A conversation About The Notion of People Of Color.
The phrase “people of color”? annoys me. A lot. What do people really mean when they use it?
I’ve asked a question about it to a PhD lady during a webinar. She said she was not going to talk about it since it was a self-identity thing. She was wrong. Or was she? Many people do call themselves that; the term is used everywhere nowadays, generally when people want to be inclusive. It’s even evolved a bit, it’s not just POC anymore, it’s BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People Of Color).
I want to explain why the phrase really bugs me. People do not seem to see the legacy it carries. So I’ve thought of an encounter between a young man and an elder.
The following is the conversation that happened between them.
The tear gas was burning his eyes. Brian kept running and shouting with the others: “Black Lives Matter! Black Lives Matter! Black Lives Matter!” They kept bumping into one another. They also kept helping one another move within the chaotic wave they were in.
Brian finally took a right turn two blocks later, along with his friends, Aisha, Martha, and Patrick. They started looking at one another, laughing and cursing at the police. Minutes later, men in blue just appeared out of nowhere shouting “Police! Don’t move! Do! Not! Move! Stay where you are! Stay on the ground! NOW!”.
Brian and his friends froze in the midst of bright flashlights, police sirens, and the “enemy” forcefully yelling at them with guns and tasers in hand. Pointed at them.
Inside the Police van, they didn’t talk; they just sat, hands tied zip-tied behind their back.
The driver would glance at them through his visor now and then. Whenever their eyes met, Patrick smiled or winked at the driver; the police officer would just shake his head.
Aisha and Brian were looking at each other without saying a word. No visible emotions on their faces. Although it seemed they were communicating, with no gesture. Nor word or blink. Or smile. It was just a semblance of an understanding of where they were, why and how they got there, and where the van was taking them. Just a furor enveloped in an eerie calm.
Meanwhile, Martha had her eyes closed during the entire trip.
Minutes later, they arrived at the police station. It was noisy and chaotic; it felt like a dance of people in motion at the sound of clanking chains and the drumming of heavy boots.
They were processed right away and put in the same cell.
Brian started scanning the cell full of young Blacks, Hispanics, Whites, and Asians. Some chatting. Some were just quiet. Others seemed scared or amused. There were some older folks too.
Brian felt the gaze of an elderly black man with a big white-grey Afro. He then walked up to him and offered: “Nothing has changed since your time, old man. They still treat people of color like shit.”
The old man looked at him. Smiled. Slightly amused. “Who are they? And who are the people of color, young brother?”.
Brian: The police, the government, and, and, and… the white supremacists! They will always consider people of color as second-class citizens! They keep killing us like our lives were worth nothing. That ain’t right! That’s enough!
The old man: Who are you, young brother?
Brian: Hi, I’m Brian. I was marching today with my friends Aisha, Martha, and Patrick. We got arrested.
Patrick nodded at the old man, he was still smiling and seemed to be proud to be inside a cell.
Aisha approached the old man and timidly extended her hand, the same enveloped calm still visible on her face.
The old man then said: I’m happy to meet you all. I am also sad we met under these circumstances. My name is Abdul Karim Muhammad; some old friends still call me Gary. Tell me now, Brian, who are you?
Brian, a bit confused: Well, sir, I’m Brian. Um, from Brooklyn. My dad’s from Atlanta, GA and my mom’s from Nigeria. I’m a freshman in college and I believe firmly and unapologetically that Black Lives Matter.
Mr. Muhammad: Well, that certainly is part of your experience, young brother. But do you know who you really are? And why do you call yourself a person of color?
Brian: Well, yes sir. I am a proud Black, African-American trying to make it in this hostile land.
Mr. Muhammad: That you do, young brother. But why call yourself a person of color?
Brian: Well, look around sir. You can see the fabric of America right here in this cell. It’s full of people of color: Black, Brown, Asian, Hispanic.
Mr. Muhammad: And Whites?
Brian: Well, no! They are white!
Aisha, starting to see where Mr. Muhammad was going, offered: “White folks call us people of color. Before that just called us colored people when they wanted to sound decent and not call us the niggers.”
“Now wait a minute”, interjected Patrick. “To me, you guys are my friends. That is why I’m marching alongside you all.”
Mr. Muhammad, without paying much attention to that last bit, continued still calmly but with a more serious tone: “That is what you are, young brother. You are African! Call yourself black or moor. You come from the greatest people. The people who’ve started civilization, agriculture, the sciences, astronomy. You come from the great explorers who roamed and populated this very earth. You are the first, young brother. Without you, there is nothing. No cars, no smartphones, and certainly no flag on the moon! YOU built this thing. Everybody came from you. So who are you, Brian? Really?
“I… I am Brian. I’m African.” Brian said. “Still from Brooklyn though”, he added, amused.
Martha was now looking and listening to them with her eyes wide open, chewing gum. The gum probably escaped the processing officer.
Mr. Muhammad, still focused on Brian, continued: So why do you consider yourself a person of color? Why do you define yourself as non-white?
Aisha quickly added: Everybody should be defined vis-à-vis us. Not us vis-à-vis them. That is if things have to stay the same. Because, in the end, if everybody has a color, nobody has a color. Otherwise, I’ll stay the original and the standard. People of color are the others.
Brian smiled admiringly at Mr. Muhammad. He took two steps toward him and shook his hand. They looked at each other for a couple of suspended seconds. Brian then nodded at Mr. Muhammad. The Old man nodded back.
Brian walked back and sat on the bench on which Martha was sitting; still chewing her gum.
Patrick started, looking at Aisha: The POC/BIPOC thing, it’s a self-identification thing, right? I mean you guys have the NAACP. Would you say they should change the name?
Aisha: No and no! That organization has had a reason to exist. It still has. It has built a legacy and its name should definitely not be changed. The name alone tells you how white supremacy keeps morphing, changing, and adapting. First, we were subhuman savages. Then we became slaves and niggers. After that, we were just your colored people. And now people of color? Do you think we decided to self-identify as such?
Patrick stayed quiet while Aisha’s calm was starting to fade.
Brian walked over and put his hand on her shoulder.
They exchanged the same look they had on their way to the police station.
That’s the end of that conversation. Should the term POC be acceptable? Even if people don’t necessarily mean anything bad when they use it? Shouldn’t we understand it first? What do you think?