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Proofreading Service - Pain in the English
Proofreading Service - Pain in the English

Your Pain Is Our Pleasure

24-Hour Proofreading Service—We proofread your Google Docs or Microsoft Word files. We hate grammatical errors with a passion. Learn More

Color of People

A friend of mine told me that “colored people” is offensive, but “people of color” isn’t. As far as I can see, they mean exactly the same thing. Why is one offensive but not the other?

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Many people think "colored" objectifies people and traps them into a particular category. "Of color" supposedly makes it clearer that this is just attribute and not a classifier of the person. Of course, it means the same thing in the end, which is why some people despise political correctness.

As for the word itself, there's some subtle new-age-iness to it, whereby "colored" is ignorant of someone's true background--since it covers everything that isn't caucasian--but "color" is something abstract and inclusive.

Noah Aug-06-2004

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Phrases often become offensive not simply because of the grammar or words used, but because of the context in which they were used historically. "Nigger," for example, is a harmless 6 letters strung together, and all of its potency comes not from the individual letters working together, nor from the origins of the word, but from its use in America over the last centuries.

Thus "colored people" is offensive primarily because of its use in segregation ("use the entrance for colored people, please"). "People of color" doesn't have that sting, because it was never routinely or officially phrased that way during those segregated times.

The other reason that "colored people" is problematic and offensive to some is related to why "oriental" is offensive to some, and it applies to "people of color" as well. This has to do with otherness. To refer to someone as a "colored person" essentially means that the person is "not White" (though the term is rarely used to refer to fair-skinned Asians either). It is a Euro-centric term that exists around the concept that the speaker is White, which is pretty much the basic assumption for the English language (the assumption that the speaker is male is even stronger). This is partially exemplified by the fact that there is no corresponding counter-term, such as "uncolored person." For this problem, the term "people of color" is no solution (and there are plenty of people that aren't keen on it either).

Another problem with both the terms "colored person" or "person of color" is that they are vague. They don't describe anything useful or specific--there is no technical distinction involved (is an Okinawan person a "colored person"? How about a fair-skinned North African or Latin American person?)--and so they really have no use at all. I suggest avoiding them entirely. If you want to say that a person has dark skin, then say that they have dark skin.

What term to use, then? "Minority", or "ethnic minority" are the generally accepted, all-encompassing terms that cover pretty much the same ground as "colored people" (though it folds the fair-skinned Asian people back into term), and they actually describe something useful. "Minority" can mean both a group of people that don't make up the largest portion of the population and a group of people that don't have political power. Both meanings generally coincide, but if they do not, then you can say "political minority" to refer to the latter.

To refer specifically to African Americans (the most common referent of "colored person"), you can say "African American." "Black" is still commonly accepted (though not universally accepted), because it is balanced out by the term "White". Thus the term isn't really Euro-centric, and while the term isn't really accurate either (nobody actually has black skin), neither is the term "White" (even albinos have some color in their skin) Most people that dislike the word dislike it for one or both of these reasons: (1) the word "black" in the English language has a long history of association with evil ("the black arts," "black magic," "his soul is black with sin") and (2) it describes something that we shouldn't need to describe as much as we do.

It is strange that "Indian" as a term for native Americans is still commonly used, and I would recommend avoiding that too.

In the end, you should have a certain respect for your audience's opinions. If you are talking to someone that is latino, and they object to your use of the word "latino" or "latina" (some do), then the respectful thing to do is to use a term that makes them feel more comfortable. If you are writing an article or weblog, then you have to figure out for yourself what terms to use, selecting amongst those that are in common usage, and eliminating those wherein you can understand why someone might take offense. You cannot please everyone (some people object to "latino," while many object to "hispanic." Some people even object to the "- American" terms, mostly because the White-person counterpart, "European American," is almost never used, and is often taken to mean someone whose family recently immigrated from Europe--as opposed to 400 years ago), and the ideas that the terms represent are important to talk about, so you pretty much have to choose the terms you feel most comfortable using.

Jun-Dai Aug-06-2004

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To say that "people of colour" and "coloured people" necessarily amount to the same thing simplifies a complex issue.

I really don't know much about the two terms and their acceptability, since I don't use either, and generally perceive them as old-fashioned, but if it is true that the former is acceptable while the latter is not, my guess is that it is because the term "coloured" was invented by white people and used historically in a way that reflected an underlying disrespect for race. The social context of a word -- who uses it and why -- is as important as the "literal" meaning.

