Are you a Person of Colour?

I don’t like to be called brown or people of colour because it washes away my skin’s colour and sets me into a box where there are too many other ethnic identities which causes confusion. Shirlene Green N

A few years ago, I was interviewed for the Migrant Tales podcast. The topic was about me and my journey as a journalist and immigrant. The question that caught my attention was: are you a person of colour? I answered, but soon realised that it was the first time this term was used to address my ethnic identity.

Which ethnic identity term do you prefer to be addressed as? Today it’s a trend to read people of colour under the acronym POC, but which is the origin of this term? I thought it was interesting to learn about the evolution of the term, so please hop on with me to find out who are or who aren’t considered as people of colour or not? 

The phrase people of colour emerged in the eighteenth-century by the French “gens de couleur” to refer to a mixture of African and American in their colonies according to E. Tammy Kim in an article for the New Yorker (2020). The term is commonly used in the United States of America, however, today it is also used abroad. 

In the United States of America, the term people of colour has two waves. The first one appeared in the late 1700s and had a peak during the 1820 to 1850, but declined with the approach of the Civil War. The term was designated to people in slave societies who were not white, enslave and free. During this context, the term referred to the mixing of people from Europe and Africa brought to the United States of America (Starr, 2022).

The second wave evolved in the 1970s, by a large group of Black progressive and feminist activists. Soon, it was extended to the media mainstream, society, and everyday language. The reborn of the term extended its scope to include Asian, Hispanic, Native American, Black, and other ethnicities. It was a mixture of all the minority groups excluded by whites. This period was related to the mobility and immigration of Latin, Asians, and others to the United States of America (Starr, 2022).

Moreover, the term continues to include many ethnic groups, so it has become ambiguous because some resisted to be grouped under this umbrella, while others agreed to be identified under the term. Today the term POC has it challenge since it embraces more as “person of colour identity” (Pérez, 2021) or “inter-ethnic-solidarity” (Starr, 2022). 

The term “people of colour” has risen and fallen over the years. In the beginning, it was used to refer to Black individuals. But with the years it evolved to include other minority ethnic groups or communities. We can see this evolution in the literature written by black individuals. For example, in the book Ain’ T  a Woman  Black  Women and Feminists (1981), by bell hooks, many pages mention women of colour or people of colour. Even Martin Luther King Jr. used the phrase “citizens of colour” to refer to black people’s inequality during his outstanding speech “I have a Dream”. But in Viola Davis’s book Finding me (2022), she uses students of colour by mentioning Asian, Middle Eastern, Hispanic, and Black, when she narrates her life at Rhode Island College. 

Mary Grueso a poet, resumes the term perfectly in her poem Negra Soy.

I remember taking a deep breath and answering the question in the interview. My answer was I consider myself a black woman. Personally, I don’t like to be called brown or people of colour because it washes away the colour of my skin and it set me into a box where there are too many other ethnic identities which causes confusion. I am black because not only is my skin black, but also my roots are black. I think that black individuals have struggled to be recognized for centuries, thus, it’s time that we define ourselves, not others.

I didn’t want just my thought so I asked relatives who live in the United States of America their approach to the term.

Londa, Gerald, and Shirlene

My second sister who lives in the Northwest of the United States of America said:

I am not in favor of the term people of color, because I believe it is an ambiguous term to include everyone that is not considered of white race. The term colour for me does not have any representation or connection to the identity of those placed in this category, nor any recognition of each individual culture. It is a term that creates a mindset of division and the misconception of “the white race as superior”, and “everyone else” the “people of colour”, as the others. Therefore, people of colour in my opinion is a way to undo or erase the term black, which truly represents who we are as a people. I finalize by saying black is black, and there is no sugar coding”.

Londa Green-Wyant

On the other side of the United States of America lives one of my cousins. She as well disagrees with the term people of colour. Here is her argument.

I find it offensive. I think it’s another term used to box a certain population in a category. I prefer to be called black person. Everyone has a color. So why do white people got to call us by a term they invented to keep the ideology of superiotiy? They also have a colour, of many shades”.

Lyllyana Hebbert

I didn’t get any contrary opinion, which is bad, however, everyone chooses to identify themselves, it’s a right.

Historical context, society, and system have framed identities into boxes that make it complicated. However, you need to be aware of who you are and your identity. We all have the right to be asked under which ethnicity we identify ourselves. So, remember not to put individuals into boxes, ask first before assuming.


E.Tammy Kim. ( 2020,  July 29).The perils of people of colour. The New Yorker.

Pérez, E. O. (2021). Diversity’s child: People of colour and the politics of identity. University of Chicago Press.

Starr. P. (2022). The re-emergence of people of colour. Princeton University. doi:10.1017/S1742058X22000145

Photo by Clarke Sanders on Unsplash