Commentary by SMS: Debating People of Color

 How we use words like “diversity” and “people of color.”

The argument for categorizing people as  “people of color” is facile, an argument based on  a poltical game of numbers.  I suppose there is a political benefit of lumping the issues of immigrants from Latin America and Asia with the interests of former slaves or Squamish people.  I suspect, however, that 50 years of history of this term have passed  with the effect of creating resources that serve the affluent immigrant and upper class African Americans rather than America’s historically abused minorities.  A study of admissions at Harvard last year showed just this.  My alma mater’s effort at diversity is “working” in making the College more “diverse”  but has preserved Harvard’s focus on the children of the more affluent.

I do not see “people of color” as respectful of America’s real diversity.   I am inordinately proud of being an American.  If I have a form of bigotry it is the belief that the American community is based in the best our (human) race has to offer from all the world’s peoples.  “We” and “our” future will be stronger than the resurgent China or India with their ethnically rooted societies.  I believe the reason so many people come here is for that sense of opportunity free of ethnic homogeneity.

That opportunity must be equal for our all Americans. This is obviously not true for groups who have been screwed by our history.  I believe that “we” owe a special debt to people who have been harmed by the American people. The idea is very real to me that 5 centuries after Columbus and 3 centuries since slavery began “we” have not yet undone the harm “we” did.  I see this as a wound that the entire American community must heal for OUR joint benefit.

While we need to be active in avoiding making that mistake with new groups, the wound is not made better by making a racial dichotomy like “people of color.”  Our need to pay special attention to Lakota people or Mississippi delta slave descendants is very different from the need to respect a young engineer coming from Nigeria or a laborer from El Salvador.

A good example is the dreadful issue of children trying to cross the southern border.  Depicting this as a problem of white vs black ignores the obvious issues of poverty and our American affluence.  I suspect categorizing these kids (who don’t look very “colored” in the videos) makes it easier for our fellow Americans to just send them back “where they came from.”

The “POC” term is especially aversive here at the UW.   I suggest that the POC idea is also an excuse for the UW’s not building better interactions for ALL UW students with Washington State’s own minority communities. We may not be a Southern school with students learning to drill under the stars and bars within ivy walls separating traditional black schools from the mainline white schools.   Even if we are better than our Southern collegial schools,  I am struck that most of the visible relationship we have to the African American or indigenous peoples are the well developed bodies of the majority of players on “our” athletic teams.  If I turn further to the Hispanic community working on our lawns and farms, my feeling of separateness from fellow Americans gets worse.

So what do we get from this term?  For some of us any group oppressed by others must be a “people of color.” As a biologist this mystifies me … is an Israeli descended from Ethiopia less a POC than her Palestinian boy friend?  Do we have more obligation to improve students’ knowledge of Yoruba culture than we do to teach them Nordic History?”


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