Thursday, September 9, 2010

I'm not really supposed to talk about this, but I'm going to anyway

As a white male heterosexual, I know I am afforded a sick amount of privilege, and in ways I don't even realize. In my younger idealistic days, I wanted to deny this ("It wasn't me that did the oppressing!") and it led me to mildly oppose policies like affirmative action, a position which I have now reversed. Given some of my earlier errors in this regard, I try to exercise deep humility when it comes to matters of gender, race, or sexual preference, and pay a whole lot more attention to the people who have historically been shat on than to my own intuitions. And it ought to go without saying that I don't really get to pontificate on how members of these groups should feel or what they should call themselves!

And thus I'm loathe to admit what I'm about to admit. In a sense, this post is me officially letting go -- I've decided that, as much as the following bugs me, I'm just going to forget about it from now on. But before I do, I just have to say it one time in public:

"Person of color". I can't stand that phrase.

The reason it grates on me is because it's overly non-specific, and it doesn't really make any sense. First of all, the color of my skin is still a color. Even if you are of the mindset that white (as in pure white) is not a color, um, dude.. my skin is not actually "white" you know, that's just what we call it. (And incidentally, if white is not a color, than gray and black are also not colors, because the only thing that distinguishes them is relative intensity. Cool experiment: Use a laptop projector to display an image of a black square on a white background, and point it at a typical projection screen. What color is this patch I am pointing at? Black, right? Now turn off the projector. What color is it now? Oh crap, it's white!)

Second of all, how general is the term supposed to be? To whom does it apply? I'm just never quite sure. I guess the idea is to encompass all racial groups which have been kicked around by the past couple centuries' global dominance by white Europeans... but I dunno, it just falls flat with me.

Okay, okay, look, I'm starting to get over it. The main reason is that it appears to be Sikivu Hutchinson's preferred term, and I gotta say, I really love her writing. Her recent piece about mortality and about losing a child to congenital disease is particularly gripping and heart-wrenching. All her writing is just fantastic.

And as such, it seems rather silly if I let an arbitrary descriptive term -- especially one which my white male ass really doesn't have any right to complain about -- interfere with my appreciation of a really fantastic author. So I'm going to let go of it. Fine. "People of color" it is.

Given that I almost certainly make more money for the same work, have an easier time getting loans and housing, and reap all sorts of other hidden benefits just because of the color of my skin, it's rather unbecoming of me to be bothered by a term that sort of implicitly says my skin has no color, even though everybody knows what we mean and I suffer absolutely no discrimination or repercussions as a result of the use of that term.

So here it is: With that hopelessly white over-privileged rant out of my system, I now pronounce that I am officially down with the term "person of color" from here on out.

Edit: My wife points out that perhaps some of the reason why I tend to take the term more literally than I ought is because my job involves working in the same building with a bunch of color scientists. (In fact, it was a 3-day crash course in color science where I encountered the trick with the projector) I suppose it's not that surprising that I might read too deeply into an obvious metaphor in that context... heh... Silly me.


  1. PoC is used to distinguish from white people, without using the phrase "non-white", which in itself casts all races as existing in reference to the "normal" "default" of white. There are some specific issues that are experienced by all PoC, and it is sometimes useful to classify them (us) by this term.

    Lawrence Hill (via a character in his book Any Known Blood) gives us the much more phonetically pleasing "People of Pigment".

    Any attempt to apply scientific rigour and externally-valid logic to race is a mighty effort in service of an absent lord, sadly. It's like complaining that studying religion ignores the central problem of there being no God - just because He doesn't exist doesn't mean He doesn't have a lot of power.

  2. Quite right on the last paragraph there.

    And your first paragraph articulates clearly what I've been starting to figure out about the phrase, and helps clarify it in my mind. Thanks! That really helps.

    "People of Pigment" is more technically accurate (though as you point out it is silly to act like that matters) and avoids the unfortunate similarity to "colored people"... but I imagine a lot of people would find it off-putting because it has "pig" in it.

    There was an interesting point made in the book The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker, even though the book really had nothing to do with racial issues except for tangentially in a few brief passages... It is probably not an original observation, but in any case it is the first time I had encountered it. He observes that the preferred terminology for any oppressed group is on a constant treadmill of changing every few decades, even though there is usually nothing intrinsically better about subsequent terms. The problem is that as long as their is widespread/institutional prejudice against a particular group, over time what had been the preferred term evolves into a pejorative. Which is not to say we should all stubbornly use the old words; they are legitimately hurtful to people and it would be insensitive to do so! On the contrary, looking at it this way I think can help us to understand that the constantly evolving terminology is not a result of some kind of pseudo-intellectual "PC police", but rather an expected consequence of ongoing prejudice.

    I dunno, I just found that interesting.

  3. Also, I have another thought related to your title here - the part about "I'm not really supposed to talk about it". I realize there's an implicit sanction against white people talking about race, but I am of the opinion that white people have just as much right to ask questions and comment as PoC. You (as a group) kind of start behind the 8-ball, since there's a whole minefield of terminology to navigate. Not only that, but there is an immediate suspicion of any white person who bucks the accepted wisdom, just like when men comment on feminist blogs.

    That being said, I'm glad that you are comfortable enough to throw some caution to the wind and say "I don't understand this thing, and I'd like to." If it's something that occupies a significant part of your thought, you should check out a writer named Tim Wise, who provides really excellent commentary, and who is a white guy.

  4. Thanks. I may check out Tim Wise -- what little I can glean from the Wikipedia article sounds very interesting. Especially since his big issue seems to be affirmative action -- an issue on which I have done a complete 180 on over the past decade or so. I still find the idea of affirmative action to be ideologically troubling, but I've come to accept that idealism is a piss-poor tool when it comes to forging public policy. Institutional biases don't disappear by just wishing them away!

    just like when men comment on feminist blogs.

    heh, which I just did five minutes ago :) Funny.

    The title of this post was partially in jest... but I do think it's important, when coming from a position of privilege, to approach racial/gender/etc. issues with the utmost humility. So what I really meant was not so much "I'm not allowed to talk about this", but "I have to be really self-reflective when I talk about this, to avoid saying something really stupid." Or something like that :)

    I tend to have a certain natural arrogance, in that not only am I unafraid to confidently run my mouth on just about any topic, but I tend to feel like any potential topic is within my ability to grasp. The thing about coming from a position of privilege, though, is that there is certain experiential knowledge that is effectively inaccessible to me, and that in this case that experiential knowledge turns out to be highly relevant. So I need to force myself to put aside some of that natural arrogance -- "I'm not supposed to talk about this" is sort of a tongue-in-cheek way of reminding myself of that.