Sunday, December 18, 2011

Dear White People, You CAN Say "People Of Colour"

There is this thing Ay-Leen and I do at our Steam Around the World presentation, and it's when we get to talking about racism. We get the whole audience to yell, "RACISM!"

This is what I like to explain as a speech act. Here's a thing explaining what speech acts are, and how we like to rely on obfuscation rather than stating outright what we really mean. The bit I like the most is the recounting of the conversation from When Harry Met Sally, where Harry tells Sally she's attractive (7:10 - 7:26)  and she says, "It's already out there." it then goes on to talk about the profound consequences of this mutual knowledge about what we're all talking about, that it enables a shared platform for which we can begin to have meaningful dialog about the same subject, and there's a great thing about the Emperor's New Clothes (8:56) enabling a collective challenge to the Emperor's assertion that his new clothes are awesome.

When you use precise terms, and you know their history and their meanings, the implications of saying them, it becomes a lot easier to have conversation. So when we get the audience to say out loud, "RACISM!" it means it's out there now. We can totally say it, and because we can say the word, we can now have a conversation about it.

I unfortunately use obfuscating language on this blog, because I try for a message that people can find themselves in, in as varied a subject position as possible. It's not always useful or helpful, of course. Which probably explains the lack of comments, haha.

But anyways, there is something to be said about being able to use the term "people of colour" in public to identify racialized persons, or people who self-identify that way.

Anecdote time!

So, I don't know how many of ya'll attended the Amphitrite Tea Party at SteamCon. Very belatedly, I realized that the con photoshoot was right afterwards, and I should take advantage of having so many steampunks out there to do a steampunks of colour shoot! So I went to Diana during the tea and asked her if it was okay for me to do that, and she said sure, and that she'd announce it, which was very nice of her to offer. And so she did, and afterwards asked me how it was, because she was sending people my way. And because it was so late-minute, and I was tired, and I'm still a socially-awkward person, it was kind of a mess anyway, but it was still cool, you know?

But during the announcement, Diana said, "and for those of you who are... who identify as... not Caucasian?" and she kind of stumbled over (not for long) the phrase, and finally settled on "non-Caucasian" but it was still kind of awkward anyway, and my brain was all like "!!!! /o\ =O diana what are you doing" and I felt so fucking awful for putting her into that spot where she was clearly not entirely comfortable nor sure of how to say it. Sorry Diana =(

This isn't any condemnation of her; I really do appreciate that she said it, but it probably would have been helpful ahead of time to have told her, just say "People of Colour." Most of us POC know what the term means, and yes, it singles out most non-white people in the room, and yes, it can be uncomfy-making because it does that, but it DOES have a history that makes it different from actually racist terms, like "coloured." Not to mention, "non-Caucasian" and "non-white-looking" are also pretty loaded unto themselves: LOTS of self-identified POC look white. Many POC are descended from, well, the Caucasus (*rolls eyes* See how terrible and unspecific the term "Caucasian" is?) and share many features with people who we can definitively say "Caucasian" (which is just the other term for "white").

Here's a video that explains the history behind "women of color" in the United States:

 Here, have a transcript courtesy of Racialicious.

I don't always call myself a woman of colour--that is a very US-centric term that doesn't always translate into other contexts... when I go home to Malaysia, there aren't really any white people that I'm of colour next to. But here in Canada and in conversations with women from the United States, I will use the appellation "Woman of Colour" because, as Loretta Ross points out, it is a designation of solidarity. It tells you, immediately, who I am, what my subject position is. That's how labels are handy that way; then I don't have to give you my whole damn personal history explaining why I am doing this thing... you already understand, from this one label, what the stakes are for me and mine in whatever conversation we're having.

In fact, it's this "of colour" suffix that drew me to Ay-Leen. Even back then, when I didn't know the exact history behind the term "woman of colour," I knew enough that the term "people of colour" signified a particular political project, and when someone uses it, like Ay-Leen did in looking for other "steampunks of colour," it's done for a vision that I can co-sign. Not all of us will co-sign with this, obviously, and I rather suspect there're a lot of peolpe who avoid me because I will not stop talking about race in steampunk using overt language like that.

