Is ‘People of Color’ Offensive?

A reader asks if "people of color" is the appropriate terminology to define a diverse population. What does the White Guy think?

Luke Visconti’s Ask the White Guy column is a top draw on 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 toward progress rather than log rolling ourselves into irrelevance.

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  • 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”

  • 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 disagree.
      I’m Black, by the way. My opinion may not necessarily override anyone else’s but I respectfully disagree that “Person 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

          • While it may be true that human beings originated in Africa, that fact does little to change people’s feeling of belonging. Humans want to feel part of a sub-group that somehow defines them. This is true within each race as well as across races. Race is the elephant in the room, but is taking a back seat to other sub-groups, such as lesbian, gay, transsexual, gender identity, religion, sects within religious groups, tall people, short people, fat people, athletic people, beautiful people, wealthy people, northern European, southern European, middle eastern, Hispanic, Arab, millennial, boomer, old white guys …the list goes no and on. (for example: the caste system in India). If you belong to one or more of these groups, then you know what I mean. It is in human nature to identify with those who share your values and act accordingly. We are all different, but it seems that the diversity movement wants to make us all play in the same sand box as equals. I don’t see how giving preference to some sub-groups will accomplish that — it really just adds to the dilemma. The prejudice that I have experienced is curt and well-contained but very effective. It has kept me in my place and it will continue ad infinitum. Embracing differences means to acknowledge that people are different, not the other way around.

      • 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.

          • Caraesartén

            The NAACP doesn’t decide what offends me or not. I am much more than the amount of melanin in my skin. Although I’m “latino,” I may have more in common with a “black” friend and a “white” friend that go to the same social spaces as me, than with my neighbor that was born in the same Latin American country as me.

      • You have no idea what he has to deal with. Come to my neighborhood and he will get his butt beat for being white, Luke Visconti, You’re a frickin racist White Uncle Tom.

  • 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.

    • Teresa Hoffman

      I to believe the term colored people is.offensive, in fact I was fired from my job for taking down a sign in 2015 that said do not rent to the colored people , check out the CBS new coverage ,

  • 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’d refer to it as ‘colourless’; an existing colour that is not as vibrant as is it should be. (Because there is no such thing as ‘no colour’.)

      And honestly, I don’t think this would be anywhere near contentious if white people were given names i.e labels like everyone else, whether by choice or by others. For example, what are the variations of societal words to describe white people? I cannot think of many. But I can think of at least ten for various other groups.

  • 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?

  • 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?

  • Why does “white” has to be the reference point? How about we say “Blacks” and “Non-blacks?” or colored and non-colored? When you are not white they say Africanican, latin, indian etc American, but I never heard of white american. Just American

    • @Why does “white” has to be the reference point? – the sole reason why all that PC exists is to make the whites quilty and make them paying for their implied sins.

  • Yes, ‘people of color’ is offensive. It is a phrase that has been twisted to segregate whites or caucasians from everyone else to create divide. Whites are in fact a people of color. The color white. Is it politically incorrect for white to be a color?? How politically correct are the colors red, white and blue?
    Use yor brain. Don’t let talking heads in media who stand on popular, corporate paid platforms comprise your opinion with catchy phrases and rhymes.

  • As a black woman who’s gone the gamut of labels in this country, colored, Afro-American, Black, African-American, etc., at the age of 8 I first heard myself called a nigger in the hallways of a predominantly white school I attended. Mind you, not much has changed in the big picture for some ‘persons of color’, but I prefer Black American, even though my skin is nowhere near the color itself. I embrace it as my personal identity and reality in the world I live in. What I find almost humorous is the topic of race is even an issue that needs to be taught in the world arena in the 21st century, especially within a free society which boasts of a supposed inclusiveness while displaying anything but. To find that my color is still a major source of aggravation to people whose melanin is much lighter is ironic because the divisiveness still exists, yet we’re asked to overlook it everyday we step into Corporate America. There is no nicety regarding skin color in this country, I’ve personally encountered other darker races who come to America and regard themselves as white by comparison to moi, even if their color is noticably darker pigmented than mine and be as racist as any white person chooses to be. Diversity is a catchall phrase that simply implies the act of inclusion while denying it in every facet of the action. As people, we haven’t evolved very much to even be having this discussion yet, I sat on too many committees for diversity in the last 20 years and saw nothing progressive or inclusive. Someone had to lose something so someone else could gain something and often it was more divisive. That said, I thank you, Mr. Visconti, for attempting to educate us all a bit better on how to play well with others different from ourselves in this cauldron we call the human race. I hope I live long enough to see it bear good fruit along with myself being judged by the content of my character rather than the color of my skin.

