Editors note: We asked 10 writers for their opinion on the classifications and terminology used to describe people. We stressed there was no right or wrong answer. Here are the results:
There are a great deal of acronyms and labels used by society to address and refer to people who are not white. There are reasons to be hesitant to use all and any of these labels in particular instances.
‘Ethnic minority’ is a term usually used to mean “not white”, but there are also white ethnicities that it is applied to, such as traveller communities. This betrays the wilful ignorance of the media or other users in applying inaccurate blanket terms. The updated version, ‘minority ethnic,’ is also problematic. As a homogenous group, ‘minority ethnics’ are not a minority at all, they are the largest demographic in the world in terms of population. It possibly reflects the domination of the white media that these terms are used despite their logical failings.
Similarly BME (Black & Minority Ethnic) and BAME (Black, Asian & Minority Ethnic) are problematic. They single out some groups but lead to an othering of other groups, such as Latinos. Technically, white people can fall under both these terms, such as ‘minority ethnic’ (which is ambiguous), or White Latino, leading to further confusion. It also elevates certain minority groups above others by placing their groups in the acronym, and excluding others.
This leaves ‘people of colour’ as the sole collective term for people who do not benefit from white supremacy, without placing whiteness as the default as the term ‘non-white’ does. People of colour is not without its downsides, with some people of mixed racial heritage feeling excluded by the term. It also focuses on skin colour, which doesn’t address other ethnic discriminations. However, it cannot be denied that skin colour is important, and so of all the available terms, this is the one that I feel is least problematic, and the one I identify with the most.
B.M.E. is the current politically correct term to describe us Black folks, and anyone who isn’t white and English. Personally I don’t like the term as you’re reducing all these diverse races and cultures down to three letters that sounds like a disease like CJD, or B.S.E.
Also the term ‘minority’ suggests weakness and powerlessness, when in fact non-white people are the global majority. If we can see ourselves that way perhaps we would feel less like victims. I prefer the term Black. It is a political term (hence the use of capital ‘B’) intended to unify that mixed group that white people throughout hundreds of years of slavery, imperialism, and colonialism have tried to divide and conquer.
However some feel its disrespectful to describe a race as a colour. Chinese people do not describe themselves as ‘yellow’, nor Native Americans as ‘Redskins’. Some argue we should identify by our country of origin. So African-Caribbean? But some Black people argue that we shouldn’t celebrate our Caribbean ancestry as it was just a historical accident that we happened to end up there, rather than America or Brazil or some other slave port.
There are those that argue that everyone in the African diaspora (including the Caribbean descendents of slaves) should describe themselves as African. But this too is problematic. How can I put myself in the same category as someone who was born and raised on the continent when I have a European name and can speak no African language and have no direct knowledge of any indigenous culture, and am not even sure what part of Africa my ancestors were taken from?
Also African separates us from our Asian brothers and sisters in the struggle.
So the ideal term is one that is all inclusive. It should not cling to any artificially imposed political boundary, or any other category that might be seen as divisive, as what we are trying to create here is unity.
People of Colour works, but that also encourages another three letter acronym (POC).
How about Melanated Peoples? – that includes Africa, the Caribbean and Asia and is certainly inclusive and a unifying concept, that puts us firmly in the global majority.
Out of all the terms I could use as a signifier of my racial identity, there is none that I embrace as wholeheartedly as the term ‘woman (or person) of colour’.
Very often though, I see newspapers and academic journals using “ethnic minorities” or “BAME” (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic). The problem is, any terminology that uses the word ‘minority’ seems rather amusing, considering the fact that people of colour are the global majority. Of course, many would argue that these terms only apply in a British or North American context, where white people make up the majority population. Yet, this takes a very simplistic view of race relations, suggesting that discrimination only happens because we are a minority, and erases the fact that, even in countries where people of colour are the majority, white supremacy and its effects are still very much present.
Interestingly, there was a time when I rejected the use of a blanket term to describe non-white people, seeing it as an implication of our being a homogenous group, defined by whiteness, or rather, our lack of it. However, through a discussion with Samantha Asumadu (founder of Media Diversified) some time ago, I came to appreciate the term ‘people of colour‘ as a mark of solidarity, an acknowledgement of shared oppression, and a call for unity against white supremacy. I am a woman of colour, and I stand proudly with my sisters and brothers of colour as we fight to end racial oppression.
Terms like ‘women of color’ are not just descriptions, but have political and ideological histories and current meanings. Here’s a clip of Loretta Ross, cofounder and national coordinator of SisterSong -Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, sharing one of the birthing moments of the term ‘women of color’.
The term ‘PoC’ is a widely used term to label or identify people who are essentially non-white/European/Caucasian. The fact that the global majority of people have to be given a label that is contrary to whiteness and is done to repel, distinguish or even alienate non-whites is itself a bizarre concept. Surely the global majority of people would be given a name(s) that would identify them as the larger part of humanity or at least respect differences between PoCs? Instead PoC seems, in many ways, tacked on to identify all people of colour regardless of their individual ethnicities, languages and cultures as one homogenous entity.
Now of course this is disrespectful to one’s individual and hereditary lineage but at the same time like the terms ‘Third World’ or ‘Global South’, PoC can be used to identify plights, resistance and form solidarity. Until there are newer ways of thinking and the global power structure has been changed the terms will probably stay the same. However these terms can simultaneously be used to carpet all non-whites as the same i.e. the quintessential other to whiteness; or it can be used to identify struggles and launch literary and verbal resistance.
Why is it always non-White people who have an ‘ethnic origin’, or are ‘of xyz descent’? It simply boils down to the fact that White is normative and other ‘identities’ are constructed around it. I have used BME before, most recently in my essays, also in conversations, but it was more to do with getting on with answering the question and discussion rather than being bogged down with terminology. As a PoC, I want to move beyond understanding ‘race’ to be a factual ‘thing’. I understand racial identities have been ingrained in our everyday understanding, but BME –‘Black’, Minority ‘Ethnic’ or BAME – ‘Black’ ‘Asian’ Minority ‘Ethnic’, seem to be a self-fulfilling prophesy of embedding these White supremacy-created racial identities, in reality there are only the differences in the frequency of genotypes. As Paul Gilroy in his controversial Race ends here article says, we need to stop using race, to get over race. Of course White normativity/privilege cannot allow for a post-racial order as of yet, but that doesn’t mean we should not aspire towards it. The anti-racist movement should also be anti-racialism, which was reflected by the Black youth movements of the 1980’s which combined, ‘Black and Asians’ (used for clarity); as soon as someone called for a separate ‘Asian’ identity, the movement split; in 2005 Black and ‘Asians’ fought amongst each other in Birmingham as a result (Lozells riots).
 Montagu, A., 1964. The concept of race. New York: Free Press of Glencoe.
- Race’, Racism, Anti-Racism:challenging contemporary classifications (academia.edu)
- Minority ethnic workers in UK twice as likely to be unemployed as whites (theguardian.com)
- Distrust of ethnic minorities ‘cancelled out’ by positive contact (medicalxpress.com)