By: Javahir Askari

I’m a person, not a crayon.

Trying to be politically correct today feels like walking through a minefield. The language we use is constantly changing, and what was acceptable a few years ago may not be so any longer. When writing about groups of people, it can be difficult to know how to discuss different categories respectfully without perpetuating stereotypes.

Even those in politics can’t seem to be politically correct; this year Amber Rudd had to apologise for calling fellow MP Diana Abbott a ‘coloured woman’ and admitted the term was ‘outdated and offensive’. But why is it so? And what’s the correct phrase to use? As a ‘person of colour’ myself, even I find racial terms and political correctness a constantly moving target.

It’s offensive because it implies that a person’s ‘colour’, or skin tone, is something that’s been added to them and that being white is the default and thus normal. But a person who isn’t white has not coloured their skin.

“People of Colour”

The politically correct term at present is ‘People of Colour’ (abbreviated to PoC). It encompasses all non-white groups and emphasises the common experiences of systemic racism, which is an important point. Unfortunately, the contrast still pits all people who have a “colour” against those who possess “whiteness.”

Initially I had no problem with the term. It’s convenient. It gives myself and many people I know a collective title under which we can highlight the societal struggles we face.

It may have an important role precisely because it includes a vast array of different racial or ethnic groups. These groups have the potential to form solidarities with each other for collective political and social action on behalf of many marginalized people and the terminology is useful in social justice and human rights contexts.

More commonly used than people of colour in the UK, BAME stands for ‘Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic’ and is a term used to refer to anybody black, Asian and/or from an ethnic minority. Although often used interchangeably with PoC the two terms are not the same. Irish Travellers or White Eastern Europeans are considered to be BAME as both groups are an ethnic minority in this country, but they aren’t people of colour.

Because the West has a long and dark history of colonialism that led to the segregation, slavery and death of many people of colour, this has led to white people having privileges in modern Western societies because of their race. It is important for people of colour to have an umbrella term to refer to themselves by, in order to highlight who in society is at an unfair disadvantage specifically because they are not white.

But this terminology puts the emphasis on being white. Imagine if we all started referring to women as non-men. ‘Non-white’ does not aim to acknowledge the broad spectrums of ethnic groups and races that exist other than white, and defines this perceived ‘other’ by what they are not. It thus still implies that white is the default or normal way to be. Those who are white or Caucasian are still the standard by which all others are labelled, at least for now.

It is also important to recognize that while “people of colour” reaffirms non-whiteness, many people don’t like the term because they feel it lumps all of us together.

This is different from highlighting who in society is at an unfair disadvantage because of their particular race, as racism impacts each race differently. In the context of a conversation about the racism against a specific race or ethnicity, it would be wrong to use the term people of colour; the race or ethnicity in question should be stated instead.

Don’t be scared of the PC police

We still live in a racialized social and cultural hierarchy, and our language continues to reflect our ongoing attempts to grapple with that reality.

I understand why people in society use the term “people of colour”: it allows for a kind of political solidarity between the non-white citizens of the country and the world; it acknowledges the ways in which racism and white supremacy affect people from many groups and is a platform for their collective shared experiences, concerns, etc..

That being said, we need to stop saying “people of colour” in instances when we mostly mean “Black people” or “south Asian people” or any other particular race.

“Person of colour” is legitimate and there are plenty of situations where it’s appropriate to use the term.

But if you were raising questions about the lack of Asian representation in government, using them as an example of how government needs more “people of colour” evades the issue. I’d argue that saying “we need more Asian representation in politics” is not only a more direct way to address the problem, but it properly centralizes the specific concerns and issues of the Asian political community, and directs you to the spaces where the solutions can be found — Asian communities.

Every few weeks there’s another story of a police officer shooting an unarmed Black person because they “feared for their life.” Yes, other groups face systemic oppression, but while using PoC in these contexts isn’t inaccurate, it feels misleading. A “People of Colour Lives Matter” movement would be useful, but we can understand why “Black Lives Matter” has a more specific resonance.

For me, “people of colour” feels like a hiding place, as if I must hide an important part of me because it still isn’t deemed vital enough to define myself.

This is a PSA to say that it’s okay to describe me using my ethnicity. This is not to say that I think I should only be taken at face value and I am solely defined by the colour of my skin, but it feels almost apologetic to ignore that my ethnicity is an important and defining aspect of myself which I’m not here to hide.

I get it: racial terminology can be daunting for white people. I’ve experienced it in my everyday life, people tend to tiptoe around the subject like they ‘don’t see race’. I’m not saying it has to be your go-to quality to describe me. If I’m wearing a rainbow jumpsuit, I’d assume that’s what you’d point out first, but what I’m not a fan of is the commitment to avoiding describing my skin colour at any and all costs. I once had a visitor look for me in an office, who was told I was the girl in the white shirt, despite there being 4 other girls with similar shirts. The receptionist was becoming visibly uncomfortable. It is at points like this it is OKAY to describe me as Asian, or according to the colour of my skin. It’s descriptive and objective, and it’s not a racially loaded term, especially in the context.

It explains why black people are commonly referred to as “people of colour”. And although the term feels inclusive and politically correct, I am only half-heartedly here for it. At the same time, social media is often making these terms into lazy ways of addressing people.

Yes, all ethnic groups face discrimination and must deal with racial stereotypes. But we also have different battles. This was made apparent to me after the Nike “Nothing Beats a Londoner” advert. The advert aimed to celebrate London’s diversity and it featured an array of stars including Skepta, Giggs, and Michael Dapaah. But it faced backlash from Asian viewers, who felt underrepresented. It showed that we are not one homogenous group.

White people might feel uncomfortable with certain racial descriptors, but their discomfort is not my problem. To be described as “people of colour” feels like my identity is being tamed and made more palatable. My ethnicity and culture mean too much to me to hide them under the guise of “people of colour”.

I will insist upon my own self-definition even when others try to apply their own labels.

Javahir Askari currently works for the European Commission in London and is involved in improving political literacy surrounding the European Union and Brexit. She is a graduate in MA Human Rights from University College London and holds a BA in Politics and International Relations from the University of Nottingham.

Image: Colorful Silhouettes (CC0)