  • Eighteenth Street

    “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.”: there is NO PROOF of that.

    • Sure there is. The National Geographic human genome project proved the basis of human origin and geneticists have proved that there is only one human race.

      • I agree with Luke, it has been proven in numerous studies that race is not a scientific classification, but rather a social construct. However, being “colorblind” does not help anything. Because I’m white, I don’t feel like I have any authority to be talking about racism. I think that we should just listen to non-white groups and refer to them how they feel is most respectful. It’s not our fight, but we need to stand by people of color as much as possible.

  • I find the expression person of color offensive because the implication is that those who are not rounded up in this generalization, are people of no color, which is plainly ridiculous . If someone is black, they are black, if they are Asian,. they are Asian, if they have red hair, they have read hair. And if you want to bring a diverse range of people together in a group, they are people or human beings.

  • You keep on mentioning that Dr King used the word people of colour’ if he did, it was in the context of the politics of the time and might have been accepted then by a people still trying to win the civil right struggle. But today a lot of people don’t accept that classification, I believe it is a racist classification and all people of African heritage should be addressed as Africans( that is the race).

  • BlackChickInSeattle

    The term “people of color” is highly offensive. It simply groups all other races in to one blob that aren’t white. What is the significance of this? America is known for grouping, so it’s not surprising that such terms are still being used in the post slavery era.

  • The term was created by white people to separate them from everyone else. White people have called themselves white since the beginning of European history. But white people are not people of color. So stop trying to include yourselves in everything.

  • Brendon Urie

    The term “people of color” is offensive to me. Like @BlackChickInSeattle said, this term is just used to group every single person who is NOT white together. As a white person (female), I feel slightly excluded when I hear this term being used. White is a color too, isn’t it? Yes, I know, somebody is just going to yell at me “No, white is not a color because all white people are racist bigots and they just want to be included in everything. Plus, their skin is white, and that is not technically a color” (or something like that). Ohhh…I’m sorry, I didn’t know that ALL white people are racist bigots. I’m sorry that some white people choose to be racist. Personally, I don’t want to be affiliated with these racist white people. And, to “people of color” who might be thinking that white is not a color, I’m sure you don’t like to be excluded from something because of your race. Neither do I. If you don’t like people excluding you from something or saying negative things to you because you are a certain race, and you are doing so to people of other races, then you are a hypocrite. The word “colorful” is a positive word to me, and when this term is used, it makes me feel ashamed to be white because I am merely labeled “white” and not “colorful”. Again, I know somebody reading this is thinking to themselves “You’re white. You have white privilege. You probably have never ever experienced racism.” Right? Wrong. It is an everyday part of my life, contrary to what you think. Also, “people of color” is merely a label. Labels are a piece of shit (excuse my language). Isn’t unity what we are trying to achieve? Labels are not effective when trying to unite someone or something. They just drive us farther apart. Why can’t we just label ourselves “human beings” and be done with it?

  • It’s obviously offensive if you want to refer to people who are not white, just say “non-white”. That’s it.

  • I too believe it is an effort to unite all races of color against the Whites. All you have to do is go into any Black or Hispanic chat website to understand the hatred against Whites in this country. More racism from people who scream racism the loudest even though their skin color does earn them benefits that Whites are not entitled to, especially White males.

    • You’re entitled to your own opinion, but you’re not entitled to your own facts.

