What It Means To Be A 'Person Of Color' : Code Switch Suffice it to say, we use the term "POC" a lot on Code Switch. But critiques of the initialism — and the popularization of the term "BIPOC" — caused us to ask: Should we retire POC? Or is there use in it yet?
NPR logo

Is It Time To Say R.I.P. To 'POC'?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/918418825/918496047" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Is It Time To Say R.I.P. To 'POC'?

Is It Time To Say R.I.P. To 'POC'?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/918418825/918496047" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, HOST:

People of color.

GENE DEMBY, HOST:

POC.

MERAJI: I've personally been using the term people of color since the mid-'90s.

DEMBY: I was not. But, Shereen, I mean, we use it all the time on the pod - like...

MERAJI: Yes.

DEMBY: ...All the time.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCASTS)

MERAJI: POC women.

DEMBY: POC media.

MERAJI: People of color.

DEMBY: People of color.

MERAJI: For the POC pie win.

Women POCs.

DEMBY: People of color feel in a white supremacist society.

MERAJI: Being a Republican and a POC.

DEMBY: People of color, right?

MERAJI: A world tour of the POC experience.

But after the protest for Black lives reignited this past spring, I saw a lot of people online saying they were over it. On Twitter and people's IG stories, people were saying, stop calling me POC.

DEMBY: Black folks in particular. I saw a lot of people saying, just please call me Black - Blackity (ph) Black, Black. Do not call me a person of color.

MERAJI: And all this woke me up to the fact that people of color is this term that I use. It's a term that we say, like you said, a lot, a lot, a lot, a lot, but it's a phrase that I haven't really given that much thought to.

But that's changed. So on this week's episode, what do we mean when we say people of color?

DEMBY: OK.

MERAJI: Why do some of us identify with that term, and why does it annoy so many others? Is it time to say R.I.P. to POC? And if so, is BIPOC the new kid on the block?

DEMBY: I think you should've said, is BIPOC the new kid on the block, just 'cause, you know, rhyme (unintelligible).

MERAJI: However the hell you're supposed to say it - we're going to get into all that, too. Oh, and just in case you're new here, I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

DEMBY: I'm Gene Demby. And this is CODE SWITCH.

MERAJI: From NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I don't hate the term POC.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I think it's fine.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I rarely find it useful.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: You know, whatever.

ROSA KWAK: I don't think any one categorization of people will ever be perfect.

KAYLEE ARNOLD: Oh, well.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: If someone says there's something better, then I'll probably use that.

DEMBY: All right, Shereen. So when you hear people of color, what does that phrase mean to you? I'm curious.

MERAJI: Are you trying to put me on the spot? Look; if you would've asked me this question a couple of months ago before I embarked on this journey, I probably would've said the OG POCs are Black people, Native Americans and Latinos, particularly those of Mexican origin, because one could argue that these three groups have the longest history of being racialized here in the United States.

DEMBY: Oh, OK. So obviously, you leave some folks out.

MERAJI: No, no, no.

DEMBY: OK.

MERAJI: Hear me out. Like I was saying, I would've said those are the OG groups. But now when we say POC, we include Asians of all backgrounds - Pacific Islanders, Arab, Middle Eastern and North African people - especially those who are Muslim.

DEMBY: Why that combination of people? I'm curious.

MERAJI: They've all been denied membership to the whites-only club. They have been othered, made to feel perpetually foreign, not American because - and we've talked about this - being American is so often used as shorthand for white and Christian.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: All right, y'all. Low-key, language is a little bit of an obsession for us on CODE SWITCH. Code switching, obviously, is a term from sociolinguistics. As you probably know, we have a series at CODE SWITCH called "Word Watch" where we take words and we take phrases in the popular discourse with an underexplored and sometimes really fraught racial history to them.

MERAJI: Yup.

DEMBY: You know, outside agitator, Hispandering - that was one, Shereen - gung-ho, guru.

MERAJI: And when we're doing the research for these Word Watches, the first call we make - not always, but one of the first calls we make is usually to a linguist because, you know, words.

JOHN MCWHORTER: My name is John McWhorter. I teach linguistics at Columbia University.

DEMBY: I am familiar with that voice.

(LAUGHTER)

DEMBY: John McWhorter is known for a lot of things. But relevant to our interests, he hosts the Slate podcast "Lexicon Valley."

