Excerpted From: William J. Aceves, On the Meaning of Color and the End of White(ness), 17 Harvard Law & Policy Review 79 (Summer, 2022) (354 Footnotes) (Full Document)


WilliamJAceves“People of color” is a curious term. It is a phrase born out of human division, and yet, it is now meant to symbolize solidarity and community. It replaces a pejorative term with more tolerant and inclusive language, and yet, the term remains controversial.

Its origins can be traced to the sixteenth century, when European explorers used the phrase “of colour” to identify indigenous populations in newly discovered territories. By the eighteenth century, the term “people of color” was well-established in the English-speaking world. However, it is not unique to the English language, as evidenced by its foreign counterparts, such as gens de couleur or gente de color. The term lacks a formal legal definition, although the word “color” presumably refers to skin color--an ethereal quality measured by pigmentation. It is broadly understood to refer to individuals who are not white, which captures a diverse group with a multitude of distinct experiences. These experiences are informed by history, politics, culture, and racism. There are, in fact, several variants of the term, including persons of color, communities of color, and even citizens of color. Some variants incorporate intersectionality--a concept that acknowledges the complex geometry of human identity--such as women of color, queer people of color, and disabled people of color.

In this third decade of the twenty-first century, we are living in an era of profound social upheaval, where the pillars of structural racism are under siege. The murders of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many other victims of state violence have generated intense anger, calls for action, and demands for dialogue. As reflected in Google Trends, the term “people of color” is an essential part of this dialogue.

Between 2010 and 2019, there was a gradual and steady increase in the number of Google search queries in the United States for the term “people of color.” This changed significantly in March 2020. As the racial justice movement spread across the country, there was a corresponding increase in queries about the term “people of color.” There was curiosity about the term, what it meant, and who it included. Searches peaked the week of May 31-June 6, 2020, which coincides with the timing of massive protests in the United States on racial justice. Related queries also peaked during this time, including “people of color definition” and “who are people of color.”

Media references to the term “people of color” have also grown significantly over the past ten years. In fact, this growth is remarkable. The following table illustrates the number of times the term “people of color” appeared in three major news sources (New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Boston Globe) between 2010 and 2020.

While informative, this data offers little explanation. When did the term “people of color” originate? What did it first mean? What does it now mean? And who is a “person of color?”

This Article explores the history of the term “people of color,” and its current status in a country struggling to overcome its racist origins. It is informed by critical race theory, which examines the role of race in the United States and how law has been used to subordinate people of color for centuries. Part I reviews the term's journey, from its European roots to its contemporary usage in the United States. For centuries, “people of color” was a term with legal significance, but it also served other purposes. Reflecting the influence of social and political factors, its meaning has changed throughout history. In the United States, “people of color” now describes a broad set of individuals from distinct racial and ethnic groups who are not members of the white community. The term's meaning is complicated because the white community is also neither monolithic nor static. Indeed, collective terminology will always suffer from some imprecision. Human beings are unique and complex, with overlapping identities that can obfuscate categorization. Collective terminology also raises concerns about essentialism. Recognizing these challenges, Part II examines the debate surrounding the term's extant meaning and use. This debate can be traced to the “names controversy” of the nineteenth century, a time of robust deliberation about collective terminology within the Black community. Modern critics argue the term “people of color” marginalizes its own members and perpetuates the significance of color in society. Advocates, however, recognize the truth, power, and consequences of color. They point out the common struggles faced by people of color, and the need to coalesce in response to white privilege. Finally, Part III acknowledges history and celebrates the value of this collective terminology. The term “people of color” reflects a shared history among diverse communities and generates power against hierarchy. While the term no longer has legal significance, this Article argues “people of color” is a term that should be embraced.

The term “people of color” does not exist in isolation. It only exists as the antipode to the white community. It is important, however, to distinguish between the white community and white(ness). In this Article, white(ness) reflects the privilege of the white community that also generates the marginalization of people of color. Accordingly, this Article concludes with a provocative assertion--it is time to end the connection between the white community and white(ness). Because language is easily misinterpreted or co-opted, an important clarification is necessary. The “end of white(ness)” is directed at ending the racial hierarchy that established white as the baseline and all other colors in opposition and subordination. It is targeted at ending white privilege and the corresponding burden of color. In this Article, the “end of white(ness)” serves no other purpose.

It is undoubtedly simplistic to assert that words matter. But accurate descriptions are essential for honest conversations. And words convey meanings beyond their etymology and syntax. In discussions about race and racial identity, the term “people of color” is routinely used as the antipode to white(ness). Yet little thought is given to its history or meaning. To engage in a meaningful dialogue about color, race, power, and privilege, there is value in exploring the history and meaning of the words we use.

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In his memoirs, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. wrote to his children about living in West Virginia in the midst of the civil rights era. He chronicled the lives of the people he knew and loved, and the humiliations wrought by segregation. Gates self-identified as a “colored person” while documenting the rich history of the Black experience. To his children, he acknowledged that their journey in America would be different from his own. Even the labels that would be used to describe them would change. “In your lifetimes,” Gates wrote, “I suspect, you will go from being African Americans, to ‘people of color,’ to being, once again, ‘colored people.’ (The linguistic trend toward condensation is strong.)” Gates knew all too well the transient nature of identity and color.

Today, we should embrace the term “people of color.” It empowers current generations by connecting their struggle for equality to past generations. It also has rhetorical and political force. Growing concerns about racial inequality and social justice make this collective terminology even more relevant. Yet despite its long history and the symbolism it now provides, we should not become too comfortable with this term. The complicated role of color in human relations suggests the terminology we use in conversations about ourselves will continue to evolve until, eventually, we get it right.


William J. Aceves is the Dean Steven R. Smith Professor of Law at California Western School of Law.