Why POC is a Terrible Term

In my line of blogging, I refer, frequently and often, to groups of people. This means I spend a lot of time thinking about ethnonyms (perhaps too much time.)

So what’s wrong with People of Color?

Simply put, it doesn’t actually correspond with any meaningful, real-world group.

Whenever we speak of one group of people, we of course imply the existence of everyone else who is not of that group. We can speak of Chinese and non-Chinese, whites and non-whites, Poles and non-Poles. But it is clear from this phrasing that “non-X” is not a group defined by any common characteristic, but by lack of a characteristic–whatever X is. No one attempts to describe what it is like to be “non-Chinese” because there is no such real-life group as “non-Chinese,” and there is therefore no single experience that non-Chinese people have.

The term PoC attempts to imply that there such a thing as a unitary non-white experience, and by contrast, a unitary white experience. Take, for example, this comic, which is supposed to “[explore] a subtle kind of racism many people of color experience”:

picture-15abFun personal story time: Despite having been married for many years, doctors and maternity ward staff have assumed I’m single. (There’s special paperwork for single moms.)

Meanwhile, Asians are PoC, and yet these are not questions that people typically ask Asians, because there’s no stereotype that Asians have high teen pregnancy rates and are bad at school. Asians do have to deal with racism and dumb questions, but since Asians aren’t black, their experiences aren’t black experiences.

Indeed, the girl drawn in the comic is clearly not Asian, Indian, or Hispanic, but black! The author purposefully wrote about a black person, and yet the person promoting the comic decided to ignore this and pretend that the comic is about the experiences of all non-white people (and, of course, never the experiences of whites.)

This duality is false.

Whites are not particularly unified. It wasn’t so long ago that Germany invaded Poland and killed 1/5 of the population (not to mention all of the other people who died on various sides during WWII.) In 1932-33, the Soviet Union committed genocide against millions of Ukrainians (also white). During the Second Anglo-Boer war, the English committed genocide against the Dutch-descended people of South Africa. The Irish, Italians, and Jews are still claiming to be exempt from historical “white privilege” arguments due to discrimination against their ancestors.

Jayman's map of the American Nations
Jayman’s map of the American Nations

I could go on–the list of European wars and inter-ethnic conflicts extends approximately forever, after all.

In the US, of course, “white” is a more meaningful term than in Europe, but even here, there are major distinctions of class, culture, and genetics. The average white person from West Virginia is not the same as the average white from New York, Texas, or Minnesota. Not only were these places originally settled by different groups of whites–Appalachia received whites from the “borderlands” region of Britain while Minnesota is heavily Scandinavian–but they currently have very different cultures.

Class further complicates matters, with Southern and rural whites generally seen as low-class (and treated accordingly) by other whites. Much of our current political debate can be seen as a fight between white social classes, with wealthy whites using a coalition of non-whites as a cudgel against poor whites.

clk4xrpugam65ajIronically, Asian and Indian (not Native American) migrants are wealthier and higher-class than whites (though there are distinctions even among these, as “Asian” is not a single, homogenous group.)


Now, I can hear some of you saying, “but race is a social construct, and yet you use terms like ‘black’ and ‘white’ as though they were meaningful! How are these more meaningful than ‘PoC’?”

Look, “race” is a social construct the way “color” is a social construct. There is no sharp dividing line between “red” and “orange,” but we don’t go saying that the electromagentic spectrum is a myth.

Racial groups are culturally, historically, and genetically real. Sub-Saharan Africans are more closely related to Sub-Saharan Africans than to Europeans. Europeans are more closely related to other Europeans than to Asians. And Asians are more closely related to other Asians than to Aborigines. Here is Haak et al’s full graph of modern human DNA (except for the far left portion, which comes from old skeletons):

Picture 1Picture 2

The “light blue” portion is found only in Africa. The “orange” is Europe and Asia. The “yellow” is east-Asian.

There’s an entire field of science devoted to tracing ancient migrations via the patterns found in modern human DNA, because the DNA of different ethnic groups is different. Black, white, and Asian are, in fact, fundamental genetic groupings as a result of early human migrations.

There’s another, related field devoted to ethnic variations in responses to medical care. Organ donation, sickle cell anemia risk, and even medications can be significantly impacted by race:

Although organ transplants can occur between races, matches are more difficult to achieve for blacks. Transplant recipients must have similar genes in their immune systems to those of the donor. Otherwise, the body will reject the organ.

G6PD deficiency is protective against malaria
G6PD deficiency is protective against malaria

And from Racial and ethnic differences in response to medicines: towards individualized pharmaceutical treatment:

Pharmacogenetic research in the past few decades has uncovered significant differences among racial and ethnic groups in the metabolism, clinical effectiveness, and side-effect profiles of many clinically important drugs.

The interactions between genetics and medication are complicated, and doctors have to know this because it puts their patients at risk not to.

No word is perfect. Every ethnonym represents a compromise between absolute accuracy and being able to make any statements about human groups at all. Not all English are the same, but we can still make some generalized statements that are basically true for most English people. Not all Chinese are the same, but we can still speaking meaningfully about “the Chinese.” There is a huge amount of variation among “whites,” “blacks,” and “Asians,” but even at this coarse level, we can still say some meaningful things.

“PoC” is a political term that corresponds to no real-world culture or group.


The most racist post on this blog

Jesus loves the little children
All the little children of the world
Red and yellow, black and white
All are precious in his sight
Jesus loves the little children of the world

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From a review of Tomie dePaola’s Legend of the Indian Paintbrush:

The story is improperly sourced. Stories are a means to teach lessons for survival. Since this is a European perspective of a fantasy romanticized Indian of the past, this becomes another instance of whites with long lost culture dressing up and playing Indian . We need to know what tribe this story originates, the true setting and purpose of the original story, and the intended audience. The retelling doesn’t reflect the setting, material artifacts or even the specific nation it attempts to depict. The story and illustrations improperly depict native people as a mono-culture. The book makes native dialogue overly mystic. The use of words like “brave” “and papoose” instead of “man” and “child” dehumanize an entire group of people. Reading this to children will definitely perpetuate damaging stereotypes of the distinct cultures still alive and well today.