THERE have been many attempts in recent years to draw together members of different minority groups. In 1984 the Rev. Jesse Jackson ran a presidential campaign touting a "rainbow coalition." Harvard plans to host a national congress of student Hispanic, Asian and Black organizations in February.
This attempt at a minority alliance is symbolized best by the coining of the term "people of color," an all-inclusive term to describe anyone who is not Caucasian. Yet this example shows why attempts at multi-racial unity often weaken the effectiveness of each minority's activism.
The term "people of color" is intended as a substitute for partisan names like "Black," "Asian" and "Latino," which emphasize the differences between different minority communities. It attempts to encapsulate the fact that all of these minority groups face discrimination and trouble with integration into mainstream culture.
This term is objectionable for both linguistic and social reasons. The phrase is only definable in opposition to another term, "white." It presupposes the existence of a monolithic white group and then defines everyone who does not fall into this category as people of color.
Long ago, Blacks were called "colored people," as if normal people were white and Blacks were merely white people with a little coloring. In the same sense, "people of color" perpetuates ethnocentrism by continuing to place "white people" as the central group to which all others are compared. Words like Black or Latino emphasize that different minorities have as much independent reality as whites. Rather than defining one group in terms of another, each group's integrity should be recognized and appreciated.
SOCIALLY, the term is meaningless. Jackson may have tried to create a coalition of minorities, but the "Rainbow Coalition" is closer to fiction than reality. Each minority has its own issues and agenda, and people of one minority may not feel any kinship with people of another ethnic background.
For example, "Asian" is commonly used to describe all people whose roots are in Asia. Yet in this group, nationalities such as Korean, Japanese, Chinese and Vietnamese are each striving to assert their identity. For example, ancient rivalries between Korea and Japan; China and Japan and Vietnam have all carried over to embitter the relations between these groups in America. Animosity is just as strong between minority groups such as Blacks, Asians, Chinese and Hispanics.
THE term "people of color" ignores all these differences, suggesting that unity should be felt between these groups because all non-white minorities in America suffer discrimination. That may be true, but each group tends to experience discrimination in different degrees. For example, Blacks have long been an underclass in America and racism against Blacks has been institutionalized in a way that it hasn't for other groups.
Because of different histories in America, each ethnicity carries a different attitude towards the country that prevents unified behavior. While much of the Asian-American community prioritizes education as the key to getting ahead, the Black community--faced for the last century with inadequate schools and opportunities even for the educated--has less faith in the system. To many Blacks, affirmative action is seen as an opportunity to place themselves into the system they've been excluded from, but many Asian-Americans see it as an obstacle to Asians who would qualify by performance alone and a way to limit their numbers.
Harvard's ethnic conference should serve as an example for how minority alliance can be achieved without ignoring the distinctness of each minority tradition. The program is divided into two parts: minority groups meeting independently at first and then coming together at the end. The history of race and ethnic relations has a long, long way to progress before groups can simply join. And because of that terms like "people of color" can only dilute understanding of each minority.
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