MERAJI: This is true. And John identifies as Black. And he told me he rarely, if ever, calls himself a person of color. But here's his breakdown of the term POC.

MCWHORTER: Formally, in terms of the linguistic meaning, somebody who is of a color in terms of melanin, if we think of white people as embodying the absence of color - if we must. So the idea is to have a term for people who aren't white. Now, that's the linguist in me.

I think the sociologist in me, despite that I have no training in the subject - but the human being walking around in me says that when we talk of people of color, we also mean people who are socially subordinate to whites as well. That's usually the reason that one is using the term.

MERAJI: All the dictionary definitions for people of color that I found basically say, a person who is not white. But if, like John says, there's another unifier, and that's the social subordination of certain groups, then he says people of color are Black, Latino, Native American and Asian. And he adds - and again, John is not a sociologist, but he adds that some groups of Asians endure more discrimination than others. So those groups are probably the best fit.

MCWHORTER: As you can see, the answer is sloppy 'cause the term has been around for a while. Race doesn't make any sense.

MERAJI: And because it's so difficult to work out which subjugated groups belong under the people of color umbrella and which don't, John prefers to use...

MCWHORTER: Nonwhite. When I write, that's how I do it. If I'm trying to say, this is how you might feel if you are not one of the white people among us, then I just say nonwhite and loop everybody under there because then there is no even suggestion that I'm saying that all of these people are alike in some way. I'm just saying, you're not white. And so if anybody is, quote-unquote, "all alike," it's the whites. And then there are all these other people.

MERAJI: Gene, what do you think of nonwhite?

DEMBY: I hate it, Shereen. I hate it. So suppose you and me and Leah and Kumari are at some weird speak-easy place in Los Angeles. We're all in a room. We're kicking it. You know what I mean? We're four nonwhites. Really? That's what we're doing? Ew.

MERAJI: A quartet of minorities - how about that?

DEMBY: Oh, I just - I hate it. I hate it. Even minority - like, it doesn't make sense when we're talking about - like, in what context are we the numerical minority? If it's just the four of us in a room, we ain't the minority.

MERAJI: True.

DEMBY: Not globally, right?

MERAJI: True.

DEMBY: And certainly not even - like, if you are in D.C., brown people are not in the minority.

MERAJI: Yeah.

DEMBY: If we're in LA, brown people are certainly not in the minority. So, like, what - it doesn't even make sense to talk about ourselves in relation to each other, in relation to whiteness when nobody in the space we're talking about is white and we make up the majority of people in the space. You know what I mean?

MERAJI: I do know what you mean. And to echo John's point, this is all sloppy and messy because race doesn't make any sense. And there doesn't seem to be a clear line delineating who is or isn't a POC. I spoke with two people who wrote an article addressing a question they hear all the time, Gene.

OIYAN POON: OiYan Poon, co-author of "Are Asian Americans White? Or People Of Color?"

MERAJI: And...

NASEEB BHANGAL: Naseeb Bhangal - "Are Asian Americans White? Or People Of Color?" co-author.

DEMBY: OiYan is like a play cousin of ours. I'm very curious about what OiYan and Naseeb argue in this piece.

POON: Well, we answer a flip side of the coin question, which is, are Asian Americans white, very quickly, and we say absolutely not, right?

MERAJI: That's OiYan again. And in the article, OiYan, who calls herself a second-generation Hong Konger American, and Naseeb, who calls herself a second-generation queer Punjabi American - they both point to anti-Asian racism throughout American history, specifically laws that banned immigration and citizenship for people from Asia between 1882 and 1965.

DEMBY: We've dove - dived?

MERAJI: Dug, digged.

DEMBY: We've plumbed (laughter)...

MERAJI: Dug in.

DEMBY: Dug in. We have dug into the Chinese Exclusion Act more than a few times on CODE SWITCH. We talked about how you can't really understand more recent discrimination against Asian American people - you know, the surge of hate crimes against Asian Americans during the COVID pandemic, the president calling the virus kung flu - all of those things are sort of based on this codified anti-Asian sentiment in American history. So obviously, Asian Americans do not occupy the same space in the social hierarchy as white people, so ergo, people of color.

MERAJI: Well, that is the question. And OiYan says that's a much more complicated answer than whether or not Asian Americans are not white because...

POON: It really depends on how you define and conceptualize what it means to be people of color. The history of the term is very much - in similar ways to the term Asian American, comes out of political struggle and resistance to white supremacy.