      There is not a single thing that any white person would gain by trading places with someone Black or Latino.

      And if you want to talk about websites start with or or fox.

    • Non-white people are angry at white people because white people have treated people of color like crap for thousands of years.

  • Horrible White Person

    These are the three statements I use at work when any non-work related conversation comes up. White people are free to use these at no charge.

    1. I win by staying employed.
    2. I stay employed by having no opinions on things not directly related to my job.
    3. I know my place.

  • Horrible White Person

    Apple is not diverse enough in its corporate leadership and have been vilified and pilloried for it.

    When will we see similar attention to setting right the ideals of diversity with the boards of Samsung, Honda, Fuji Heavy Industries, Yamaha, LG, Hankook, Copel, the Bank of Zambia, the barangays of the Philippines, Electricity of Vietnam Group….

    or are Africans, Asians, and (whatever the non-racist word is for people that live in Central America and South America) given some kind of pass on needing to be diverse?

  • As an educator who works with my school and district equity trainings, we often use the term people of color, families of color, children of color, as we talk about the achievement gap and our work shifting the education paradigm to better meet our children’s needs. After reading all these comments I am not sure how to proceed. In our conversations we are focusing on race, but in a way that benefits our students. Are we offensive in that context? Is there a better way to phrase it? If I talk about an individual student, I racialize their personal experience: “She is Black Ethiopian”, etc., but when talking in general terms we are talking about a lot of races in our schools that are not white and need their educators to learn more about how to teach them as individuals…and people of color seemed to work without offending. Now I am confused. Also, I came here as a writer wondering if I should capitalize “people of color”, “white”, “black”, etc. in my work.

    • I would be very hesitant to use race in any context regarding “achievement gaps”. Poverty/resources immigrant/ESL,language differences, maybe – but race? No.

  • I love the term People of Color. I’m dark skinned and I love my skin.
    I tolerate the term black because I’m more brown than anything. I’m African American as they call us but people of color is a better term. Not sure if “Colored” is PC.

  • Psycology_Student

    I stumbled across this page as I was doing research for my Master’s level class on Social and Cultural Diversity. Our TEXTBOOK uses the term “people of color” extensively. It was not written by someone who is white, but Dr. Sue (Asian) who is the Father of the Micro Aggression concept and a major player in our current dialogue regarding race and racism across the nation.

    As I student, who am I to believe? A professional in my future field or what seems to be the majority of individuals who find this term offensive? Personally, I find the term offensive as well, but it is part of our “professional” vocabulary now and I am expected to use it as a clinical term.

    I find it fascinating that Dr. Sue uses the term extensively, but the general populace seems to overwhelmingly reject it, no matter their race, color or creed …

    I plan on addressing people as they say they want to be addressed and not use arbitrary labels in my future practice. But in order to clearly communicate with my peers, I am expected to use the phrase “people of color” or “person of color” when referring to a non-white client.

    My intent on sharing all of this is highlight how this term has now been institutionalized in Academia and to seek counsel on how to address it. I look forward to your comments!

    • It is a term that accepts “white” centricity and dominance. It only suits countries that have a white majority, if even a white financial majority (like South Africa). What do you call Uighers in China? People of color doesn’t make sense. But their oppression is borne of the same financial and cultural dominance that white people have in this country and the Han have in China.

      • Psycology_Student

        Where did you get this definition? I have not been able to find a clear definition in all of my looking … also, who I am to follow, the professors or the majority of the people in deciding whether or not to use this term?

        Can you help me understand how this term is not divisive, please?

        • Depends on what level of dialogue you have with your professor. If it isn’t all that good, I’d use the term that they understand.

          • It’s my definition. I’ve published DiversityInc for 20 years, given my longevity and the size of my audience, I’d say it’s safe to say I’m an expert.

  • Psycology_Student

    OK … how did you come to this definition? I am really just trying to understand … unfortunately, as this is not a “scholarly” site I cannot quote you in my paper …

    That is why I keep asking where/how you have come to this definition, I am sincerely trying to learn and gain insight as to this particular term and mean no offense.

