is to say that there are persons to whom coloring has been done (The latter begs the question: who or what colored these people, and why?!).
“I’m African. I’m African-American. I’m Black as the Moon.” -Kendrick Lamar