MERAJI: Naseeb says that's the same for women of color. There's a history of political struggle that you have to understand.

DEMBY: OK.

MERAJI: She takes me back to 1977, which was a really good year, and I'm not going to tell you why. But we're back in 1977 in Houston, Texas. Thousands of women are gathered to create a document that's going to spotlight gender issues that are being ignored.

BHANGAL: Women of color term in the U.S., you know, came out of the 1977 International Women's Year Conference, initiated by President Jimmy Carter's administration. And so without knowing that particular history, removed 30, 40 years later, it just seems like a popular buzzword.

MERAJI: Naseeb says that at that conference in Houston, Texas, only a couple of pages of the couple-hundred-page document that was going to make its way back to President Carter's desk focused on issues specific to women who weren't white. So Black women got together, as they're wont to do.

DEMBY: Yup.

MERAJI: And we've talked about this on the show. Black women got together and pushed to change that. And the other, quote-unquote, "minority women," as they would've been called back then - they wanted their issues addressed, too, so they all created a coalition to help make that happen. Here's OiYan again.

POON: If we're going to be brought together, there has to be a reason - not just, like, look; there are no white people here. I think that, to me, just seems bizarre.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: So any one of us claiming this identity people of color, regardless of our racial background, should be thinking about it proactively. Like, are you just saying you're not white, or are you saying more than that? Here's Naseeb again.

BHANGAL: Why do we adopt a term? I identify with people of color, women of color because I found a lot of my own learning in spaces where women of color were gathering. For the first time, I felt like whiteness wasn't being centered. I didn't have to educate white folks. I was being educated. I was having conversations around colorism, anti-Blackness in women of color spaces that I was never afforded, you know, when I - it was a conversation directed outwards to an external gaze. So, yeah, I think, for me, it's a place where I found belonging. But I've also found challenge and growth.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: So what I'm hearing is that, OK, people of color - POC - OiYan and Naseeb - they wrote this piece. It's actually just not like a one-to-one substitution for nonwhite. It's more nuanced than that.

MERAJI: That's my understanding - that if you're claiming a POC identity, you're saying that you and all these other nonwhite folks are doing more than sitting around not being white.

(LAUGHTER)

MERAJI: You're fighting for equity in a society that favors whiteness, its political identity.

DEMBY: Got you. But, Shereen, as we know, the thing with language is that, you know, some term may have been created with the best of intentions, but it can morph into something that means something completely different.

MERAJI: Yes. And many of the people I talked to for this episode, including OiYan and Naseeb, told me that's definitely happened with people of color. We asked our listeners to tell us what they thought of the label POC, and here's one from Amrita Kauldher that illustrates just one of the problems with it.

AMRITA KAULDHER: I thought the term POC was quite empowering until I had to sit at a table with a bunch of white teachers and discuss how to teach the novel "The Hate U Give" by Angie Thomas. I'm a South Asian woman. I'm not Black. But at the end of that meeting, I remember one of the teachers saying, great, we can teach this novel now because we have our POC.

DEMBY: Oh, that ain't it. OK, so for those of you who ain't familiar with "The Hate U Give," the central storyline in that novel is that a Black teenager sees her friend, who is also Black, get shot and killed by the police. It's not something any old brown person can identify with or speak to, let alone teach, because this book is specifically about anti-Blackness.

MERAJI: Enter stage left...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: ...BIPOC.

RYAN BLOCKER: I have no idea how to say BIPOC. I've heard it pronounced BIPOC like Tupac, but I just woke up one day, and the whole Internet was using it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: I mean, it does sound like, you know, a niche genre of slash fiction featuring Mr. Shakur. Anyway, more on BIPOC after the break.

MERAJI: Stay with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: Gene.

MERAJI: Shereen.

DEMBY: CODE SWITCH.

JAVIER: Hi. My name is Javier, and I'm 35. I like POC because it evokes an image of us, unlike the terms nonwhite or minority, where whiteness is front and center. I also like BIPOC because I can't read the word without saying Black, Indigenous in my mind, and it feels good to bring that representation.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: All right, the time has come to talk about BIPOC or, as my friend Asha (ph) calls it in a recent group text exchange, biopic. She claims that was a typo, but regardless, this is how the exchange went. Asha, who's Black, texted...

(SOUNDBITE OF TEXT TONE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (As Asha) I need slang help. What is biopic?

