Be spe­cific, it is not ‘peo­ple of colour’

Deroga­tory names can­not be nor­malised

The Star Early Edition - - NEWS - ADEBOLA LAMUYE

LET’S get one thing straight. I am an African woman. I am not a “per­son of colour”.

Martin Luther King jr coined “cit­i­zens of colour” in his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech, and later the term be­came pop­u­lar with jus­tice ac­tivists in the 1980s.

But the phrase’s ori­gin dates back fur­ther than the civil rights era. In 1807 the Act Pro­hibit­ing Im­por­ta­tion of Slaves, a fed­eral law that stated no new slaves were per­mit­ted to be im­ported into any port or place within the ju­ris­dic­tion of the US, de­scribes slaves as “any ne­gro, mu­latto, or per­son of colour”. That’s right: “per­son of colour” is a term to de­scribe slaves.

In US history, “per­son of colour” re­ferred to peo­ple of African her­itage; to­day it’s used to cover all those of African, Asian, Latino her­itage and so on, a ver­bal short­hand for all non-white peo­ple.

In its cov­er­age of the anger over the death of Rashan Charles, The Guardian wrote: “The dis­tur­bances in north­east Lon­don are a re­flec­tion of long-stand­ing frus­tra­tion over po­lice con­duct to­wards peo­ple of colour.” In this in­stance, the peo­ple being writ­ten about were black.

I un­der­stand “per­son of colour” is in­tended to recog­nise the dis­ad­van­tages and dis­crim­i­na­tions faced by those who are not white and to high­light how non-whites are marginalised, so their re­al­i­ties can be ac­knowl­edged.

But how can that be done when we are lumped to­gether as one ho­mo­ge­neous mass? How can po­lice bru­tal­ity be ad­dressed if those very black men are over­looked?

The fact that us “non­whites” are lumped to­gether into some ab­surd cat­e­gory of being “peo­ple of colour” fur­ther re­in­forces white­ness as the norm. It strips away our in­di­vid­ual ex­pe­ri­ences, and in­stead de­cides the colour of our skin is what’s rel­e­vant.

There’s also an­other rea­son why this term is so dis­taste­ful when it is specif­i­cally used to de­scribe black peo­ple.

When I am called a “per­son of colour”, what I hear is being called a “coloured per­son”, a phrase that has only re­cently slipped out of com­mon par­lance. Apart from the N word, it is one of the most of­fen­sive terms used to de­scribe a black per­son.

Black peo­ple have ap­par­ently re­claimed the N word. We hear it being said in most rap lyrics or in ca­sual con­ver­sa­tions as a term of en­dear­ment. But no mat­ter how much hiphop cul­ture tries to nor­malise the word, it just is not a phrase we should claim. The same can be said for “per­son of colour”.

I un­der­stand that words can change their meaning and there are those who seek to re­claim these terms, but when it comes to those phrases, this is not some­thing I be­lieve to be true.

These words are used as tro­phies, as if we have taken them from the mouths of our op­pres­sors, ex­tract­ing the power from them. But the fact is, we haven’t. Those words are still used to hurt us, per­haps not ex­plic­itly, but they ex­ist in peo­ple’s minds when they deny us jobs or im­prison us.

Next time you use “peo­ple of colour”, re­mem­ber it’s OK to be spe­cific, not “one size fits all” when you’re talk­ing about marginalised peo­ple. James Brown said it first and said it best: “Say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud.” – The In­de­pen­dent


OP­PRESSED: Demon­stra­tors gather at a protest out­side Stoke New­ing­ton po­lice sta­tion over the death of Rashan Charles, Lon­don.

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