The Black Lives Matter protests are about systematic police brutality and racism. In the face of such weighty issues, it seems petty to talk about mere language, potentially even a drain on activist energy. Nonetheless, I personally find language to be a stimulating topic rather than a draining one, and it can be used as a lens to engage with larger issues.
The larger issue here, is the relationship between anti-racism, and Asian Americans. Anti-racism in the US has largely focused on anti-Black racism, and to a lesser extent anti-Latinx and anti-Indigenous racism. Asian Americans–as well as people of other ethnicities/races/nationalities–tend to throw in some nasty complications, mucking up the clean generalizations people would often like to make. For example, asking people to recognize their White privilege just falls flat when the audience is simply not White.
And you should know, I’m not deliberately trying to trip up anti-racist activists. It’s not a gotcha. It’s just a fact about me, that I’m mixed race Asian American, and my list of privileges is somewhat different. The differences are sometimes important, sometimes not.
I am reminded of a meme that said “Have you ever noticed that the police leave you alone when you’re not doing anything wrong?” I think it’s a racist meme, and the implication is to blame victims of police brutality. But my response is, “Why yes I have noticed that… because I’m not Black. If only Black people could have such an experience.” On some subjects, it matters that I’m Asian American rather than White; but on the subject of police brutality, my experience is that police don’t bother me, and that makes the difference.
There’s an easy way to make a distinction between subjects that affect all non-White people, and subjects that affect specifically Black people. When talking about Black people, use “Black”.1 When talking about all non-White people, you can refer to “People of Color” or “POC”. It’s as simple as that.
Apparently it’s not simple enough though, as I frequently see people using the words incorrectly. A lot of people seem to have the mistaken impression that “POC” is just the newest more politically correct term. Some people are (justifiably) focused on anti-Black racism, and simply haven’t considered that there are other ethnic groups for which the “Black” vs “POC” distinction was highly relevant. And sometimes people are just sloppy about it.
“POC” also has a few other problems that I’ll briefly mention:
- “POC” is a term that emerged from the US, and it doesn’t make sense in every other country. People in the US tend to think themselves the center of universe, and frequently forget this.
- Regrettably, some Asian Americans will use their POC status as a way of dodging their responsibility as allies against anti-Black racism.
- Often in the US we’re interested in talking about Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people, since these groups all have a history of economic oppression.2 “Black” doesn’t work, and “POC” doesn’t either, and the only broadly accepted way to talk about it is by explicitly naming all the groups you’re thinking of.
More recently, “BIPOC” has arisen as an alternative, or a replacement. My understanding is that “BIPOC” has been around for a while, but saw a huge boost in usage in the last month.
What does BIPOC mean? According to the BIPOC project, whose website is very prominent in search results,3 it stands for “Black, Indigenous and People of Color”. Which, I must say, was initially very confusing. Black and Indigenous people are subsets of POC, so it’s a bit like saying, “my pinky, ring, and fingers”. Dropping the Oxford comma only makes it worse.
To make matters even more confusing, it’s sometimes incorrectly defined as “Black/Indigenous People of Color”. Until recently, this was the definition reflected on Urban Dictionary, another very prominent search result. This is analogous to saying, “my pinky/ring fingers”, which means something completely different from the other definition. Eventually the correct definition was added to Urban Dictionary.
After reading a bit, I learned that BIPOC refers to people of color, but places a firm emphasis on Black and Indigenous people. And I can definitely see the need for that. A lot of people can’t or won’t observe the simple distinction between “Black” and “POC”, so maybe we need an all-purpose term that is inclusive enough to cover all cases but focused enough to address with the most dominant forms of racism.
Furthermore, “BIPOC” fills the lexical gap between “Black” and “POC” by also naming Indigenous people.
My major complaint about BIPOC is that it doesn’t also name Latinx people. Or perhaps it subsumes them under the “Indigenous” label, a move that I’m not sure Latinx people would appreciate. For what it’s worth, when I looked at the Google Trends data, one of the top related queries was Adam Rapaport, a magazine editor in the foodie world who was found to have done brownface. Plainly nobody had a problem with applying BIPOC in a context where Latinx people were central.
Should you use Black, BIPOC, or POC? You can use different ones as suits the situation. I wouldn’t stress over it, there are more important things to worry about.
1. “Black” or “black”, with or without capitalization is acceptable. As you can see, I prefer to capitalize. (return)
2. Note that immigrants from some Asian countries have also had a history of economic oppression. But there’s also the widespread phenomenon of brain drain, which is what my own family background looks like. This has a huge impact on how Asian Americans are viewed–as a “model minority”–even though some smaller Asian groups are actually doing very poorly. (return)
3. At time of writing, the most prominent search result is a NYT article, which I think is pretty mediocre. There are some pretty strange takes in there. But I leave that discussion for the comments. (return)