In my work over the past few decades in the field of diversity, equity, and inclusion, I have always done my best to make sure that the language I use is respectful of all of the communities with whom I work. Now I don’t just throw out words just to please people. I do my research and combine my knowledge with how people feel they want to be identified. For years, I have used the term “people of color” in my writings, presentations, and speeches, but over the past year, I have grown uncomfortable with the term primarily because my experience as a black person in America are getting lost in that expression. Add the word “minority” to the conversation (a term I never use) and one can hopefully see how the black experience is being forgotten for the sake of overall diversity and inclusion.
Across multiple industries, we see “people of color” and “minorities” being used in literature. Companies often speak of how their numbers have increased in terms of “minority” representation but the numbers rarely match for African Americans and black people overall. For example, when some companies state that they have increased hiring of “minorities”, that could mean anyone from white women to Asian-born Indians and everyone in between. This was indeed the case with affirmative action, where research has shown that the majority of people who benefitted from it are actually white women. To be clear, I believe that all traditionally underrepresented groups in company spaces should have opportunities to have their numbers increased. What happens unfortunately too often is that after those numbers are met, there is no longer a need to reach out to the black community.
Relating back to “people of color,” all challenges affecting what I would call non-white people are not the same. For example, the many cases of police shootings of unarmed people is specifically an issue facing the black community. The preschool to prison pipeline is primarily a problem affecting black students. When comedian Shane Gillis was hired then fired from Saturday Night Live over his racist comments towards Asians, I read one tweet by an Asian activist who wrote that the term “chink is like the n-word for people of color.” History lesson: “people of color” are not called the “nigga” or “nigger.” BLACK PEOPLE are.
So today, when I hear “people of color,” it sounds too universal and I feel lost in it. I don’t besmirch people for using it, I just know how it makes me feel. I am a black person before I’m a person of color. Furthermore, using that term actually puts white people at the center, like a white piece of paper and then everyone else is colored in. Historically, white people were not the first to walk this earth. Black people were and so this also may subtly reinforce a white ethnocentric, even a white supremacist idea.
At the end of the day, if we are going to be serious about diversity, equity, and inclusion, we have to be mindful to make sure we are being inclusive of all groups and their experiences. Truth be told, some companies get away with touting an increase in their black representation by hiring non-African American black people such as people from the Caribbean, the African continent, Europe, and elsewhere. This is also a discussion happening in our colleges and universities and even in Hollywood, as we have seen with the release of the movie Harriet. Personally, I am fine with an overall increase in black representation but if the intention is that African Americans come with too much baggage to employ, the real issue may be the stereotypes that employers have about African Americans that need to be challenged. Challenging our stereotypes and overall actions starts with companies doing a deep dive into their statistics and getting to root of what is behind the hiring process and I truly enjoy working with companies who are doing just that. If your company isn’t there, it’s time to get to work! Let’s go!