Perpetuating Abolition in the Language We Use: Does ‘BIPOC’ Get the Job Done?

Featured Illustration: Ameya Okamoto

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Recently, activists have turned to the term “BIPOC” in order to refer to their own personal identities. BIPOC, which stands for Black, Indigenous, and people of color, is used in order to decolonize identity. The term recognizes the roles Native invisibility, anti-Blackness, and white supremacy have played in the oppressive history of American society. So using it is purposed in order to empower Black and Indigenous voices who have often been left out of mainstream conversations. This movement has reached prevalence at a time when social justice efforts are at a high, pushing for the abolition of all racist institutions in the United States. Consequently, language often serves as a medium through which institutions can communicate and perpetuate notions of white supremacy.

The sudden emergence of BIPOC as a widely used term might surprise the many Americans who have been using the term POC, or people of color, in order to describe those who are not white. After POC grew in popularity in response to the civil rights movement and second-wave feminism, most people saw this phrase as a more politically correct alternative to the phrase coined by white citizens in the Jim Crow era: colored people.

POC centered nonwhite people’s humanity over their race. However, along with minority and nonwhite, POC defers to whiteness as the norm while everyone else is “othered.” The nuanced and unique experiences of globalizing and mixed identities are ignored when all people who aren’t considered white are grouped into one. In order to steer away from adhering to color blindness, BIPOC has grown in popularity with many activists calling for solidarity between all marginalized peoples. This solidarity is supposed to empower historically oppressed groups and catalyze a call to action in favor of an antiracist revolution. 

But does BIPOC successfully reject the normalization of whiteness?

Recognizing the history of the identity of the nonwhite American, one can see that the term POC seems to be a reformation of the racist term “colored people.” Furthermore, the term BIPOC seems to be another reformation of the term “POC.” Movements like The BIPOC Project are pushing for Black and Indigenous stories to be at the forefront of conversations, but does centering those identities around the term POC truly liberate all Black, Indigenous, and people of color? More specifically, as activists call for the abolition of systemically racist U.S. institutions, does this re-contextualization of the term, POC, align with true abolitionist efforts? 

Nathalie Infantes-Cordova, a Latinx student at DePaul University, says, “Using the term BIPOC over the term POC ensures the inclusion and centering of Black and Indigenous experiences within our communities and activism — communities that may be guilty of perpetuating white supremacy through anti-Blackness and Indigenous erasure.” Although there is no clear answer regarding how well BIPOC dismantles white supremacy, it is clear that the term highlights the experiences of Black and Indigenous people, allowing for the connection between anti-Blackness and Native invisibility to be seen within the wider scope of the “nonwhite” experience. 

But as terms like minority, nonwhite, and POC marginalize those who are not conventionally white, developing reforms onto these terms that have racist, white supremacist origins might not be productive in an abolitionist point of view. Aside from highlighting Black and Indigenous experiences, BIPOC might still categorize diverse identities into one umbrella term. Mar Wilson, a gay Black man studying at Colorado College says, “I have a thing with labels. I feel it just creates another way of separation. It helps give you a foundation of who you are, but identity changes over time. I am a Black gay man who’s a healer. I’m also an artist — these are aspects of my identity. They’re not the only things of who I am. But I identify as those things because in this world, at the end of the day, someone looks at me as Black, but in my community I’m not acknowledged for the color of my skin — it’s more my masculinity, femininity, queerness. I want to acknowledge the intersectionalities of my identity.”

Wilson brings up a very interesting point. Skin color is not the deciding factor of one’s personal identity. As Wilson discusses, his Black identity extends beyond skin color, as is often recognized more by his own community than strangers. Along with this, the intersections of sexual stereotypes, gender roles, and classism play into how Black men are “supposed” to act in order to be seen as a conventional Black man by society. While the term BIPOC may highlight the general experiences of Blackness and Indigeneity, it erases the diversity within those groups — the queerness, sexuality, and cultural fluidity of the BIPOC identity that overlaps and intersects with different groups of people and ideologies. 

Similarly, POC and BIPOC both accomplish the separation Wilson talks about. These terms function to separate the white from the nonwhite. This separation fails to acknowledge the complicated identities that have arisen from globalized racism. Julia Mkrtychian, an Armenian student at Northwestern University, believes, “BIPOC does a better job than POC because it highlights the different experiences within the POC community, but I think it’s strange to have one term that encompasses everyone who is not white.” Mkrtychian also details her concern with the term, citing ignoring the intersections between various ethnic and racial groups in America.

As a first-generation Armenian in America, Mkrtychian presents as white-passing. Her identity is incredibly complicated as debates over whether Middle Easterners are white have ensued nationwide. According to Mkrtychian, “I grew up with those broad generalizations. I didn’t think about race until I was in 7th grade. I thought of myself as Armenian. Towards high school, I just started to identify myself as Middle Eastern. But white people would tell me I’m white.” She details how her grandmother would explain to her that in the Middle East, Armenians “were seen as the ‘black’ people” in the region, as pogroms and genocide drove Armenians from their homes. Race and whiteness prove to have different meanings in and outside of the United States, so it’s worth it to recognize that the single term, BIPOC, doesn’t fully examine the nuanced racial identities within a grouping of nonwhite people.

When asked about alternative identifiers that actively decolonize whiteness from the norm, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee student Sophia Keay says, “[Sonya Renee Taylor] just uses ‘people without melanin’ to refer to white people, which in turn ‘others’ white people which makes more sense in terms of the world’s demographics. But this also creates complications with other groups [who present as white but don’t have conventional whiteness].” 

According to scholars like Angela Davis and W.E.B. DuBois, true abolition requires a rejection of the oppressive system as a whole, followed by its reconstruction in a way that empowers the oppressed people. No one seems to have a clear solution to the identities still glossed over and ignored by umbrella terms such as BIPOC, but regardless of there not being a term that liberates and decolonizes all those who have been oppressed by the white American majority, it is clear that these nuanced identities will always exist. If anything, perhaps straying away from using umbrella terms when discussing those who do not identify as white will aid in abolition, but this of course depends on what the person being referred to prefers. As we’ve seen through Mkrtychian’s self-identification as Armenian and Middle Eastern, Wilson’s as a Black gay man and healer, and Infantes-Cordova’s as Latinx, linguistic liberation may come from claiming a specific identity for oneself that stretches beyond the confines of categorical terms such as BIPOC, POC, or minority.

Moreover, if the language shifts in order to “other” white Americans, then perhaps that will aid in abolition as well. Like Keay’s example of Sonya Renee Taylor’s use of the phrase “people without melanin” to refer to white people, deferring to melanin as the norm through use of phrases that marginalize whiteness and empower those with melanin can work by way of acknowledging “nonwhite” personal identity through specific identifiers chosen by whoever is being referred to. That way, we can lump whiteness into one social experience while celebrating and recognizing the nuances of the BIPOC and POC experience.

Identity is complicated, but appreciating the similarities and differences between all kinds of people can only improve our relationships with one another. While any single solution is unable to fulfill everyone’s needs, talking about complicated issues like these with each other is a step in the right direction in achieving a more equitable future.

 

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