Historically, Americans have treated “Black” as a bad word. Throughout my educational career, teachers would tell me to replace “Black” with “person of color” or “African American.” And that confused me. Using “Black” wasn’t inappropriate — it’s just what I was. It’s what my parents were. Implicitly, Blackness suggested illegitimacy, and it was infuriating. Still, I began to use “person of color” in reference to myself whenever that box was presented.
As many do when they get to college, I routinely found myself getting involved with many topics that I am passionate about (and many that are not solely Black issues but affect many minorities), such as women’s rights and immigrant rights. These spaces would often imply that they were POC-friendly. But while all my clubs were trying to figure out a way to combat their oppression in the world, I would be left trying to do the same within that space, often addressing intersectionality on my own.
But these experiences only touch upon the larger issues on campus. Many believe a popular myth that because UC Berkeley is diverse and has many students of color, it should breed inclusiveness and welcome everyone — that because diversity is present, it automatically means that the Black body is welcomed. This is not always the case.
Just because UC Berkeley is not majority white does not mean that it’s an environment that truly includes its Black undergraduates — and referring to the makeup of campus as a POC majority further erases Black students.
When we use the term “people of color,” we create a false ideology of unity that is not actually there, and Black students are left to deal with these phantasms of inclusion.
The reality is that in the United States, there is no minority group that does not face some form of social oppression, but each group’s struggle is different and should be understood as such. Ethnic solidarity is important, and the term attempts to unify minorities in our interconnected struggles. But any term that reduces the parts of its sum to a single blanket identity always erases those affected the most.
At the very core of colonialism, for instance, the closer you are to whiteness, the more the social order benefits you; this in turn denigrates the other end of the spectrum — Blackness. Non-Black people of color, especially those in close proximity to whiteness, are capable of perpetuating anti-Blackness, toward not only Africans and their descendants, but also those of darker complexions in general.
A fine example of this is an incident where a South Asian student began spewing racial profanities about his Black classmates. Unfortunately, to most Black students, it was sadly unsurprising. I watched as many around me were shocked by his hypocrisy: He, after all, is also dark-skinned, and presumably encounters related oppression. Many common reactions from my peers included “He should take a good look at himself,” and “How could he say that? He is discriminated against, too.”
So though saying “people of color” recognizes the solidarity among nonwhite people and reflects European colonial harm across the globe, the phrase has its limits. The term “POC” subtly overlooks the racial disparities among POC communities — including colorism in countries around the world. Skin-lightening creams dominate markets in Asian countries (and in Africa!), and many Latin American countries practice anti-Blackness and discriminate against their own African heritage by refusing to acknowledge the Blackness that underlies their culture. But I digress.
Even acknowledging that POC struggles intersect, however, we still easily disregard Black voices in particular — including on campus. Many times, the struggles of Black students are dismissed or overshadowed by lumping them in with other struggles. But I’m not here to participate in the oppression Olympics, and Black people are, of course, not the only ones who are oppressed.
Some may also argue that attacking the term “POC” does more harm than good, creating divisions among minorities when we need to stick together. A failure to address this does, however, promote a certain colorblindness. By separating and validating our identities, it allows all people of color to recognize that each group is affected in different ways, and we will then be more equipped to address these issues and adapt to the different circumstances that each community faces. If we continue to operate under the colorblind term, we will continue to hinder the progress of intersectional strategies to combat the structures harming our communities.
So when Black students voice their experiences on campus, listen to us. Our experiences stem from generations of oppression, happening in many intersections, and we are not seeking your sympathy. We want equity within an institution that claims, time and time again, to care about all its students — including the Black ones.
Savon Bardell writes the Friday column on the experience of being a Black student at UC Berkeley. Contact her at [email protected]