MERAJI: Joel (ph), who identifies as Black and white, replied...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (As Joel) Black, Indigenous, person of color - Black and Indigenous designated separately because of their particular histories and oppression.

MERAJI: Rosio (ph), who's Mexican, was next.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (As Rosio) I had to look that up about a month ago. I kept reading it as bisexual people of color, and I was like, that can't be right - thinking hard emoji, laugh out loud emoji, hand on forehead emoji.

DEMBY: I should say we're recording this, like, the day after Bi Visibility Day. It could be bisexual people of color.

MERAJI: True.

DEMBY: They're out there. They're proud. I'm sure a lot of people out there have been trying to figure out what this acronym means. I've had a bunch of conversations with my friend Hana (ph), who is a journalist at The Atlantic, about some of the pitches we've gotten over the summer. We exchange pitches that we get emails from publicists and people with BIPOC, or BIPOC, in the subject line. Just can I read you a few?

MERAJI: Tell me. I want to hear some of these.

DEMBY: OK. One - "BIPOC Musician Injects Healing And Eastern Flavor Into Western Music Using Off-The-Beaten-Path Instruments." "First BIPOC Woman (unintelligible) Launch Of Academy For Women To Enter Adult Beverage World." "BIPOC Chef Nick (ph) Launches Organic Simple Syrup Line." What is BIPOC modifying in...

MERAJI: BIPOC woman.

DEMBY: Yeah. I was agnostic on BIPOC before then. But if this is how people use it now, I don't want no part of it. Hate it. It's my mortal enemy.

MERAJI: For me, it's like why, why, why are we adding yet another word that is grouping us all together but then separating some of us out? I feel like if we want to be specific, we should be specific, say Black, Mexican, Cherokee, et cetera. You know what I'm saying?

DEMBY: Right.

MERAJI: BIPOC just feels like it's trying to be specific and broad all at the same time, and that is just not working for me. So I asked people to help me understand why it's working for them.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

AMBER STARKS: (Speaking Muscogee). Hi there. My name is Amber, and I just said hello in Muscogee. I am an Afro Indigenous woman, so I identify as a Black woman, an African American woman and also a Native American woman. I am Muscogee Creek. I'm also Shawnee, Yuchi, Quapaw and Cherokee descent.

MERAJI: Amber Starks goes by @melaninmvskoke on IG.

DEMBY: That's a dope handle, by the way.

MERAJI: I agree. And I bring up her IG because social media is really where she does a lot of her learning and educating others.

STARKS: I think a lot of what I do online and in real life - or at least I try in real life to have discussions around Afro Indigeneity or Black and Native identity. I like to talk a lot, and so my platform is kind of giving me that space that I talk about these issues that I'm often still learning myself because, you know, I'm still reconnecting as a Native woman to my tribe and my people and my language. And I always like to say I'm not the leader in any revolution; I'm just an active participant. That's pretty much me.

MERAJI: And Amber likes and uses the term BIPOC because it spotlights both Black and Indigenous people.

STARKS: Indigenous people are always erased - like, often erased. Like, people don't even think we exist anymore. So I think saying Indigenous requires you to see Indigenous people. And saying Black requires you to hold white supremacy accountable for putting Black folks on the bottom. We have to be honest that there is a hierarchy, like who is more proximate to whiteness and who isn't.

DEMBY: All right. So to Amber, the B in BIPOC - I guess - I'm never going to get used to saying that - is a recognition of Black people's place at the bottom of America's racial hierarchy. We talk about this all the time on CODE SWITCH. Black people over index on all the damage that white supremacy and racism throw out (ph) in America. Everybody else kind of gets slotted in above us. They try to get in where they fit in relative to Black people, right?

MERAJI: Yeah, right.

DEMBY: And I, for Indigenous, has been separated out and highlighted because we rarely hear about Indigenous and Native American experiences when we're discussing issues that affect people of color.

MERAJI: And Native Americans also over index on all the damage that white supremacy and racism allowed (ph).

DEMBY: Absolutely.

MERAJI: So, yeah, that's my understanding of what I'm hearing, too, although I can't help but think, you know, where does that leave a big chunk of Latinos who may not identify as Black or Native but who have also endured racism and discrimination? You know, the history of racism and oppression for certain Latinx groups in this country can be traced to the very founding of this country. We're talking about manifest destiny and all of that. And, of course, there are Afro Latinos. And, of course, there are Indigenous Latinos. That is a given. But the reality is there are also a hell of a lot of Latinx people who don't identify as Black or Indigenous even though other people might see them as such.