Dave3 Aug-06-2004

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It gets very confusing when there is such a huge pressure to be politically correct. I've heard people use "African-American" to refer to any black person, whether or not they live in America.

Elmer Aug-06-2004

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Recently I attended a diversity workshop at my work place, I heard this word"people of colour" there. I just did not understand to whom it was reffered to,Middle easterns?Orientals?or African-Americans? I raised the issue there but I didn't get my answer. My impression is the word "colour" is an indication of paying attention to the people's skin colour instead of their ethnicity or their cultural background. I recommend the word "decent" e.g. Italian decent; even if we simply mention the name of the people's original country or continent e.g. Iranian, Asian it will be the first step taken to ignore people's skin colour and learn more about existing different ethnicities.I totally agree with not using the word "colour".

parisarn Aug-09-2004

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"Colored" is a word invented by the white authorities to make it easy to classify those who were other-than-white (and thus "othered," as the po-mos would say). It was an exclusionary word that emphasized the view that Americans of dark-skinned African descent were not, and were not expected to be, full participants in American society.

"People of color" is a phrase invented by the self-appointed advocates of the rights and interests of Americans descended from dark-skinned Africans. It made it easy to separate their interest group from those who were not part of the interest group. It was a term of social liberation that emphasized their cultural uniqueness and allowed them to claim exemptions from the cultural memes and dictates imposed upon them by the white-dominated hierarchy.

Oh, wait, did those two paragraphs say exactly the same thing? My bad. :)))))

speedwell2 Aug-09-2004

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One is more offensive than the other because the terms change faster than the underlying social dynamic.

"People of color" sounds more satisfyingly vague and nonjudgemental than "colored people", but it will eventually need to be discarded in favor of another term when it falls prey to negative stereotypes.

For example, "special" is used today where "handicapped" or "retarded" might have been used in the past. But people today might use "special" as a way to tease one another in a denigrating way, because their attitudes toward "special" people have not changed.

Thus any newer, inoffensive term can still acquire a negative connotation over time.

So, my question is, should the NAACP now rename itself as the NAAPC?

Nathan Aug-16-2004

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Nathan asks whether the NAACP (the "National Association for the Advancement of Colored People") should change its name to the NAAPC (presumably he means this to read "National Association for the Advancement of Political Correctness").

Genius, man.

speedwell2 Aug-16-2004

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The only offence is in the spelling.

mel1 Aug-17-2004

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are asians considered people of color? i am asian, and i was once told by a white person that i was not a person of color because i am fair skinned. the guy's comment offended me cause i do consider myself to be a person of color, i.e. not white.

terry2 Dec-01-2004

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Terry, in the US the phrase is reserved for the racially disadvantaged, not the techno-nerdy overacheivers like you Asian folk. (Pardon my sarcasm... I do honestly admire individual achievement and I think that envious prejudice is just as bad as prejudice that stems from contempt.)

speedwell2 Dec-02-2004

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I have questioned the obituary editor of our local newspaper about the sentence consistenly used in the featured obituaries. Namely: "The funeral is 2:00 Tuesday." I suggested that the sentence should read: The funeral is scheduled for 2:00 Tuesday." The editor has told me that the English grammar used by newspapers is not the same as taught in schools and that the paper needs to conserve space.

Am I behind the times on this one?

Hugh1 Jul-31-2005

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You Americans have messed things up pretty bad. You should scrap the worthless African-American and stay put with black. You need to change racism through attitude, not by inventing new words to replace the previously correct one. I like the (white) American guy from South-Africa who signed up for some "Best African-American student"-thingy voting contest or whatever, at his school. When he got "caught" for being white, I think they considered expelling him. Not sure what happend though. Anyhow that shows why 'African-American' is stupid.
Not to mention the fact that you have to call all blacks in the world African-Americans to avoid using black or negro. And the sad part is that frequently you do just that, to the great amusement and mockery from the rest of the world.

slemmet1 Aug-03-2005

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I'm an African American. I like the word African American more than "colored".There's all the's
word to describe an African American:Negro,colored,nigger,and Black.I'm
not Black, i'm Brown skin so i don't know
why they use that word neither.There should be
one word African American and that's it.

