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Is ‘People of Color’ Offensive?

Luke Visconti’s Ask the White Guy column is a top draw on DiversityInc.com. Visconti, the founder and CEO of DiversityInc, is a nationally recognized leader in diversity management. In his popular column, readers who ask Visconti tough questions about race/culture, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability and age can expect smart, direct and disarmingly frank answers.

Ask the White Guy Luke ViscontiQuestion:
Is “people of color” the right terminology to describe a diverse population?

In my opinion, “people of color” is an effective way to describe non-white people in the United States. One can correctly argue that “white” people are people of color, or that some Latinos are white; however, unless the goal is to endlessly argue semantics, it’s more useful to use a common phrase to describe people who are commonly thought of as not being white by the white majority in this country.

“People of color” is a respectful-sounding phrase, it’s in common use, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. used the phrase “citizens of color” in his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech.

Ultimately, I think we must all recognize that the conversation revolves around imaginary differences. There is only one human race and we are all originally from Africa. That’s not a concept that the majority in any culture gives into easily, however, so I think there’s much to be gained by using a simple and well-recognized phrase that everyone can understand.

I want to point out that in the almost ten years of publishing DiversityInc, I’ve heard endless arguments from progressive people about nomenclature. It’s tiresome, boring and counterproductive. You can call it diversity or inclusion or popcorn—as soon as the bigots figure out the code, they’re going to denigrate the word. By sticking to standard phraseology, we keep the discussion pointed towards progress rather than log rolling ourselves into irrelevance.



  • I must point out that the term “People of Color” is a set of ALL COLORS. I DO NOT AGREE with the word “WHITE” in reference to SKIN color either, since there is NO SUCH THING as white skin. European skin color is as much colored as chinese or Arabic skin color. “Negro” is a derogatory term for many, to some Africans it is perfectly fine. I think every race should choose to call themselves whatever they like and NOT to NAMED by SOMEONE ELSE. Negro, Colored, People of color are RACIAL SLURS mainly used by CAUCASIAN population in the United States. Bear in mind, Caucasian men and woman’s skin color is changing as well due to environmental and cross breeding with other races making them more colored. Yes, europeans living in Southern USA, South America are becoming darker due to natural conditions and they fit perfectly the description of the word “COLORED” or “PEOPLE OF COLOR”

  • Anonymous

    Yes, the term ‘people of color’ is offensive because it implies that ‘non-colored’ or white is the norm or ideal. I am not of direct African descent; however, I am non-Anglo and this that using the term ‘colored’ or ‘people of color’ is extremely racist.

  • I believe that when discussing race issues, it IS indeed best to get out of semantics’ way. However, being that many Americans are no longer educated in the manner of “learning to think,” that concept may prove difficult for the masses. Witness the previous “discussions” here about your point: the individuals could not even identify the main theme you presented. To reiterate your point–“it’s tiresome, boring, and counterproductive.”

    Well presented. I wish this ideology could be accepted and adopted completely and naturally.

  • As long as we keep having to discuss this, it will be an issue. Anyone who has to find a word to describe someones race is a racist. Actually anyone who believes they belong to a race is racist.

    So here’s my suggestion – stop talking about it, and stop making up and using words to describe race. There is absolutely no reason for it!

    • Luke Visconti

      The headstream of racism is when a person mistakes good fortune for providence. Only a person who does not have to worry about race can make such a foolish set of statements. I’d imagine the University of Minnesota cannot be very proud of taking your money—they probably feel like they have to wash out the cash register every time you pay tuition. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

      • Well of course I’m being a bit of a pollyanna to make a point. My point is this: I’m no better than you, or worse than you based on a set of social distinctions like race. I may be a better guitar player than you, because I’ve worked harder at it than you have. You are a better CEO than I am, because you’ve worked harder at it than I have. But in society, we know that people judge people based on how they look. People who may not know us are always looking at us, and judging. Race is a way to classify, therefore a way to judge. I simply pine for a world with one less thing to judge over.

        I may have insulted you by making the claim that those who believe they belong to a race are racist. For insulting you I apologize. My thinking is if a person believes they belong to a race different from other races, the inherent egocentrism that exists in people will cause them to believe they are better because of it.

        • Luke Visconti

          Nice comeback. The problem with positing a solution that ignores a precondition is that it cannot be realistic. We human beings intensely focus on race; it is a legacy of vision being our dominant sense and our common hunting-gathering ancestry on the mother continent (Africa—look up the Genographic Project at National Geographic). People are intensely tribal, and people use that tribalism as leverage to gain power—it defines our known history. Black and white in our country, Bull Connor, George Wallace; and abroad, Han, Uighers, Tutsi, Hutu, Pol Pot, Baby Doc—it goes on and on. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

          • Mara Clemente

            Precisely Luis. Your words here confirm the need of being more careful at our constant inclination to cater the oppressor.