DEMBY: Because a lot of Latinos were taught that they were mestizos - you know, a mixture of Black and Indigenous and white. And as we talked about on a recent episode about Puerto Ricans and race on the census, that was done deliberately. It was done on purpose to erase that African and Native ancestry.

MERAJI: Exactly. So maybe - just maybe - we should add an L to this new acronym.

DEMBY: BLIPOC (ph)?

MERAJI: BILPOC (ph).

(LAUGHTER)

STARKS: I can see your...

MERAJI: This is my campaign for BILPOC (ph).

STARKS: Oh, BILPOC (ph).

(LAUGHTER)

MERAJI: And how do Asians feel if they're not in BILPOC (ph)? And this is where I'm like, is it a slippery slope? Like...

STARKS: Is it BILPOC (ph)? Like, but then who is...

(LAUGHTER)

STARKS: But then who are the other POC then? Maybe we should be saying BLIA (ph).

DEMBY: BLIA (ph) - BLIA (ph), BLIA (ph).

MERAJI: I kind of like that.

DEMBY: I'm thinking a good number of our wisteners (ph) - our wisteners (ph), ooh.

MERAJI: Wisteners (ph).

DEMBY: Wisteners (ph). BLIA (ph), BLIA (ph). OK. I'm thinking - my hunch is that a good number of our listeners, especially our white listeners, are wild confused right now.

MERAJI: They're like, wait a second. Should I call you all BIPOC? Should I call you POC? Like, how do I navigate all of the new language and terminology? And there's a feeling of insecurity and discomfort around it - and nerves.

STARKS: And what I would say is, like, if you're in conversation with a BIPOC or a person of color, you should just ask them how they identify. Like, how do you - like, what - you know, I think especially with interpersonal relationships, you should already have done that anyway.

I think if you're speaking in general, you can say, from my current understanding, people are saying BIPOC or people of color. Like, preface it with, like, I'm not the expert; I don't know, but this is what I've heard being used.

And I think it's OK that, you know, Black, brown, Indigenous, Latino, people of color don't quite have it figured out. All I know is I'm running. I'm running away from this system because this is not OK. This is traumatizing. We don't deserve this.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RYAN: Hello. My name is Ryan (ph). I'm 28, and I'm Black. I recently made the decision to remove the term POC, BIPOC, person of color, Black and brown, a term I feel we often use as one word, from my vocabulary. I long for the solidarity of those terms, but I'm especially recommitting to saying Black when I mean Black.

MARICELA: Hey. This is Maricela, 29. I am Latinx, Puerto Rican and Colombian, and I like the terms POC and BIPOC, as I call them, to mean solidarity among our collective experiences as nonwhite, especially our expenses as nonwhite in the United States. There's obviously a lot of variation within those experiences. I just wish these terms were used more often to mean this coalition and not as a euphemism like the way diverse is often used, especially by people - mostly white people - who don't want to say Black.

LAUREN: Hi. I'm Lauren (ph). I'm 29. No, I don't like the term people of color or BIPOC. I don't even know where that came from. But I just feel like it erases people's races. Like, I'm Black, and I just feel like it's just an excuse for people to not want to say Black people. Yes, Black people are the ones that are affected. Like, what? Nah. I ain't with it.

DEMBY: All right, Shereen. I'm checking on you real quick.

MERAJI: Yeah.

DEMBY: We've had this - we're this far into this conversation. Where are you with all this right now? You're team BILPOC (ph), right? That's where we left it - with BILPOC (ph)?

MERAJI: No, I'm not. I'm team be specific. It's always best to be clear about who and what you're talking about.

DEMBY: Right. So saying people of color or, you know, insert noun of color - journalists of color, musicians of color, creatives of color - is also being used in these ways that might be meant to obscure, and maybe intentionally.

I remember reading that last year, Harvard University - you know, most prestigious university in country - blah, blah, blah, blah - had its first freshman class that was majority students of color. And then people were really excited. But then it's like, well, is Harvard suddenly admitting far more Black and Latino and Native students, or are we talking about Asian American students, who've long had a prominent presence on Harvard University's campus and who have very different sets of concerns when it comes to representation at schools like Harvard, because that seems like a really important distinction for us to make about students of color?