"Know who you are,before some one
tells you who you are".

~Senegal {wolof} proverb~

Knsh_Cooper Mar-08-2006

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I think Jun-Dai is correct: The offensiveness of phrases is not something that can be reduced to grammatical analysis; it has to do with the history behind the particular phrase.

Africa77: I think African-American is a fine term to describe Americans who have African descent. It's not a substitute for "people of color", though, because people of color:

1) Aren't necessarily American, and
2) Don't necessarily have relatively recent ancestors from Africa (as opposed to any of the other fairly large number of non-European parts of the world)

Avrom Mar-09-2006

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So, for instance former Egyptians and white South-Africans now living in USA don't have African descent? Obviously they do, yet they are not African-Americans.
Once again, hiding behind new phrases doesn't change history, or who you are. The original negro is still the most accurate and non-confusing term (excluding both egyptians and dark people like aboriginals), not to mention the correct scientific term for the actual race.
Denying this is foolish.

slemmet1 Mar-09-2006

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Except that there *is* no scientific term for *any* race, because race isn't a scientific property. Races are collections of superficial physical features that have cultural significance; there's no way to make a science of that.

It is true that, the last time the majority of the scientific community believed that races were "real" things biologically, the terms they used were "negroid," "caucasoid", and "mongoloid." But that's like saying we should use phrenological terms for bumps on the head because they're the "scientific" terms. I don't see why discredited science should inform our language.

Avrom Mar-10-2006

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That said, it is also true that there are two other problems with "African-American", both of which you hit on:

1) Africa is a big continent, including more than sub-Saharan Africa; people of Arabic and Berber backgrounds, for example, are of recent African decent, but they're not usually what people mean by "African-American".

2) What constitutes the right sort of "recentness" of descent is also vague. We have a vague feeling that, perhaps, the requirement is that you had a significant number of ancestors there sometime between 10,000 and 2,000 years ago (this is what rules out the person whose Dutch great-grandparents moved to South Africa), but those are pretty arbitrary numbers, and I'm sure you could still find counterexamples. And you get into problems with what percentage counts as "significant", too.

It really all comes down to this: People have, throughout history and even before, been very nomadic, and there's been a lot more interbreeding than most people have historically been willing to admit. The real reason race is important and makes a difference in peoples' lives is that it affects self-perception and how others perceive you. Because these perceptions do not need to be logical, it's hard to come up with any sort of logical delineation of "races".

Avrom Mar-10-2006

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Only politically correct people argue there aren't any human races, and there *is* a scientific term but some people won't agree with it. If dogs have races, so have humans, and no one thinks twice about defining dog races by pure looks.
And, human races do go deeper than mere looks. For instance within medicine, different races in some cases have different response to the same treatment. This means that, for a black person, getting a drug aimed at blacks (negroids) works better than a generic drug for everyone. This kind of knowledge and research is not as accepted as it could be, simply because of mislead (politically correct) individuals that think they are helping groups of people by refusing to see the differences that are within the human species. Ignoring facts can never be the right thing to do.

slemmet1 Mar-11-2006

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I don't consider myself to be black. As a gentleman said before, our skin is not "black", but brown. I also don't call myself "African-American", because our people didn't originate from here. The only "Americans", as far as I'm concerned, are Native Americans. I'm an African living in America, because my people are the original race of people on earth and our roots began and continue in Africa.

Now, having said that, I've heard the arguments concerning South Africans of European descent and Egyptians of Middle Eastern descent. Descent and nationality are two different things. These people as particular races aren't original Africans, so I don't think they should refer to themselves as such when referring to their descent. Just because your ancestors moved there, conquered, took over land and stayed, that doesn't make you a native African anymore than me living in America makes me a Native American.

Khalisah Mar-11-2006

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I am female. My skin is white and my eyes are blue. My hair color is light. I am Mexican descent but I also have Spainish and French blood. I even have Indian blood. I am American and I find it offensive to be called or said to be a person of color. I am Christian and I do not mind being called that, but what in the world is a person of color why can't we be just people.

angelA Mar-13-2007

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Khalisah, look back far enough and we are all from Africa. Native Americans are originally Asians. Asians are originally Africans.

slemmet1 Mar-16-2007

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I can't help the color of my skin

Kumar Shubham Nov-29-2017

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