What is the Powder Room?

This is going to come off as something of a rant. Probably because it is. But I just feel the need to get it off my chest. As a person who could accurately be described as a Person of Color, I really, really just do not like the phrase.

Now, I understand the history of the term. Martin Luther King Jr. coined "citizens of color" and racial justice activists started employing "people of color" in the 80s, taking some cues from Frantz Fanon (on whom I have otherwise a pretty big academic crush on because of all his work on colonialism).

But the phrasing of person of color just rubs me the wrong way for several reasons.


First of all, in person-first constructions you take a positive form of the adjective and move it after the person to highlight the humanity of the person. I want to be clear that I am absolutely in support of making sure that all of us are humanized, considering the social forces which have aimed for so long to dehumanize us.

And yet, it's the part where we move the adjective that has me feeling particularly uncertain about the term. If we begin reverse engineering where "person of color" originates, we come to "color person" or, as I see it, "colored person."

"Colored person" is pretty damn antiquated. And it has a particular meaning - it means, among all of us who are called "people of color" only black people. "Colored" was never a common descriptor for those of us who are Asian, Indigenous American, or Latin@.

That's a big part of it right there. I'm Latino, I'm mestizo, but any African ancestry I have is long enough ago that it was during Spanish colonization and my features would not get me labeled as black as well. Race and ethnicity are supremely complex in a Latin@ context - see Achal Prabhala's piece on Neymar for an example in Brazil (Brazilians are generally considered Latin@, but not Hispanic).


Since the purpose behind the term "people of color" is to be all-inclusive of those of us who are not white, I think it's a pretty big misstep to give it a phrasing which is strongly reminiscent of an antiquated phrase which has a very specific referent.

There's also the matter of whether it achieves its goal in the first place. This goes into a larger critique of person-first language as a band-aid and not a solution. Person-first language is meant to be respectful of the marginalized and put their humanity up front. It's a noble and laudable purpose.


I think, however, that the way it currently operates is very inadequate and even counterproductive to that purpose.

If we're going to use person-first language, it seems to me we need to be consistent. We need to adapt the language of identifying the privileged position to a person-first syntax as well. We say people of color, but we also say white people. We say people with disabilities, but we also say able-bodied people. We say people with mental illnesses, but we also say neurotypical people.


And I'm being extremely generous in these examples. Out in the wild, away from academic and activist discussions of the topic, you won't hear "neurotypical people" or "able-bodied people." You're going to hear "people" without qualifiers. Hell, the "white" is often elided from "white people" but race is quite often qualified for everyone else (see Anna Holmes's excellent article on this phenomenon in books).

If we're going to insist on person-first language, we need to make it uniformly cover both the privileged and the marginalized alike. Otherwise it only serves to highlight our status as marginalized, in what strikes me as a negative way (it's important to note our marginalization, but this doesn't seem to be a way which bears positive fruit).


We need to move to a language which says that I am a person of color and my wife is, what exactly? A person absent of color? How would you person-first the term "white person"? We'll say person with disabilities, but will also need to say person with an able body.

For me, it's partly the syntax. I don't feel equal if we have separate syntax, especially if the weightier, less flowing syntax is shoved off on the marginalized while the syntax that the language naturally favors is given to the privileged.


And even if we do move in that direction, I'm still not sure.

C. Edwin Vaughan writes about how person-first language can be seen as expressing shame. The National Federation of the Blind expressly opposes person-first language for blind people, as it makes it easier to elide the blindness which is an essential part of the lived experience of the blind. By putting the disability after the person, Vaughan and the NFB seem to argue that person-first language perpetuates the culture of shame which prompted advocates to create person-first language in the first place.


Little People of America states that "little person" and "individual with dwarfism" are both acceptable, but really they'd just prefer you use their names.

Deaf culture expressly rejects person-first language categorically. The Deaf, culturally, see themselves as a culture with their own language and not as a group of people with disabilities.


That brings us, I think, to the last big reason I am uncomfortable with the phrase "person of color" - person-first language is inherently linked to the field of disability studies and the empowerment of people with disabilities. I can think of no other case outside the realm of disability where we use person-first language. We don't say person who is homosexual. We don't say person who is transgender. We don't say people without money. We don't say people whose first language is not English (U.S. context, substitute dominant language in your region as necessary).

We say gay people and lesbians, trans men and women, poor people, and non-native speakers (or nonspeakers of X).


Not that long ago, there was a llama on Jezebel's subforum Groupthink because of conflation of issues relevant to people with disabilities and those of us who are people of color. My brothers and sisters with melanin argued vociferously that people with disabilities should not poach language from our struggle and map it onto theirs. Our struggles are not so similar that the concepts from one necessarily map onto the other.

This is all very true. We are both marginalized, but the ways and degrees of our marginalizations differ. There is privilege for the white and the able-bodied, but the expressions of that privilege are not synonymous nor are they parallel.


The term "person of color" has existed since the late 18th century (the OED gives a 1797 example - "The class which, by a strange abuse of language, is called people of colour, originates from an intermixture of the whites and the blacks" - while all later examples until the 1980s are synonymous with "black"), but its use as an inclusive term for all non-white people is much more recent.

The current use of "person of color" arises at the same time as disability advocates began introducing person-first language. There's no certainty, but it feels as if the language of disability advocacy was poached in this case. It would be a very unfortunate thing, should it be the case, and one more reason for me to be uncomfortable with the language.


Ultimately, I feel that Little People of America does make a great point: I'd prefer you call me by my name than by a label, and if you're going to use a label, ask me what I prefer. It's no different from asking me my preferred pronouns, and it enables a greater degree of self-determination about my identity than being subject to someone else's label does. And it's the most humanizing option there is.

If "person of color" works for you, that's great. It really is. Maybe I'm just weird. But I get a very unsettled feeling in my stomach when I see or hear it. I don't have a better offering than nonwhite people (I kind of like it, because I see it as identifying myself in opposition to white hegemony), but that might leave you with that same unsettled feeling.


So, um, let's just be people, yo?

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