BUT THE POINT IS, that white people should not be afraid to use language that identifies race. It doesn't mean you have the right to use it for yourselves but in certain conversations, it makes more sense to use certain terms than others.

Language! I know! Wild stuff! I know it's hard! I still get the heebie-jeebies when asking people, "hey, do you identify as POC?" (I DM'd Janus Zarate of Vernian Process this question once. I went off to pace in my living room for several minutes out of anxiety before actually sending the goddamn thing. This shit is hard! Because I, too, have been in that race-denying colour-blind position and I haaaated the identification of my race, so I can never tell whether people will be offended by it!) It takes guts and practice and knowing how to deal with any potential outcome. And if a POC has a problem with it, why the fuck shouldn't you as a white person?

It is not that difficult to find out what's an okay term and what's not an okay term ("Asian" is okay, "Oriental" is not except for rugs, "Victoriental" will get you a glare of profound hatred from me). There is the great wide Internet. Just, please don't try to re-invent the wheel. Using the term "people of colour" side-steps all those issues quite neatly, leaving it a question of self-identification, without getting into other weird semantic and potentially racist territory. And if someone tells you, "that's now what I call myself" then just say okay and ask what they call themselves. (I can't promise it'll get any less awkward, though, and I wouldn't lie to you.)



  1. Thank you for this, Jha. I've never been sure of the term 'People of Colour' because it seems to assume white as default and everything else a 'colour' (I mean, white people aren't actually white after all), and it puts everyone who doesn't identify as white in the same group. That, combined with recent(ish) hand-wringing on whether to use 'coloured' instead of 'black', 'Asian' etc in the British media. So, thank you for some much needed background and perspective.

  2. Some people don't consider themselves People of Colour for that exact reason you've stated, but compared to a hella other kinds of words, PoC is probably best. Of course, on an individual level, you DO want to check with the person you're talking to / about (forex, if you're talking about me, I prefer to be referred to as Malaysian-Chinese, for precision's sake, because I'm like that). We don't all agree on the use of the term, but the term's gone back to the Civil Rights era, so it's useful to have some background perspective.

  3. Speaking strictly for myself on the subject of commenting, I'm still working through some of the 201/301 resources you've provided, and I'm finding some very interesting knee-jerk tendencies of my own that could use a little work before I comment too freely without proper editing. Your post on inherited ghosts, for example, struck a serious chord for me - but my immediate reaction had more to do with European history and Scandinavian folklore than anything else, and I don't want to be "that guy who brings up the Irish" (or in this case, the Swedes)... :)

    At least not until I'm more confident that I can do so correctly and in proper context.

  4. *raises eyebrow* So then why aren't you commenting on the ghosts essay? :P

  5. I totally see what you're getting at. The whole caucasian thing...I wouldn't know what to do, as I'm caucasian but often described as "brown" (another term I despise because it implies all North Africans/Asians/South East Asians look the same.)

    I feel like I occupy the in-between. I can pass as either white or "brown" in Canada, but when I go to Egypt I'm white, period, because they see themselves as a white culture. But as soon as people in Canada know that my roots are Egyptian they're all BANG NOT WHITE. I didn't realize I wasn't "white" until I was 13. Talk about a shock.

    So I'm left with not knowing how to describe myself. I suspect a lot of mixed-race people have similar problems. I feel like POC might be the best way to describe myself because I have felt racism, and it's an indication of solidarity, and it's still pretty vague and flexible. But this is a label that only makes sense when I'm not visiting my extending relations in Egypt. So usually I'm a woman of colour, but when I visit Egypt once every three years I'm white again? Or should I just describe myself as ethnically Arab and tell everyone else to just eff themselves? I don't even know. I suppose the fact that I can pass either way makes me pretty privileged, and I probably shouldn't be so angsty about it, but lo, I am angsty.

  6. Yes, a lot of mixed-race people I've encountered do tend to have that problem, and it points to the fluidity of labels, which is why it's so important to not have a rule of what HAS to be used AT ALL TIMES, because that simplifies these kinds of situations. I think it's important to remember that the same body can take on many names.

    There are no real "shoulds" about this, really... only you can determine for yourself what your identity is, and you have to exert your agency in that decision, or else others will make that decision for you, and you may not like what they claim to say for you. But that doesn't mean you *should* feel you HAVE to do it, if it doesn't suit your purposes to do so.

