People Of Color ... A Racial Designation

December 1, 2009
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group photo of 19th century "colored" troops

Dear Sticky Wicket,

What is the origin of the phrase, “people of color” and why has it become so popular in academic circles, among public officials and the media?

~Juan Santiago

Dear Juan,

The proper term of reference for people of color has evolved significantly throughout the course of U.S. history. Well throughout the 1800s, “colored” was the preferred term used to describe the nation’s “non-white” citizens — primarily African-Americans. In 1863, the War Department established the Bureau of Colored Troops. Eight Census counts taken between 1790-1860 included tallies for “colored” people.

The term, viewed as derogatory by modern standards, is still used, though infrequently. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People still uses “colored” in its name. “Times change and terms change. Racial designations go through phases. At one time, Negro was accepted, at an earlier time colored and so on. This organization been in existence for 80 years and the initials NAACP are part of the American vocabulary, firmly embedded in the national consciousness, and we feel it would not be to our benefit to change our name,” James Williams, former NAACP public relations director, is quoted as saying.

The phrase “people of color” — a term that is widely acceptable among the races — was coined later in American history. Martin Luther King used the phrase in his famous “I Have A Dream” speech in 1963. However, the term’s origin dates back to the early 1800s. Gens de couleur liberes, French for “free person of color,” was used to describe a population of free citizens who constituted a segment of the New Orleans population. Largely of French and Caribbean origin, these persons of color were afforded status and privilege foreign to scores of enslaved African-Americans.

Some of its noteworthy citizens included Louis Charles Roudanez, a physician, civic leader and owner of Creole newspapers L’Union and La Tribune de la Nouvelle Orleans. Henriette Delille founded the Sisters of the Holy family, the second oldest Catholic religious order for women of color.

As our society becomes more diverse, “people of color” appears to be a more inclusive term. “It strikes me, then, that ‘people of color’ is a phrase often used by non-whites to put non-white positively. Politically, it expresses solidarity with other non-whites, and subtly reminds whites that they are a minority,” says William Safire, a Pulitzer-prize winning columnist and former speechwriter for President Richard Nixon.