‘People of Color’

It’s slightly surprising that The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, by Allan M. Siegal and William G. Connolly, still (even in the 2015 Kindle edition) turns its nose up at the phrase people of color:

people of color
Except in direct quotations, the expression is too self-conscious for the news columns. Substitute a term like minorities or, better, refer to specific ethnic groups – black and Hispanic authors, for example.

Some copy editors think the phrase has moved into the mainstream and should be welcomed. Maybe; but I actually incline toward the Siegal-Connolly view.

People of color rose to popularity in the late 1970s, and was well established by the 1980s, when I joined the faculty at the University of California at Santa Cruz. But it’s not just a post-’60s neologism. I’m indebted to Dan Kirklin for reminding me that in Chapter 7 of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1883), Long John Silver’s wife is described in a letter from Squire Trelawney as “a woman of color”; and in fact the construction is older than that: From 1790 to 1860 official U.S. census terminology described a person of African ancestry who was not a slave as a “free person of color.”

The phrase has a structure that does not seem to fit well in English. After all, licensed pilots are not called “pilots of license”; registered trademarks are not called “trademarks of register”; bigoted morons are not called “morons of bigot”; a checkered career is not called “a career of checker” (feel free to continue this list ad lib). The correlation of meaning and form in person of color for colored person (which of course had become taboo by the 1960s) seems to have no syntactic parallels.

The phrase actually owes its origin to a gap in a foreign language: French doesn’t have an adjective that directly translates colored. “Free people of color” is a direct translation from the French gens de couleur libres, which was used for the unenslaved offspring of French men with their African mistresses in Louisiana and the French colonies in the Caribbean. So no wonder it doesn’t feel like English.

But independently of its syntactic strangeness, I simply never liked the phrase. I never used it, even when I became dean of graduate studies at UC Santa Cruz and my fellow administrators were all using it in discussions of diversity and affirmative action. Its apparent focus on skin color seemed to me singularly unhelpful, even obfuscatory.

The issue for our graduate programs wasn’t anything to do with color prejudice. It concerned deeper economic and sociological issues in American society. The problem wasn’t that varied skin tones were missing from our graduation ceremonies; it was that African-Americans from Watts or Chicanos from East Los Angeles simply never turned up in our applicant pool. We had to decide whether it was right that graduate fellowship money earmarked for underrepresented minorities like African-Americans and Chicanos should be spent on recruiting the son of a wealthy Jamaican businessman in New York, or a well-heeled permanent resident of Texas who had been educated in her native Argentina.

According to Wikipedia (citing a book by Joseph S. Tuman), “the term is attractive because it unites disparate racial and ethnic groups into a larger collective in solidarity with one another.” It gathers everyone other than white Europeans into a huge umbrella category defined entirely by that most superficial of human characteristics, skin pigmentation (for the reference to color doesn’t allude to socks or neckties).

But there is no intellectually defensible way of deciding whether some random Afghan, Albanian, Algerian, Argentinian, Armenian, or Azerbaijani should or should not be classified as white. Remember how under apartheid law in South Africa the Chinese (who didn’t have a lot of economic clout back then) were defined as nonwhite, but the Japanese (who were economically important to the country) counted as honorary whites? It gave the whole game away, didn’t it? They didn’t have serious racial criteria in mind at all. And they couldn’t, because there aren’t any. Yet without being able to say who’s white you can’t say who’s a legitimate claimant to the label “person of color.”

I’m not normally a defender of The New York Times style manual. We bloggers have to obey it here at The Chronicle; they chain us to our desks and beat us if we don’t use a capital letter to begin an independent clause after a colon, or if we omit the periods in U.S.A. or put a comma outside a pair of quotation marks. But on this issue I’m with them. People of color is just a self-conscious and affected way for liberals to refer to nonwhites (as if that meant something) while signaling their progressive attitudes and political correctness.

By all means use the phrase if you like it (provided you don’t write for the Gray Lady or The Chronicle of Higher Education). I’m not telling you what to do. But you won’t find me using it, here or elsewhere. They can’t make me.

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