While “colored people” historically referred to the experiences of American descendants of slaves, “people of color” expanded its scope in the mid-1980s to be inclusive of African Americans, Latines, Indigenous peoples, Asians and Pacific Islanders. Today, “people of color” (or POC as it is often popularly abbreviated) represents a category by which individuals increasingly self-identify, organize action, and delineate in-group and out-group members. Nonetheless, in the wake of the protests for Black Lives in summer 2020, the POC category has come under fire from racial justice activists who have pushed to replace POC with BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) in order to more prominently spotlight Black and Indigenous people and call attention to the pervasive anti-Blackness that exists in many communities or color; these efforts to transform the POC category also come amidst calls for even narrower categories like American Descendants of Slaves (ADOS). While these recent trends and debates suggest that the impact of a category like POC goes far beyond semantics, the term has mostly been taken for granted with little scholarly investigation into its origins or sociocultural implications. I argue that it is critical to examine categories like POC, as they are classificatory schema that frame how we make sense of diversity by informing societal assumptions and responsibilities towards marginalized communities, illuminating certain inequalities while obscuring others, and guiding available courses of action.
I propose two phases of research to examine the emergence and diffusion of the POC category, tracing how the category boundaries have evolved over time. In the first phase, beginning in the Spring of 2021, I hope to better understand the socio-cultural conditions that drove the shift in category boundaries from the narrow “colored people” to the expansive “people of color.” Why did the category form in the first place and expand from only Black to include such disparate ethnoracial minoritized populations? I employ an archival analysis of minority publications and interviews with racial activists working during 1975-1995 – a period of extensive ethnic mobilization and identity politics during which the POC category expanded.
The second phase, kicking off in Fall 2021, takes advantage of the current moment, in which the debates around the POC category and the move to BIPOC are particularly salient in the wake of America’s 2020 racial reckoning. I plan to conduct interviews with young people of color on how they understand the POC category and negotiate its boundaries. I will use a boundary-making approach to examine how different respondents conceptualize similarity and difference, and thus co-create and construct the social meanings of the category through lumping and splitting.