I work in circles where we talk a lot about “people of color” (POC). We discuss what POC need to thrive economically, how to support POC with resources, and of course we interrogate how racism affects POC in the public sector, philanthropy and business. 

Internally, I roll my eyes every time I hear or read the term. Sometimes the speaker is actually referring to all people of color, but usually, they are just using it as a euphemism for “Black.”

Misidentifying Black people in narratives, upholds a system of power that inherently believes Blackness should be censored. Avoiding the word Black in storytelling perpetuates the idea that Black is bad, wrong, counter-culture, or negatively revolutionary.

Avoiding the word Black in storytelling perpetuates the idea that Black is bad, wrong, counter-culture, or negatively revolutionary.

Let me explain. 

Organizations habitually speak of negative Black statistics in one paragraph, and then in the following, say: “that is why we are supporting people of color.” Some companies mention the tragic deaths of Black folk like Trayvon Martin, Breonna Taylor and others to reference their organizational awakening, while at the same time say, “we are investing in people of color,” as if to insinuate organizational risk by investing solely in Black Americans. 

We want racial gaps to close, not realizing these gaps widen because we continue to misdiagnose the inequities prolonged in our everyday language. 

“Black” is an Evolving Term  

Black is not a bad word. Although, it used to be. Black people in the United States have been called a variation of terms – especially derogatory – evolving into other names, every few decades. Since race is a social construct, you can bet these terms were used to classify, misidentify and reassign the ever growing, and diverse population of the Black diaspora as a subclass. Post enslavement, Black people were systematically classified as nigger by U.S. systems that governed the daily lives of Black American citizens. In the late 19th century until the height of the Civil Rights movement, the word was reappropriated by Black people and Negro was widely used and accepted, as was Colored, which some say was the politically correct term at that time. Today, both terms are preserved in Black-led institutions such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the United Negro College Fund (UNCF). 

After the assassination of the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, the rumbling of Black Power movements leaped into what became known as the era of Black pride–popularized by James Brown in his said-anthem Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud, released in the same year. The grief and frustration of Dr. King’s murder and breaking point from enduring racism and systematic oppression, prompted Black people to start reclaiming their identity, adopting terms such as Afro-American, African-American, and unapologetically – Black.

There is a reason why people who are responsible for speaking on behalf of an organization – whether they are a c-suite leader or the social media manager – censor, whitewash and massage stories of Black liberation. Black has been politicized since the earliest enslaved people arrived in the United States. Before Black people could speak for themselves socially and politically in this country, white men and women spoke for them as their owners. The Black politicization practice translates into modern media when we see people being bothered by the meaning of Black Lives Matter usage to work solely on behalf of Black people. 

“Black” in Business: How Using White Representation Became Industry Practice/Standard

It is not only in name that Blackness has been historically marginalized. When Black people earned the right to vote, white people intimidated and even killed Black people to prevent them from having a political voice. The aftermath contributed to the narrative that anything Black was inferior, unworthy, and bad for white business. Historically, Black business owners hid behind white people who spoke on their behalf when acquiring property or accessing capital to grow their business. This strategy left many Black entrepreneurs uninsured. For example, the late S.B. Fuller, a Black business owner from Louisiana, hired white salesmen for his cosmetics company, purchased from another white man in 1947. By the mid 1960s, Fuller was a multimillionaire, employing more than 5,000 people, both Black and white, across 85 offices in 35 states. However, when white customers found out Fuller was Black, they boycotted the products, resulting in Fuller filing for bankruptcy. 

In more recent history, business owner and artist T.I. spoke of encouraging the late Nipsey Hussle to buy the shopping plaza of the flagship The Marathon Clothing Store in Los Angeles, where Nipsey was first a tenant. T.I. recalls coaching Nipsey to send someone else to purchase the plaza on his behalf when Nipsey’s initial brick and mortar acquisition efforts were denied (listen around 29:56). While the details of the race of the representative(s) is unclear, the mere fact that someone other than the owner was intentionally placed to close the deal, is problematic. Eight months later, Nipsey purchased the property. 

The practice of excluding and erasing Black people in business was a standard way of operating in the early 1900s. Variations of this legacy of Black exclusion show up in business  today.

Black People are Woefully Underserved Under the People of Color Umbrella

The term people of color is unhelpfully nonspecific. BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) isn’t much better. It doesn’t always allow one to address the specific needs of the specific groups their organization is intending to serve. The experiences of the people lumped together are VASTLY different. And thus, may require a VASTLY different approach to properly serve them.

For example: 

An organization who serves local businesses in five U.S. cities submits their End-of-Year Report to the board and its funders. It is reported that business development and growth increased for businesses of color across all organizational size levels. As a result funding for the business initiative goes up. It is later revealed that while gains were made for people of color altogether, Black business growth decreased over time.

The term people of color can be inadvertently harmful to the population you’re intending to serve.  

The term people of color stems from women of color, an identifier birthed by 10 Black women. In 1977, these Black women created a Black women’s agenda for the National Women’s Conference, which had little to no inclusion of specific plans for Black women. When other ‘minority’ women got word of this agenda, they asked to be included in the Black women’s agenda, reorganizing it to fit ‘women of color.’ It was a political designation. Nothing more than that. Today, organizations use the word to show similarities of oppression among marginalized groups, rather than to identify individual needs that require collective support. 

With years of miscommunication about the root of oppression, it is common for media narratives centered in racial equity to mention the Black experience in a collective narrative with other groups. Often, when you see the word Black, the word ‘and’ will follow as if to make the message more palatable for the reader: Black and brown; Black and immigrant; Black and women-owned

…it is common for media narratives centered in racial equity to mention the Black experience in a collective narrative with other groups.

Colleagues, if you haven’t yet been informed, I’m here to tell you: It is lazy to use the term people of color without thinking and speaking to the disaggregation of the word when applicable. 

At a time when white supremacy is pervasive, we need authentic and deliberate unity among communities of color. This includes saying “Black” when you mean it, even if that excludes other people of color. See how my Asian American colleagues write about how their community can stand in solidarity with Black people towards Black liberation. The practice of specifying Black is the greatest strategy for solidarity.

Avoiding the term “Black” erases Black people. Black Americans need to be seen, acknowledged, understood, and humanized. To close racial gaps in wealth, income, health, education, and more, it is imperative to direct attention and explicit solutions to Black people in our work and in social movements. 

When in doubt, just say Black. 

 

 

“Humanize Black” Art by Destiny Darcel

Published: June 9, 2021
Contributors: Carmen Smith