Some arguments against the use of the term “BIPOC” and for the use of the terms “global majority” and “negatively racialised” in global debates on “race” and racism
The term BIPOC emerged in the US and makes most sense in that specific context. Its global use in activist circles might partly be a result of the outsized influence of US American political culture and of US academia – aspects of US dominance in the world system.
The advantage of the term “Black, Indigenous and people of color” (BIPOC) over “people of color” (POC) is to make the particular oppressions of Afro-descended people and Native American people in the US more visible than they were in the older term POC.
This seems very reasonable, in the US context at least, given the particular role the oppression of people brought to the “New World” from Africa as slaves has played and plays in the US context. And by the particular role the oppression of the people who first peopled the continent Europeans later named “America”, in prehistoric times, has played and plays in the US.
But is the term adequate in the context of global debates on “race” and racism?
It could be argued that, in a global perspective, African, African diaspora or Afro-descended people are at the bottom of a global racial hierarchy, and that this justifies separating out the category of “Black people” from that of “other people of colour” and foregrounding “Blackness” (by putting the B first in the acronym) when speaking of racism worldwide. This makes a lot of sense and would be an argument in favour of using BIPOC in global conversations.
Even though “race” and racism work differently in Latin America than in the US or Canada, and Blackness, for example, is constituted quite differently in Brazil (for example) than it is in the US, the term may be transferable to Latin America, since processes of dispossession, assimilation or extermination of indigenous peoples, and of importation and (ab)use of enslaved Africans, were broadly similar everywhere in the Americas.
An argument could perhaps also be made for the desirability of using a term that separates and foregrounds “Black” identity in North Africa and the Middle East. After all there are large populations descended from enslaved “Black” Africans in Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey, Iraq… who have been the targets of intense anti-Black racism for a long time, but whose existence and whose plight have been receiving attention only in recent years.
But transferring a term that separates and foregrounds “Black” identity (in the sense of referring to the identity of African, African diaspora or Afro-descended people) to Europe seems more problematic to me, and its transfer to South Asia, Southeast Asia and East Asia, as well as to Oceania, appears even more difficult.
Blackness has, and has had, different meanings in different national settings in Europe. In the UK, for example, a certain antiracist concept of Blackness gained much influence in the seventies (although it was always contested). This construction of Blackness explicitly included people of South Asian (Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Nepali, Bhutani, Indian and Sri Lankan) extraction, along with African, African-descended, Afro-Caribbean and other Afro-American people. It is no longer influential because the political coalition underlying it fell apart at some point.
Although the historical background to the presence of many Afro-descended people in Europe is the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and European dominance in the world in general, most Afro-descended people in Europe are not descendants of enslaved people. Many are descended from people who arrived in Europe only in the twentieth century, or are themselves relative newcomers. Their situation is different from the situation of Afro-Americans in the US (and other parts of the Americas), who have been settled on the land for hundreds of years.
European empires mostly had their slaves overseas, not in the home country, which led to the development of forms of anti-Black racism in the metropole that are different from the US American variant. In the landscape of European racism, anti-Black racism does not hold the absolutely central place it does in the US. It is important, but not a central cultural obsession, not something all other racisms are compared to, are seen in terms of, have to relate to (as seems to me to be the case in the US).
In some European contexts, hatred of “Arabs” or “Muslims” is today at least as intense and dangerous to people’s lives, livelihoods, and dignity, as hatred of “African-looking” people.
Anti-Black racism, in combination with different variants of colourism, is of course widespread and intense throughout South Asia, Southeast Asia and East Asia. But I would argue that, similarly to the situation in Europe, anti-Blackness does not hold a place in the landscape of Asian racisms that compares to its prominence in the United States.
In Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, for whom the distinction between “Black” and “Indigenous” of course never made any sense (they were long called “Blacks” in Australia) have come up with the term “Blak” as a way of talking about themselves.
All this is to say that I think the B in BIPOC may not be an ideal fit for European, Asian or Oceanian realities.
But the “I” for “Indigenous” may be the even bigger problem, above all for Asia. Indigeneity is a term that is open to many interpretations and abuses. In the Americas it is clear that indigenous groups were not only there first, but constitute oppressed populations. The situation is similar in Oceania. But in North Africa and Asia the distinction between presumed indigenes and the dominant population is less clear than in other parts of the world, and the concept of indigeneity has been frequently (ab)used in reactionary, nativist fashion by states and dominant populations.