MERAJI: That is a good point, but I am not ready to do away with these umbrella labels like POC or even BIPOC altogether because a big takeaway for me in reporting all this out is that organizers and activists and thought leaders are often the ones who have helped create and popularize these terms. And to do a callback to OiYan and Naseeb's point, there was a really good reason for grouping people together.

DEMBY: We talk on the show a lot about, you know, groups like the Third World Coalition. There's also, you know, the Rainbow Coalition. Those groups came out of the civil rights struggle when organizers, when activists were forming these cross-racial alliances that were meant to advocate for social justice, for racial justice.

MERAJI: And those leaders - they never meant for those identifiers to be the end all, be all. It's not like you give up saying Black if you also say you are a person of color or if you say you're part of the Rainbow Coalition. They're context-specific.

So I just thought it was really important to run BIPOC by an organizer.

MONICA RAMIREZ: My name is Monica Ramirez, and I am the founder and president of Justice for Migrant Women, and my pronouns are she/her/hers/ella.

MERAJI: Monica told me organizing is always a challenge. It's even harder when you're trying to organize across race and class, and even more difficult if people are feeling erased and ignored for whatever reason. And knowing that, Monica says if BIPOC is the term that makes people feel seen, don't count it out. But how do you get people on board who, as we just heard, aren't with it?

RAMIREZ: Well, I could say to somebody, I understand that you don't want to use BIPOC, but the reason it's important for us to make sure that we name Black and Indigenous people is because X, Y, Z. So I just think as an organizer, I'm constantly an educator, too. If all I can do in this world is help people understand why we're using the terms that we're using and why it's important to be accepting of how other people identify themselves even if we ourselves don't feel comfortable using that, I hope that that's a contribution.

But I also think we shouldn't be, like, forcing things down people's throats because if we try to force something down people's throat, like a label or a name or an identifier, then ultimately, it could result in something that I think would be much worse for all of us, which is putting even more dividers between us.

MERAJI: When do you think that umbrella term people of color lost power? What was it that made people feel like this is not the right word for us?

RAMIREZ: Yeah, I don't know that it lost its power. I mean, I - what I experienced - and, really, when I started to hear more people use BIPOC as the terminology was really over the summer when people were talking about racial discrimination and the fact that historically, Black people have been left out and left behind in lots of ways, you know? And then people said, yes, but it's also - it's Black people, but it's also Indigenous people, and Indigenous people who were the first owners of this land, you know? And so to me, that terminology really became more emergent over the summer months, and I think now people are trying it on.

And, you know, who knows? Maybe in a couple of years, we'll decide that it's something different, just like right now, people are really struggling with, like, to use Latinx or not. But I feel like for right now, it's worth us experimenting with this terminology if there's the possibility of bringing us closer together for the purposes of building power.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: All right, Gene, we're coming to the end of this episode, and I wanted to end things with someone who spent a lot of time studying what effect a term like POC or BIPOC has on the behavior of people who use it as one of their self-identifiers.

DEMBY: It wouldn't be a CODE SWITCH episode if we didn't have, you know, a couple social scientists sprinkled throughout.

MERAJI: That is true - and in this case, a political psychologist.

EFREN PEREZ: My name is a Efren Perez. I'm full professor of political science and psychology at UCLA.

MERAJI: Efren's got a forthcoming book called "Diversity's Child: The Political Roots And Actions Of People Of Color."

DEMBY: "Diversity's Child," you say.

MERAJI: Yes, I did.

DEMBY: Are we, in fact, ready for that jelly?

MERAJI: I'm not quite sure. Anyway, Efren told me the thing that Monica said about how these labels can help people feel connected and how they can help build power - that's 100% true.

PEREZ: Part of the power of any group that influences our social or political behavior has to do with the fact that it homogenizes all of those differences, and that allows an individual member to essentially say, I am part of this we. By simplifying things, you're better able to see yourself reflected in the larger group.

MERAJI: So this homogenization that happens that people seem to be a little bit upset about, this erasure, it happens with all group labels - Black, Asian, Latinx, Native American, et cetera, et cetera. They all homogenize our differences and our unique experiences, and then we behave in ways that benefit the group regardless of what those differences are.

But Efren says if certain members of the group feel like their issues are ignored or they're being soft-pedaled for the sake of the larger group, things can change. Now, in the case of such a huge and unwieldy group identifier as people of color...

DEMBY: Or BILPOC (ph).

MERAJI: ...Or BILPOC (ph), Efren wanted to know if that was still the case, so he conducted an experiment.

PEREZ: So in the experiment, I had three samples - Black adults, Asian adults, Latino adults - and within each sample, they were all randomly assigned to one of two conditions. In both conditions, they all read the same census information talking about the growth demographically of people of color.

In the first condition, that information was followed by sort of a message that said, look; there's diversity in these communities, but they all have one thing in common, and that's that they share the short end of the stick relative to whites. In the second condition, same exact census information, except that now the message is, at the end of the day, you really can't compare the Black experience and the legacies of slavery with the Latino and Asian experience and immigration.

MERAJI: So the first group in the experiment is getting some messaging that says POCs are pretty much all apples. And the second group is getting a message that says POCs are apples and oranges.

DEMBY: OK, so all very nutritious and fibrous. What happened next?

MERAJI: Efren had all his POCs answer a series of questions about political issues that are often seen as unique to different groups, whether or not they are. So, for example, he asked them about their support for Black Lives Matter, and then he asked them about their support for DACA.

PEREZ: When we affirm the parallel experiences that unify the group, you see that higher levels of identifying as a person of color lead you to be more supportive of Black Lives Matter, more supportive of DACA, irrespective of whether you're Black or Latino. But if I just get you in that state of mind where I say, hey, your group is losing out subjectively because it's giving up a lot of its uniqueness for the sake of the larger group, then support for these kinds of things ends up falling apart and being scattered all over the place.

DEMBY: That is really fascinating.

MERAJI: I agree.

DEMBY: And I guess that's sort of Monica's project, right? - trying to recreate those conditions, that understanding in the real world.

MERAJI: And, you know, you can use POC, or you can try on BIPOC.

DEMBY: (Whispering) Never.

OK, so what does Efren think about BIPOC?

MERAJI: Well, the vast majority of the people of color Efren surveyed said that Black people were the best representatives and ambassadors for the term people of color.

DEMBY: When you say the best representatives and ambassadors, you mean?

MERAJI: They are who most people think of as people of color.

DEMBY: Got you.

MERAJI: Yes. So it makes sense to him that people might want to separate out the B. Basically, he thinks it's just a different acronym for the same umbrella group. POC, BIPOC - pretty much the same, not that controversial.

DEMBY: Got you. Another thing we should try to remember is that all this nomenclature is probably going to change again. It's going to keep shifting. In linguistics, there is this idea called pejoration, and we've talked about it before. Some people call it the euphemism treadmill.

So let's say there's some group that's being referred to - you know, whoever we're talking about - and there are negative attitudes toward that group we're talking about. Sooner or later, whatever language we use to describe that group is going to become irradiated by those negative attitudes toward that group, and so the word is going to become negative, maybe even an insult, so we need a new word. So like Oriental - right? - or colored or Negro - those were all proper terms at some point, and now they might get you punched in the face.

MERAJI: True.

DEMBY: And the thing that we've got to remember is that, like, the terminology can only stay ahead of the negative attitudes for so long. The problem is not the language that we use to, like, refer to people. The problem is the attitudes that we have toward the people that we're referring to. So all these words are going to keep shifting as we try to address the attitudes themselves, but also as people just have more room for fuller self-definition.

MERAJI: I think that is a really good point.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: My final takeaway from all this is that it's a radical act to come together in a society where structures have been built to keep us apart. And whatever we decide to call that coalition, that's no easy feat.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: All right, y'all, that's our show. If you don't already subscribe, I mean, what are you doing with your life? Get yourself together. You can follow us on Twitter and Instagram at @NPRCodeSwitch and sign up for our weekly newsletter at npr.org/newsletters.

MERAJI: This episode was produced by Kumari Devarajan and Alyssa Jeong Perry, with a little help from me. It was edited by Leah Donnella. Big thanks to Rebecca Nagle for your help on this episode and to all of our listeners who sent in voicemails with thoughts on the subject.

DEMBY: And, of course, we would be remiss if we did not shout out the rest of the CODE SWITCH squadron - Karen Grigsby Bates, Jess Kung, Natalie Escobar, Steve Drummond and LA Johnson. Our intern is Alyssa Baheza. I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: And I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

DEMBY: Be easy, y'all.

MERAJI: Peace.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

Copyright © 2020 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.