I am European, and I seem to understand that in North America it's particularly common to use the expression "Person of color" instead of, for example, "Black person".

I understand that it's meant as a positive expression, that conveys respect, that was used for the first time by American activist Martin Luther King Jr., and especially in the United States, is often associated with the social justice movement. So it does not seem to be an expression intended or expected to show arrogance or superiority towards the person "of color", at all; on the contrary, it's meant to show respect.

But doesn't "Of Color" mean "Non-White" ? It certainly does. Nothing more, nothing less, just precisely that.

So does saying "Person of color" actually convey more respect than saying "Black person" ? Doesn't "of color" imply that the only thing that matters is whether you are white or not, and if you are not, it doesn't matter what you are ? There are the whites at one side and all the others at the other side, will this be actually perceived as more respectful ? In fact, as I would have expected, there are instances where people take issue with being called "of color", for example as per the second quote in this answer .

I would like to avoid calling people "of color" or anything in general that means non-white, because it would make me feel like I'm coming across as an empty arrogant as I am white, and because I do think that people have excellent reasons to react annoyed to being described as "of color". But at the same time, although my own logic would tell me so, the vast majority of times that doesn't seem to be the case. Apparently it's most often meant and received as respect.

So how do I pick the right expression to avoid an annoyed reaction ? Is the "annoyed" reaction an edge case ? Or maybe that type of reaction is only common in individuals from specific groups, so that this can be taken into account to pick the expression to use ? Or are there alternative and less controversial expressions that could be used instead ? The latter would be the easiest to implement in my case because I already feel that "of color" is objectively a poor choice and I don't think I want to use it anyway.

I am thinking not only of cases where I am speaking directly to the person "of color". I am also thinking of cases where I am speaking with persons "not of color" to whom I still don't want to give the same impression of arrogance and poorly concealed self-superiority that I get when I hear other people using that expression (as a non-American unfamiliar with the usage of this expression).

  • This really doesn't ask an Interpersonal Skills question of "how do I..." but is more of an opinion. Voting to close. Jan 13 '18 at 23:28
  • This is pretty opinion based. We also have a similar question that may address your request: interpersonal.stackexchange.com/questions/1671/…
    – Catija
    Jan 13 '18 at 23:31
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    Could you indicate why there is a need for you to use a description of someone's skin color? What situation are you currently in that requires you to pick between the two?
    – Tinkeringbell
    Jan 13 '18 at 23:32
  • @Dom If you have an answer, write an actual answer using the answers section below. Please don't use the comments section for writing answers.
    – Catija
    Jan 13 '18 at 23:40
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    @Tinkeringbell It's not a description of someone's skin color, it's the expression used to refer to the ethnicity of a person. I am not currently in a specific situation that requires me to pick one, I am just expecting to have to do with people from US and Canada on a regular basis in the near future and I would like to avoid using a language that doesn't get perceived as I had intended it. Jan 14 '18 at 0:14

I know this question isn't a great fit, but I'll take a stab anyway, because I think there's a nugget of something useful buried in here...

Person, or people, of color is kinda meant to be an expression of unity. In America at least, we have a rather long ugly history of racism against pretty much all non-white people. The term POC is meant to unify the varied groups that get the short end of that stick. In this context people, or person, of color is a meaningful term. It's meant to help people who have a common experience of racial segregation and persecution unite to fight against it.

But... Like most all language, context matters....

Where I live in the US, race is still a very sensitive subject it's generally considered inappropriate to draw attention to someone's color unless it's strictly necessary in context.

For instance, I wouldn't say:

My friend Jimmy is a person of color.

Nor would I say:

My friend Jimmy is black.

Unless it was strictly relevant to the conversation. Generally speaking, it isn't, so it's just a random unnecessary detail that's being pointed out. The fact that Jimmy happens to be black isn't anymore important than the fact that he has a good sense of humor and/or some nice tattoos.

Often people feel the need to mention someone's minority status because they feel it's an important descriptor... Sometimes it is, often it isn't. Context matters.

If I was talking about working with Jimmy and how I noticed that our boss was much harder on him because he was a person of color, that's relevant. If I prefixed his color to every mention, because I felt it was relevant... well... That's something else...

Jimmy most often described himself as black. But at the same time he wasn't shy about noticing how our boss used to treat people of color. Again context matters.

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    Thanks for the big picture. I also edited my question to try to make it a better fit. If I understand correctly your answer, the most common approach is to avoid as much as possible to mention ethnicity in the first place. I can do that (although it feels hypocritical and just not right in my own logical process) as probably the only instances where I would have mentioned ethnicity are where I'd be looking for a phisical characteristic to use to indicate a person, just like "the tall woman" or "the guy with long hair". Jan 14 '18 at 18:02

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