‘POC’ shouldn’t be the umbrella term to stuff non-White people under.
It was about two years ago.
I was announced on stage by the compère as a ‘WOC comedian’. I was puzzled — why on earth was I being introduced as a round-bottomed cooking vessel? As it turned out it was my first encounter with the term ‘Person (or in my case woman) of Colour’. ‘POC’, a US import, is a term widely accepted to describe non-White individuals but the phrase has never sat right with me for a number of reasons.
What I’ve often wondered is how can you homogenise so many people with very distinct struggles into one big melting pot of a category? As someone who is British-born but Middle Eastern (not a term I’m fond of either — but that’s another debate for another day), I contended with barrages of the usual stereotypes: ‘so how was the trip from Calais?’ unoriginal nicknames like ‘Jenanistan’, and always being rostered to work Christmas and Easter as a junior doctor (sorry to disappoint but not everyone from the Middle East is Muslim). All the while, I’m watching my parents’ homeland ‘light up like a Christmas tree’ as described on the 10 O’clock news.
Experiences of someone, say of South Asian, Chinese or Black heritage will all inevitably be different and I cannot claim to know how it feels to be them.
Similarly, ‘person of colour’ fails to acknowledge contrasting accomplishments. Diane Abbott recently reached her 33rd anniversary as an MP in the UK. Many publications chose to refer to her as the first woman of colour elected as an MP. There was certainly no shortage of disquiet from readers of Black heritage as to why she wasn’t, specifically, celebrated as the first Black woman MP instead. This is currently all the more poignant given that Covid-19 has been affecting ethnic minority populations disproportionately, with discussions tending to generalize all non-White individuals in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement.
Bottom line. A term such as ‘person of colour’ can lead to a tendency to overlook key differences, which is not only disrespectful but obstructive to understanding specific challenges and assisting subsequent progress.
If you asked me how I identified, it would be a mouthful (I am ethnically Assyrian via Iraq and Palestine) which most often requires a TED talk. If I know that someone identifies as specifically White, why shouldn’t I expect them to demonstrate the same level of courtesy to me? I have in the past been guilty of resorting to describing myself as ‘Middle Eastern’ partly to spare myself navigating an awkward question, but also partly to spare the person on the receiving end feeling uncomfortable.
‘POC’ seems to serve White people a spoonful of the latter. It’s a safe, neutral term as opposed to a specific racial descriptor that may risk being deemed inflammatory (I’ve seen my fair share of negative reactions both off and on stage when I’ve used words like ‘Iraqi’ or ‘Palestinian’). ‘POC’ is also in the same league of laziness that justified a boss of mine muddling me and a South Asian colleague repeatedly for a year, despite neither of us looking nor sounding alike, only to comment that we were ‘both of colour’.
Being from an indigenous ethnic minority group from the Middle East (or BIPOC; a new version of the term I’ve stumbled across) presents itself with other issues. Threats to Assyrian existence in the Middle East are ever present, whether in the form of ISIS, or increasing pressure to strip identity and re-label us as ‘Arab/Kurdish Christians’. Assyrians cannot freely refer to themselves as Assyrian in their own land. The least I owe them and myself is to proudly wear my ethnicity on my sleeve.
Emphasis on skin colour
Scientifically, ‘POC’ doesn’t make much sense — aren’t we all ‘of colour’? We all have melanin; just some more than others. Ethnicity is complex and not dependent on phenotypical skin colour. Genetics tells us colouring is a spectrum that occurs in all races and ‘White’ in the way we use it is a social construct. My White-passing aunt is no more ‘White’ than her bronze-skinned sister (my mother), yet based on her appearance she would feel uneasy referring to herself or being accepted as a person of colour. She’s excluded by the very term she should technically be classified under.
You’re either White or you’re ‘of colour’. I met a Greek comic in London at a gig showcasing ‘comedians of colour’. I thought as a Greek she would’ve identified as White; after all, aren’t Europeans Caucasian? It was interesting to hear that while growing up in North America she felt uncomfortable describing herself as White and experienced persistent ‘othering’. This is something I’m seeing more commonly. Rather than there just being a division between White and ‘of colour’, a further schism has developed between being Western White versus non-Western White — who have as a result been absorbed under the umbrella of ‘POC’. In addition to being simplistic, it encourages more division than connection and leaves the impression that ‘Western White’ is baseline.
A false sense of diversity
When I walked into a lecture theatre day one of medical school, it struck me that almost half of my year group was not White. That’s pretty standard across UK medical schools now and may make you think it’s more than representative of the country’s demographics. In a year group of 350 or so students, however, you could count the number of Black students on both hands. When I walked into that same lecture theatre as a faculty member last year you could still count the number of Black students on both hands. At first glance you may think that the setting was diverse, but it was actually far from it. Diversity applicant schemes are especial culprits. Firstly, thanks for pitting us all against each other, and secondly; hiring someone who is ‘of colour’ doesn’t necessarily make your environment diverse, it just massages the audit figures.
So what’s the alternative?
I honestly think there should be no alternative.
I had no choice in whether I would like to be called a ‘person of colour’. A bunch of (likely) White academics in a stuffy basement office made that decision for me. Not to mention the fact that the term didn’t emerge historically for its modern-day purpose. I don’t believe that any collective term will ever be satisfactory. All we would be doing is exchanging one problematic label for another. In a world where we increasingly place more emphasis on an individual’s personal preferences, perhaps we should sideline ‘of colour’ and focus more on inquiring how we all uniquely identify. And until ‘POC’ is officially retired from the lexicon, I’d appreciate if you’d please kindly refrain from calling me the ‘P’ word.
Jenan Younis is a surgeon, stand-up comedian and current winner of the BBC New Voices award