            What is the problem with referring to Asians, Mexicans and the like? Another bit goes to “Hispanic” a lazy effort to also group a too diverse group. A Mexican is not a Puerto Rican, for example, but now the guy that does the Census does not need to know that: the white has been served.

            So we not only renounce our language, our heritage, our proud differences, but now we don’t mind none of what conforms our humanity, we are people of color, we have been numbed.

          • Luke Visconti

            This is a very powerful comment, one which should be heeded by every corporate leader. You don’t earn the enthusiasm, support or loyalty of people without respecting them the way they want to be respected. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

      • I would consider “colored people” to be an offensive term and believe “people of color” is simply another way of saying that.

        • If the term “colored people” is offensive why hasn’t the NAACP changed it’s name? They are, after all, one of the leading organizations for the advancement of colored people.

  • I feel that “people of color” is a racist and objectionable effort to group together a diverse population into one tribe (thanks for the word, Luke Visconti) united against whites – which I write with a lower case ‘w’ since I do not see whites as an ethnic group.

    Yesterday I asked my wife, an Asian born in Asia, how she would react to being called a “person of color.” She said she would laugh. When I said that I despised the term, she said that she did too, but laughing at the person who used it was better than getting angry.

    Do I divide people into “like me” groups and “unlike me” groups? Occasionally if there is reason to, but the first criteria is value systems, then areas of interest, then maybe food choices (my wife says that she is sure that I am part Asian because “you are what you eat.” Race, whatever that is, is so far down the list that it is a non-starter.

  • Andy Robinson

    I am a Lebanese (Arab) American. I find “people of color” variously goofy, grammatically awkward, and, depending on how it is employed, offensive. It is part of the vernacular of victimization and identity politics, and in my experience is uniformly divisive.

    As others have pointed out, the world is NOT divided into “white” and “non-white.” The various “non-white” peoples do not form a coherent bloc that stands against “whites” or vice versa. Many such groups now considered “white” were not considered “white” even 100 years ago–either by themselves, or the self-proclaimed white population of the day.

    I agree with the idea that a common nomenclature is necessary, but “people of color” serves no purpose other than to divide humanity into white people and everyone else, and that purpose is fundamentally at odds with a meaningful, productive discussion of human social systems.

    [PS – “People of color” CAN be offensive; I find even the tacit assertion that anyone who opposes such terminology is a bigot to be patently offensive]

    • Luke Visconti

      Context is important. Dr. Martin Luther King used “citizens of color” in his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech. The power of the phrase is in aggregation. There are only 500,000 Lebanese-Americans. You used a highly Anglicized name to make your post. If your name was Rafic Al-Hariri, you might feel the urge to aggregate how you’re treated with other nonwhite and/or ethnic people to squeeze better treatment and justice out of our society. It’s interesting how much of an impact a relatively few Lebanese-Americans have had on our society, but one example is our cuisine. I remember having hummus and tabbouleh for the first time in one of the now numerous Lebanese restaurants in New Brunswick (home of the Big Ten Rutgers). It was very exotic in 1977, now it’s in just about every supermarket. A decidedly positive development. I think hummus is more properly Egyptian in origin, but Lebanese-Americans were responsible for making it widespread, if not common, here. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

  • What’s the opposite of “person of color”? Person of non-color? Non-person of color? Non-person of non-color?

    I think it’s a term used to unite the various “non-white” ethnicities (as socially constructed) into an anti-“white” coalition. It only seeks to increase the division between “whites” and “non-whites.” This is not good for our republic.

  • I never understood the reasons for grouping people into races when we want to end racism in general. I find “Women of colour” particularly offensive being an asian woman. And isn’t white a colour too? It’s the same nonsense in demography statistics too – what exactly is the reason governments mention British Asians or Latinos or any such group? To show how much the “whiteness” is diluted? What is the reason we have to bring up a person or group’s race at all?

  • Jon Chapman

    Fascinating discussion. To turn this around, we might consider how the comment came about: Cumberbatch was discussing the isse if broadening the diversity of leading roles in Hollywood films. This is an issue because many organisations representing those ethnic groups feel under-represented and those representing the ‘establishment’ are being asked to address those of the ‘non-established’, who have aggregated themselves in order to achieve political clout. In this circumstance, what terminology is appropriate to describe this aggregation of interests? Are Martin Luther King’s or the NAACP’s own terms acceptable are they only reserved for the groups they represent? And how do we describe the ‘established’ group who are being asked to change, or is this too an unacceptable aggregation? Is it actually possible to engage in political discourse without referencing ethnic groups and interests?

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