The term "person of color" (plural: people of color, persons of color; sometimes abbreviated POC) is primarily used to describe any person who is not considered "white". In its current meaning, the term originated in, and is primarily associated with, the United States; however, since the 2010s, it has been adopted elsewhere in the Anglosphere (often as person of colour), including relatively limited usage in the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Ireland, and South Africa.
In the United States, people of color include African Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, Pacific Islander Americans, multiracial Americans, and some Latino Americans, though members of these communities may prefer to view themselves through their cultural identities rather than color-related terminology. The term, as used in the United States, emphasizes common experiences of systemic racism, which some communities have faced. The term may also be used with other collective categories of people such as "communities of color", "men of color" (MOC), "women of color" (WOC), or "librarians of color". The acronym BIPOC refers to black, indigenous, and other people of color and aims to emphasize the historic oppression of black and indigenous people.
The term "colored" was originally equivalent in use to the term "person of color" in American English, but usage of the appellation "colored" in the Southern United States gradually came to be restricted to "Negroes", and is now considered a racial pejorative. Elsewhere in the world, and in other dialects of English, the term may have entirely different connotations, however; for example, in South Africa, "Coloureds" refers to multiple multiracial ethnic groups and is sometimes applied to other groups in Southern Africa, such as the Basters of Namibia.
The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style cites usage of "people of colour" as far back as 1796. It was initially used to refer to light-skinned people of mixed African and European heritage. French colonists used the term gens de couleur ("people of color") to refer to people of mixed African and European descent who were freed from slavery in the Americas. In South Carolina and other parts of the Deep South, this term was used to distinguish between slaves who were mostly "black" or "Negro" and free people who were primarily "mulatto" or "mixed race". After the American Civil War, "colored" was used as a label exclusively for black Americans, but the term eventually fell out of favor by the mid-20th century.
Although American activist Martin Luther King Jr. used the term "citizens of color" in 1963, the phrase in its current meaning did not catch on until the late 1970s. In the late 20th century, the term "person of color" was introduced in the United States in order to counter the condescension implied by the terms "non-white" and "minority", and racial justice activists in the U.S., influenced by radical theorists such as Frantz Fanon, popularized it at this time. By the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was in wide circulation. Both anti-racist activists and academics sought to move the understanding of race beyond the black–white dichotomy then prevalent.
The phrase "women of color" was developed and introduced for wide use by a group of black women activists at the National Women's Conference in 1977. The phrase was used as a method of communicating solidarity between non-white women that was, according to Loretta Ross, not based on "biological destiny" but instead a political act of naming themselves.
In the twenty-first century, use of the term and the "of color" categorization continued to proliferate: for example, the Joint Council of Librarians of Color (JCLC), a recurring conference of the American Library Association, formed from the organization's five ethnic affiliate associations: the Black Caucus of the American Library Association, the American Indian Library Association, the Asian Pacific American Librarians Association, the Chinese American Librarians Association, and REFORMA: The National Association to Promote Library & Information Services to Latinos and the Spanish Speaking.
The acronym BIPOC, referring to "black, indigenous, (and) people of color", first appeared around 2013. By June 2020, it had become more prevalent on the internet, as racial justice awareness grew in the U.S. in the wake of the death of George Floyd. The term aims to emphasize the historic oppression of black and indigenous people, which is argued to be superlative and distinctive in U.S. history at the collective level. The BIPOC Project promotes the term in order "to highlight the unique relationship to whiteness that Indigenous and Black (African Americans) people have, which shapes the experiences of and relationship to white supremacy for all people of color within a U.S. context."
According to Stephen Satris of Clemson University, in the United States there are two main racial divides. The first is the "black–white" delineation; the second racial delineation is the one "between whites and everyone else" with whites being "narrowly construed" and everyone else being called "people of color". Because the term "people of color" includes vastly different people with only the common distinction of not being white, it draws attention to the perceived fundamental role of racialization in the United States. Joseph Tuman of San Francisco State University argues that the term "people of color" is attractive because it unites disparate racial and ethnic groups into a larger collective in solidarity with one another.
Use of the term "person of color", especially in the United States, is often associated with the social justice movement. Style guides from the American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style, the Stanford Graduate School of Business, and Mount Holyoke College all recommend the term "person of color" over other alternatives. Unlike "colored", which historically referred primarily to black people and is often considered offensive, "person of color" and its variants refer inclusively to all non-European peoples—often with the notion that there is political solidarity among them—and, according to one style guide, "are virtually always considered terms of pride and respect."
Many critics of the term, both white and non-white, object to its lack of specificity and find the phrase racially offensive. It has been argued that the term lessens the focus on individual issues facing different racial and ethnic groups, particularly African Americans. Preserving "whiteness" as an intact category while lumping every other racial group into an indiscriminate category ("of color") can replicate the very marginalization the term was intended to counter. Other commentators state that the term "people of color" is a misnomer and an arbitrary term in which people who are white are mislabeled as people of color. People of color also encompasses various heterogeneous groups which have little in common, with some arguing that American culture as a whole does not deliberate on economic inequality or issues of class.
Political scientist Angelo Falcón argues that the use of broad terms like "person of color" is offensive because it aggregates diverse communities and projects "a false unity" that "obscure[s] the needs of Latinos and Asians." Citing the sensitivity of the issue, Falcón suggested that there should be "a national summit of Black, Latino and Asian community leaders" to discuss "how can the problem of the so-called 'black/white binary' be tackled in the way it respects the diversity it ignores and helps build the broader constituency for racial social justice that is needed in the country" and to "open the way for a perhaps much-needed resetting of relations between these historically-discriminated against communities that can lead to a more useful etymology of this relationship."
The use of the phrase person of color to describe white Hispanic and Latino Americans and Spaniards has been criticized as inaccurate.
For example, the person of color (POC) racial identity model describes racial identity development for people of color...
this year Amber Rudd had to apologise for calling fellow MP Diana Abbott a 'coloured woman' and admitted the term was 'outdated and offensive'... The politically correct term at present is 'People of Colour' (abbreviated to PoC).
it is inevitable that Canadians will absorb and be influenced by aspects of American culture – good and bad. But one that, regrettably, Canadian media are adopting with increasing regularity is the American term "people of colour" to describe all those who are not white.
POC, which stands for person of colour, is a term I have heard used more and more in Australia over the past few years, especially online.
Dr Ebun Joseph held an online conversation with people of colour living in Ireland.
Guess what else most people of colour in this country have to pay for once they get their first job?
The term People of Color emerged in reaction to the terms "non-white" and "minority." … The term people of color attempts to counter the condescension implied in the other two."