Calgary·Opinion

Here's why 'BIPOC' doesn't do it for me

My issue with the term “people of colour” wasn’t just that it was lumping all non-white people together, it’s with the term itself, which is why “BIPOC” doesn’t do it for me, says Calgary writer Tomi Ajele.

A fundamental portion of the term is rooted in some dark history, so I cringe a bit when I hear it

Attendees gathered at Olympic Plaza in Calgary for an anti-racism candlelight vigil in June 2020. Last year, a lot of attention was drawn to the term 'people of colour.' For Tomi Ajele, that term is a problem in any context. (Leah Hennel for CBC News)

This column is an opinion from writer, editor and communications practitioner Tomi Ajele. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

Last year, a lot of attention was drawn to the term "people of colour," with the general consensus being: stop saying "people of colour" when you really mean Black people or Indigenous peoples.

The term "people of colour" came under fire for a few reasons, the primary one being that by grouping all non-white people together, we essentially create a singular identity and erase the unique experiences and forms of discrimination faced by the various communities that live under the "people of colour" umbrella.  

In the Washington Post, writers Donna F. Edwards and Gwen McKinney say that in describing non-white people as "people of colour," we all become "an amorphous monochrome, our multidimensional heritages and ancestries neutralized."

Let's be specific

When the term "people of colour" is used to describe all non-white people, it also conveniently disguises the ways in which our systems are particularly harmful toward certain communities. 

For example, we could say that "people of colour" make up 27 per cent of Canada's population, yet 46 per cent of Canada's prison population. Or we can talk about the fact that Indigenous people represent five per cent of Canada's population and 30 per cent of Canada's prison population. 

By framing the conversation around all "people of colour," we're met with a prison population overrepresentation of 170 per cent, but by adding some specificity to the conversation, it becomes clear that the glaring issue is the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in Canadian prisons by 600 per cent.

Similarly, we could say that the average income for "people of colour" in Canada is 13 per cent below the national average, or we could say the average annual income for Black Canadians is 36 per cent below the national average. 

You get the idea, specifics present more accurate, and in most cases, starker realities. They're important.

By referring to all non-white people as "people of colour," issues that really really impact specific communities are watered down to become issues that just impact all people of colour.

The YYC Justice for All Victims of Police Brutality protest travelled through downtown Calgary last June. Part of the decolonizing and unlearning that everyone was so excited to participate in last summer is assessing language, says Tomi Ajele. (Leah Hennel for CBC News)

When using the umbrella term "people of colour," the unique experiences of Black and Indigenous communities get erased in pursuit of a white/non-white binary.

Enter BIPOC

While "BIPOC" (Black, Indigenous, and people of colour) is still a way to describe non-white people as a collective, the term creates space for the notion that discrimination against Black folks and discrimination against Indigenous peoples cannot be lumped in with discrimination against all "people of colour." It creates an important linguistic distinction and provides a necessary visibility to these unique communities. 

Having said that, my issue with the term "people of colour" wasn't just that it was lumping all non-white people together, it's with the term itself, which is why "BIPOC" doesn't do it for me. I'm still hung up on the fact that the term "person of colour" is being used to reference anyone at all.

"People of colour" is a not so subtle restructuring of the term "coloured people," which is a racial slur. A slur used for dehumanization and segregation. 

"Coloured" and "Negro" were pushed aside for "African-American" and later, Black. Then "person of colour," a.k.a. "coloured people, the remix," made a comeback to include all racialized folks. But the connotations are still so deep. It's a term with a really dark history, for Black people specifically. 

While I can appreciate that the term "person of colour" is now widely used to refer to racialized people who are not Black or Indigenous, I could definitely stand to see the term go altogether.

'Racialized' makes a lot more sense

The term "racialized people" is not only free of the dark implications that come with using the word "colour" in reference to people, but it also gives credence to the fact that race is a construct.

Most provincial human rights commissions across Canada use the term "racialized people" as opposed to "people of colour," and the Ontario Human Rights Commission takes an official stance on the term "people of colour" being outdated, stating: "Recognizing that race is a social construct, the Commission describes people as 'racialized person' or 'racialized group' instead of the more outdated and inaccurate terms 'racial minority,' 'visible minority,' 'person of colour,' or 'non-White.'"

Don't get me wrong, I'm not terribly offended by the term BIPOC or "person of colour." I see the purpose these terms serve, but part of that decolonizing and unlearning that everyone was so excited to participate in last summer is assessing language. 

A fundamental portion of the term "BIPOC" is rooted in some dark history, so yeah, I cringe a bit when I hear it.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

(CBC)

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tomi Ajele holds a communications degree from Mount Royal University and has been working in the marketing and communications industry for seven years. Tomi is currently an editor at Afros In Tha City, a media collective dedicated to amplifying Black voices in Mohkínstsis/Calgary.

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