  7. " I think it's important to remember that the same body can take on many names."

    Definitely. I realized that a few short years ago. But it's still kind of tough because it causes personal instability. Identity shifts from country to country, and all of sudden my understanding of oppression and justice, something integral to who I am, drastically changes. I'm safe in the sense that Canada is my home, and my personality is grounded and founded there, so my identity still has secure roots...but it's still unnerving to realize that some things ascribed to the self aren't universal rules. For me, a label is more than a name, it's a state of being. And if your "being" is dynamic and fluctuating, than that can be a headache.

    I like the term "POC" because it's a political affiliation. It allows my identity to be dynamic while simultaneously recognizing that I'm in a minority category. And when people ask me "where I'm from" (excuse me, I was born here and English is my first language) then I give a geographic location, and if I'm annoyed I usually give a Canadian geographic location. As for racial depends who I'm with and where I am, but I usually avoid colours.

    Anyway, I hope that made sense. I loved your post.

  8. Totally made sense. I feel you on the personal instability, although I experience it differently, obvsly. In Malaysia, it's common to code-switch between languages, and I've managed to adapt it for my headspace as well. I can't really use colour for myself ("yellow" is so hella racist, and inaccurate), and the lack of physical descriptors in English sometimes does unnerve me while writing (at WisCon, we had a discussion on how to describe POC sans fail... that's how difficult it is across the board!). Colour just falls short so often.

  9. My main issue with POC is the strong association with certain US-centric communities. It's not a term I feel I can apply to someone (including myself), unless those communities have already decided that person is a POC. The term belongs to those communities. Non-white isn't ideal in many ways, but it doesn't belong to anyone. It can be claimed without the question of outside approval.

    But I wouldn't be offended at any reasonable term being used to describe me. The only thing that makes me twitchy is when someone ignores my self-identification entirely and decides what I am what they want me to be.

  10. I understand what you're getting that, and it's due to white supremacy that the association means a flattening of POC experience to be represented only by certain communities. I also get the problem with US-centrism, something I've been trying to find workarounds for. Like you, I'm also very leery about the abuse that the term can undergo, because we as marginalized people don't have the power of self-determination.

    I've friends who use non-white to describe themselves, because it gets away from white-as-default, and puts a highlight on how white IS default to a fault, so while it may not be ideal, I do think that is also a useful term. I think I'd see white people having the SAME problems with "non-white" as they do with "POC" though, like in this post.

    The thing about permissions, though, is that so much about being a POC is wrapped up in a resistance against white privilege. It's something to have continual dialogue about, and to continually work in solidarity with (confirmed)!POC for. There's a lot of intra-POC conflict because of this tension of not wanting to be lumped into certain histories.

    This is definitely a discussion to be held among non-white peoples and how we negotiate being labelled against our will. Like Sarah said above, these things are fluid and we need to learn how to be assertive on self-identification. And kick the people who refuse to acknowledge and respect our wishes to self-identify.

  11. I remember you vented about someone calling you racist when you shouted for all PoC's (or maybe you specified Asians?) for a specific photograph at steamcon. While they were most likely just being a dick, there is that feeling as a white person that you loose all ability to talk about race because it doesn't apply. Just like culturally-specific steampunk can only be done by people of that culture, it gets really weird for a ...race-issue-conscious-white-person to talk about anything not white. Us race-issue-conscious-white-people have been drilled in the evils of racism, of our inheritance of it, and of the importance of PC-ness to the point where describing any sort of race thing is nerve-wracking experience. Black or African-American gets me every time. If I say PoC, it translates to something horrible like "You people" internally. I completely sympathize with Diana.
    Let me tell you about those greedy, whiskey-swilling, haggis-eating, kilt wearing Scottish though!
    -Joshua Merrill

  12. Now take that experience of mine, where I'm a racialized person, and I'm not even allowed to identify my own people. I'm not even supposed to find cultural / racial common ground, because that makes me the problem, for identifying the problem and addressing it. I, and others like me, have to deny our cultural identities, and get to suffer the same discomfort and weirdness in talking about race, without the privileges that white people get for denying the same.