    I have no question that you are an expert in your field and hope I have done nothing to call that into question … but it is a bit interesting how quickly you have become defensive and feel the need to ensure that I understand you are an expert. If I did not think you were, then I wouldn’t be trying to learn from you …

  • Psycology_Student

    Definition and entomology/history of the term “people of color.”

    Your help and patience are greatly appreciated!

  • Ridiculously Confused and Annoyed

    This whole entire race calling debate is getting unreal and honestly annoying. I have for many years identified myself as a white female. I call my white friends white, I call my black friends black, i call my friends of different nationalities of hispanic- Hispanic, I call my friends who are of Asian decent- Asian or of Oriental desent…. and so on and so forth. My point is, is that I use that to identify not do degrade or to exclude or anything in a racist type of way. Now instead of referring to any one of my friends as the “blank” guy over there, how am I to describe him? Before you answer what if he chose to be not identified as a male as well? How would I describe this person now? Let me take it even a step further by saying this person does not want me to even describe their style of clothing? Wait now…what if this person does not want me to describe their hair color or texture? Or…..when does it end on how we can and can not describe a person? To another friend, family, co-worker etc. A racial description of a person does not mean that a person is racist or insensitive to another human being. Otherwise if that was the case, at the end of the day we will all be afraid to talk to one another because we would all be in fear of insulting one another.

    • Oriental is a word to describe objects, like a rug, it is not used to describe people. It has been struck, by law, from federal language.

      I suggest you describe people buy something that cannot be construed as being the meaning – like the (“guy over there”) person with the plaid shirt.

      If your intention is not to hurt any feelings, any mistakes you make will be overlooked.

  • It’s remarkable reading your explanation and then the comments that followed. If we can’t do time travel, I guess the next best thing is stop time. Nine years after your initial posting and our responses about the offensiveness of “people of color” remain judgmental, defensive, and resentful. I’m suspect that we’re expressing attitudes about something more than words and, in fact, express disdain for those so labeled as people of color. I could call many of the responses racist or bigoted or prejudice, but the deniers tirelessly would dance the dodge. And again, it’s not the words that are issue but the sentiments underlying them. And they’re all part of a piece collected in the ideology of color-blindness.

    Many Americans, and mostly white Americans, embrace colorblindness in all its folly. “I don’t see color/race/difference” so the saying goes. And sadly people believe that expression actually explains why they largely, if not only, hire, work for, labor alongside, have friends that are, live next door to, call home to a community that is mostly, read about, watch movies about, and preach to a god-form that is essentially white.”

    White Americans don’t have to use the word white because they have so many more that underscore their rich world: human, person, citizen, Christian, American.

    I would like to be generous and believe people are ignorant about their ignorance but reading the comments adds to the evidence that many people are quite conscious of their ignorance and resist anything that change their condition.

    The biggest tragedy is that all of the talk here and elsewhere dance around the source and beneficiary of our idiocy, namely, social inequality and oppression. Things are just semantics if addressing inequality reveals the world that is obscured and concealed by those who believe so strongly in merit.

    I wish you hadn’t posed the question about the offensiveness of people of color. It adds further insult to those who share a solidarity in fighting exclusion and oppression. Better to remind (or in many cases school for the first time) why colored people is offensive.

    Oh, about nomenclature. Names matter. Remember what names do. They give us labels for things that permit us to isolate objects in our environment. They convey and shape the meaning things have for us – and for humans meaning is all we have. But lastly, they tell us what do do – they guide/shape/direct behavior. We act on the words we use. Call me a friend, and we can hug. Call me a foe, and all manner of horror can be visited on me.

    People of color is a label for those resisting exclusion and injustice. Colored people has been a way to identify those to be excluded and treated unjustly.

  • We where always tot to say color as I was growing up, because it was polite to say this instead of black or the N word. You would show more respect for a black person. But reading this make a lot of sense. And shows more respect too.

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