But even when talking in or about Europe, use of the term “indigenous” seems somewhat problematic to me. Reduced to those aspects of its many meanings that have to do with “who was here first”, it can be used in anti-immigrant, nativist discourse. This happens all over Europe all the time.
This links to what I see as fundamental problems inherent in notions of autochthony and indigeneity in general. I won’t go into this here, but I would like to warmly recommend the writings of Nandita Sharma on the topic.
So what’s the alternative?
First off, I think it’s always a good idea to pay attention to what people in local contexts call themselves and why. There are, for example, various attempts by groups of non-white activists in various European countries to appropriate taboo, racist and insulting terms for non-white people and use them to mark their identity, to shock, to joke, to make a political statement. Some examples are “Kanake” in German, “indigène” in French and “blatte” in Swedish.
But of course such terms can’t be used by just anyone and knowing about them, though important, does not help us find a “consensus” term that can be used in mixed, global conversations to refer to people who are targets of racism.
Why not simply use “non-white”?
What speaks against it is that it is a definition by exclusion and thus risks being understood as affirming the very racist structures we want to dismantle.
But, I would argue in defence of the term, the reality we live in, and the history we have inherited, is in fact one of definition by racist exclusion.
And I would say that in some particularly “colourblind-racist” national contexts, like in Sweden or France, using terms like “icke-vit” or “personnes non blanches” (both mean “non-white”, in Swedish and French, respectively) can have value for their shock effect alone.
What’s more, to try and find a “positive”, “substantive” or “descriptive” word for all people targeted by colour racism, could be understood as advancing the idea that all these different groups would have had something in common, “essentially”, had they not been lumped together as “other” by white supremacy.
This is obviously not the case. “American Indian-ness” as it exists today, for example, would never have taken the shape it has, or might not even have come into being at all, without the determining influence of European invasion, white racism and so on.
The first “West Africans” to meet Portuguese merchants, sailors and soldiers in the 15th century obviously did not consider themselves, or their inland neighbours, “African”, nor did they have any concept of “Blackness”. These examples could be multiplied.
I remain somewhat skeptical of the whole project of finding good words for bad realities. But I also don’t deny the importance and prefigurative potential of “language politics” in processes of social change.
And I take seriously the many and varied voices of people targeted by colour racism who do not relish being defined as “non-something”, be it as “non-white” or as “people of colour”.
“People of colour”, if you think about it, is only one small linguistic step removed from the patently offensive “coloured people”, and formally still quite close to “non-white”, in that it assumes that POC “have colour” – from which would seem to follow that white people “lack colour”.
Some of these voices questioning terms like “non-white” and “POC” propose “global majority” as an alternative that is inclusive and flexible enough to work in global discussions.
I personally much prefer it to POC and BIPOC, for all the reasons mentioned above, and it is of course a great improvement on the British acronym BAME (“Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic”), which, as far as I can tell, is reviled by most leftist activists in the UK this label tends to be applied to.
Colour and “race”
Does the term BIPOC foreground colour? What about “global majority”, is it only about colour or about race in general? Should we be using a term in global conversations that defines racism as being only about “colour”?
After all, to equate racism with colour racism does not do justice to the complex, protean, contradictory and political nature of “race” and racism, which can attach itself to all kinds of real or imagined differences between people.
The Armenians are an ethnic group that is today often categorised as “white”. They suffered a massive genocide during WW I (around a million people died). This historic fact is being denied to this day by the Turkish state and a sizeable portion of the population of modern Turkey. The ideas of the clique in power at the time and responsible for the destruction of the Armenians (known as the “Young Turks”) were definitely part of the main current of early 20th century racial thought.
The Sami in Scandinavia were traditionally perceived as “Asian-looking” by their non-Sami neighbours, although many of them in fact look exactly like most ethnic Swedes, Norwegians and Finns do.
Another example of an imaginary physical difference is that in the 19th century, Jews in Eastern and Central Europe were said to have flat feet (this was related to Jewish males’ perceived lack of true manliness and made Jewish recruits unfit to serve in national armies, and so on).
Ashkenazi Jews are today considered “white” or “European” in many parts of the world. But we should remember that many educated 19th century Europeans considered “the Jews” to be an “Oriental race”. The Nazis did not consider Jews “white”, and neither do most of today’s fascists.
