Sometimes, I wish you wouldn’t call me a “person of color.”
Before coming to Yale, I had never encountered the mainstream conception of “POC” as an identity denoting racial marginalization. But as a quick study in cultural assimilation, I readily observed that it was a mainstay of everyday campus discourse. People invoked it in political debates — often to accuse opponents of privilege or ignorance — and organized communities around the term. Despite being compelled to opt in to this label on numerous occasions, I couldn’t shake the feeling that it simply didn’t describe me.
Many Yalies casually toss around the term POC to identify anything from themselves to canonical authors without qualification or context. Its ambiguity, coupled with an unmistakable association with marginalization, allows people to claim disadvantage while being conspicuously silent about class privilege. This banal dishonesty is compounded by the treatment of discourse as a game where you have to be “this marginalized” to play.
After Trump’s inaugural address, I was unsettled by the thought that widespread subscription to the POC label could actually reinforce his false, ahistorical vision of an America irredeemably divided. Already, it encourages seclusion by exaggerating certain divisions, while neglecting diversity more broadly. I have seen Yalies vilify each other in ugly, inexcusable ways based on what they think it means to be a POC, from calling other minority students who enroll in Directed Studies “whitewashed” to condemning minority conservatives as “race traitors.” An event advertised as a “POC Halloween dance” last semester struck me as a disturbing echo of segregationist language, just one preposition away from a not-too-distant past that restricted spaces for “colored people.”
By premising solidarity on an assumed common experience of systemic racism, the use of this term admits of little nuance, obscuring other sources of inequality. Instead of being an expression of inclusion, it perpetuates an in-group mentality that feeds simplified allegiances into the mouths of individuals whose voices it claims to uplift. It demands a view of the world that toes the color line — a concept famously popularized by W. E. B. Du Bois, who, in fact, eventually transcended it as a limited, inexact model of discrimination.
But our dogged insistence on applying it wherever possible prevents us from realizing how irrelevant it is to the rest of the world, where a vast array of competing and complex identities — national, local, religious, historical — come into play. Histories of colonization or politics in other nations are insufficiently supported by the “white/everyone else” dichotomy endemic to contemporary America.
I acknowledge that the POC label may remain useful for others. I don’t mean to say that it should be rejected altogether, or that we should abandon the effort to forge solidarity between minority groups in America. But to exercise it without serious examination of our own motives or a respect for context deprives us of accountability and responsiveness to the communities in which we live. We must recognize that is it precisely the appeal of this term — an impression of unity between disparate groups — that threatens to be coercive and dangerously imprecise.
As a good (POC) friend suggested to me, the label POC should operate like the Bechdel test of feminism — a litmus test applied to specific contexts to recognize instances where racial progress needs work — but not as a universal identity in itself. For instance, one might say that professions or spaces that traditionally exclude certain races require better representation of people of color. In this formulation, the POC label would be a heuristic highly conscious of its own simplicity as a baseline. But even such a careful approach reveals significant shortcomings. A well-intentioned friend once expressed frustration that all the speakers at an event we attended were white, though two of them were (apparently unconvincingly) Hispanic.
In his farewell speech, Barack Obama cautioned us against this sort of misguided aesthetic judgment. He encouraged us to break down flawed assumptions about privilege and race: “For Blacks and other minority groups, that means tying our own very real struggles for justice to the challenges that a lot of people in this country face … [to] the middle-aged white guy who, from the outside, may seem like he’s got advantages, but has seen his world upended by economic and cultural and technological change … For white Americans, it means acknowledging that the effects of slavery and Jim Crow didn’t suddenly vanish in the sixties.”
I hope we will embrace these principles as we begin an uncertain but still hopeful era. We must be vigilant about the ways our perspectives render us unprepared to acknowledge or understand experiences that do not fit the categories we project. Without a true commitment to “pay attention and listen,” we will lack the decency to value the diversity we embody.
Sherry Lee is a junior in Ezra Stiles College. Her column runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .