People of Colour

US Election 2020: relax, the nightmare is over!  Not quite, not yet, alas. There is no doubt however that we have all been treated to a seemingly endless series of news updates, analyses, statistics, op-ed pieces and lofty pronouncements in the wake of the election which, by now, has become a fait accompli, even if bits of its process remain technically incomplete and, as at the moment of writing, Trump refuses to admit defeat. 

And it is no exaggeration to say that during this ongoing saga we have also become familiar with the oft-repeated collective moniker `people of colour`, alluding to varied shades of their pigmentation.

But I have an aversion to this `people of colour` label. For starters, it is no more than a refinement of the old colonial era `coloured people`.  Indeed, on November 10, the English Association Football Chairman Greg Clark resigned after using the term `coloured footballers` in a reference to black players at a Parliamentary Committee hearing, for which he readily acknowledged that his language had been unacceptable:  

Remember that we have arrived at this point down a long line of terminological trajectory.  In the Anglo-American sphere at least, starting from `darkies` and other crude variations of the  `n` word, it has gone through a succession of less offensive ones, eventually – via Afro-American (or Afro-Caribbean) – to settle on the more respectable African American and its ubiquitous alternative black American (or black British).

We know of course that `people of colour` (PoC, my abbreviation) is meant to distinguish them from the majority white populations of North America, Europe and Australasia – broadly speaking the west.  It is unclear how the term came into the public domain and whether it was or is meant to be self-exclusionary or thrust as a mark of difference. But white is also a colour, is it not, and do not all people have a colour of some sort or other?  Yes, but in these lands `white` rules the landscape, and so non-white is the oddity. Beneath this nomenclature however lies a hidden complexity of cultural, religious and socio-economic factors commonly associated with the generic profile of PoC. 

Historically, PoC have been at the receiving end of discrimination, exploitation and worse at the hands of their white counterparts and if they, by whatever means, overcome all their disadvantages and attain a measure of equality or even surpass it, then that is seen as exceptional and worthy of entry into the mainstream, but they still remain PoC! 

While the various colour traits in the human race are nature`s creation, how they are perceived is a socio-cultural phenomenon as a living reality. It is extraordinary however that although in the west PoC has become pc (politically correct), as such it has no purchase, and should not have any, in the rest of the world and certainly not in the African continent, where the black-white and majority-minority conundrum is of a different order and where native Africans could hardly be described as PoC in the western sense. Yet even there, the past (as in apartheid South Africa) was another story and mirrored the American, European and Australasian experience.  An internet search of racial and ethnic slurs will yield a rich list of them.   

But let me explain why I object to being called a `person of colour` (PoC in the singular),  even though it has been proudly embraced by the likes of Kamala Harris, the incoming US Vice President and her cohorts.  By accepting it, they are agreeing to be defined by their colour. Well I am not. I do not wish to wear that badge. I have an individuality, and a personality, that is not related to the colour of my skin but rather (to paraphrase Martin Luther King Junior) to the content of my character.  True, I have an ethnicity but that is not the same as colour per se.  

The trouble with PoC is that it lumps together a whole range of ethnicities and nationalities. Buried in the PoC trope are assumptions about the politics, voting preferences, socio-economic status, cultural affiliations, religious beliefs, ancestral origins, migration histories and a whole host of other personal attributes of such people. This cuts across the PoC line in that both outsiders and insiders make them.  Black people do not necessarily vote in a certain way simply because they are black, as Joe Biden reportedly suggested during the election campaign, though he later apologised for that.  The whole essence of democracy of course is that each citizen is entitled to make and express a personal choice, whether or not influenced by group-think.

In the US, PoC comprises an amalgam of minority communities where the majority is of a different complexion, but in essence they are ethnic minorities, so why not identify themselves as such, rather than primarily in terms of colour? That is the real distinction, rooted in the demographic make-up of their population.  In Britain the definition of BAME, (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic), itself the subject of some disagreement, does precisely that, but with all trends emanating from America, PoC is increasingly gaining wide currency.    

In East Africa, we were traditionally described in terms of race or ethnicity rather than colour and that has still remained so.  Of course all this applies to official, formal and public discourse and documentation; in private homes and conversations anything is possible.  And on the global front, PoC can hardly pass as a universal yardstick.  From the Chinese perspective, for example, it looks very different. 

Dear reader, am I on the wrong track, agitating about a non-issue? Is it a worthy topic of reflection and discussion?  Maybe, but let me pre-empt an editorial disclaimer by declaring that the views expressed here are entirely my own.  That said, by the time this appears, the US election nightmare should be over and hopefully Trump will have gone, though not without leaving a legacy in the form of his racist ideology, and so PoC dynamics will continue to reverberate for a long time. 

Ramnik Shah


  • Born in Kenya, practiced law in Nairobi from 1964 to ’74 and then for the next 30 years in England, where since retirement he has been engaged in academic research and writing on migration and diaspora related subjects and general literature. He is the author of ‘Empire’s Child’. See also