Hatred of Jews in many parts of Eastern Europe, North Africa and the Middle East is today quite intense; there, the idea that Ashkenazi Jews should be simply seen as white people, which might sort of work in other parts of the world, makes no sense.
The ancestors of the majority of Jewish Israelis today came from North Africa and the Middle East. Most of these “Mizrahim” would be categorised as “brown” or “people of colour” when walking around New York (or as “BAME” walking around London). Some have ancestors from Ethiopia and would be considered “Black” in most parts of the world. Mizrahi Israelis generally look no different than Palestinian Israelis but are privileged in comparison to them. This is Jewish privilege, not white privilege.
Germans and other non-Eastern Europeans have for a long time tended to look down upon Eastern Europeans. There has been and still is a big difference in wealth and power between the states of the North and West of Europe and those of Eastern Europe. In the past and until today this correlates with all kinds of disparaging stereotypes about Eastern Europeans. For the Nazis the “Slavs” were a “subhuman race”. They planned to exterminate the majority of “Slavs” through starvation. The plan was never fully implemented, due to the failure of the German military campaign in the East, but they still managed to starve about four million people to death.
Negative stereotypes about “Muslims” and “Islam” have abounded in Europe for a very long time and have gained enormously in influence all over the world over the last twenty years or so. In this case negative ideas about a religion are tightly linked to ethnic stereotypes, which in their turn bleed into racial stereotypes.
All this is to say:
The boundaries between “race” (as something tied to physical characteristics, real or imagined), ethnicity and religion are fluid. Racism is multiform and includes more than colour racism.
It does make sense to roughly differentiate racist ideology, in the sense of ideas that posit others as unalterably and by nature different and inferior, from ethnic, national, religious and other ideologies that cast others as inferior, but not unalterably so, not inferior forever and by nature.
But we should realise that there is a lot of overlap, and everything depends on the political forces at play, on what is acceptable to say in public, what is considered mainstream and reasonable.
In other words, if you make it impossible to openly espouse biological racism in public, racists will shift their discourse slightly. Right wing intellectuals will then cook up theories we could classify as “cultural racism”, theories that talk more about fundamental cultural differences between different ethnic groups than about biological racial difference.
According to such theories, all ethnic groups have the same value, of course, nobody is inferior, but different civilizations, or peoples, should stay separate, each in their proper location, and that way everyone will be happy. And so on. Some people will stop talking about “race” and just say “ethnicity” instead. But they will still hate the same people, and still want to do the same things to them.
The main function of racist ideologies is to serve as justifications for projects of oppression, exploitation, dispossession, marginalisation, exclusion, forced inclusion, assimilation, extermination, and so on. We should not expect them to be coherent.
In light of all this my answer to the question “Should we be using a term in global conversations that defines racism as being about ‘colour’?” is: Preferably not.
So what’s the alternative?
Terms like minoritisation and racialisation have the advantage of emphasizing that there are processes at work here, processes that create “a minority” or “a race”. They point to the fact that these are constructions. Talking about racialisation makes clear that “race” is not, as assorted fascists and white nationalists like to insist in their manifestos, simply “real”.
“Racialised people”, a term that seems to be in widespread use in Canada, gets a respectable 120000 hits on Google. I know that similar terms are also used by activists and academics in French, German and Swedish, for all kinds of good reasons. The problem I have with terms like “racialised groups”, “racialised people”, “the racialised”, and so on, is that there seems to be an assumption here that white people are not racialised, are not produced as a “race”.
One could argue that that is what is in fact taking place, that whiteness is posited as the invisible, unmarked norm, that which has no “race”, and all kinds of other (racial) categories are produced as deviations from this norm. And that is indeed what is happening. But should our terminology not go farther than being simply descriptive? Should it not be critical and analytical as well, where possible?
Maybe one could speak of positive racialisation (that’s what produces “regular folks”) and negative racialization (that’s what produces “other people”). Maybe we could speak of “negatively racialised people”, NRP for short. I think this term has many advantages. It doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, though.
Alternatively, we could speak of “people of the global majority”, but, for now, with some intentional vagueness about who belongs into that category; with the understanding that racism is complex, protean and contradictory; that any attempt to bring order to the racist disorder of the world with one expression is doomed to fail; and that a truly satisfactory solution to the problem of finding an accepted term for all people targeted by some form of racism can only be the result of patient global dialogues and long-term coalition-building.
Daniel Mang 2021-08-13