“person of color”

I agree with Geoff Pullum at Language Log that the phrase “person of color” is objectionable. But it does have one useful function: it highlights markedness relations. After all, white people have “colour” too – pink, for example. (Steve Biko‘s jokes about apartheid and the designation “colored” are a good source here.) The only way people could have come up with a phrase “person of color” is by highlighting the marked relationship between minority and majority skin colour. It’s a good reminder that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is bunk. Changing the term doesn’t get rid of discrimination.

Perhaps we should try to make this formulation a bit more widespread. If we’re stuck with the phrase “person of color”, how about adding to it person of gender? A computer geek might be a person of RAM? Any more?

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13 responses to ““person of color”

  1. David Marjanović

    “People of gender”… great!!! Priceless.

  2. Actually, the term person of gender is already in use.

  3. I am definitely using “person of gender” from now on.

  4. Just a sidenote:

    The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, if interpreted as representing “linguistic determinism”, is indeed bunk. But it is unlikely that this is what Whorf was saying; much more likely is that he was suggesting that language (and especially grammatical categories, rather than lexis) has an influence on the way we percieve things, a position commonly referred to as “linguistic relativism” in the literature since Whorf.

    Stephen Pinker, in The Language Instinct, attacks a straw-man Whorf, building him up to be a linguistic determinist in his research on the Hopi – and rejects Whorf’s supposed conclusion that the Hopi cannot understand time, because they do not have a tense system. This is not Whorf’s position, however – Whorf understood probably just as well as everyone else acquainted with grammar that time can be expressed adverbially. Whorf was actually talking about how the Hopi use their system of evidential markers rather than tense to express time distinctions – and hence might have a different perspective on time than we do.

  5. Includedmiddle, thanks for the link (although it’s always annoying when something you make up in jest turns out to be used seriously in real life).

    How about a person of currency? But would that mean a plutocrat or someone with a lot of, say, golden ducats?

    Alan, that’s consistent with my comment. I was arguing that phrases like “person of color” reveal implicit ideas about markedness (not vice versa).

  6. And you know it works the other way round too? My mate from out bush referred to his sibling who is part-Aboriginal, part-white as being coloured… he was doing the same thing whitefolk do, just inverting the ‘colour’.

  7. I can never hear anyone being described as “coloured” without immediately thinking of this reasonably famous joke

  8. I think “personof currency” should refer to numismaticists since plutocrats are already covered by “person of means”.

    But a low-income individual could be a “person of wage”.

  9. Wäwa, I heard that use at One Arm Point too occasionally.

    There are other properties where the markedness relation is reversed and these phrases don’t work – e.g. a “person of vision” would be blind if you always take the marked member.

    “People of class” works though (I can get both the “lower class” and “upper class” readings).

  10. Trackbacks seem not to be working at present so here’s Mark Liberman’s Language Log comment (http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/004116.html) and Geoff Pullum’s addendum: http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/004118.html.

  11. I’ve heard, and seen, “person of faith” for the religiously-inclined,. Being a non-dogmtic atheist, that makes me a “person of little faith”.

    Without wishing to descend into bad taste, how does one refer to the disabled? “Person of darkness” for the blind, “person of silence” for the deaf… this might be uncontroversial. Physical and mental disabilities, I’ll leave for those more tactful…

  12. Ah, but Szwagier, they have a different structure. What’s strange (linguistically) about the phrases “person of color” and “person of gender” is that “color” and “gender” are properties that all humans have. Calling someone a “person of gender” shouldn’t, from a purely logical point of view, distinguish between men and women, because “gender” is a value with several possible attributes. The phrase picks out the marked member of the set. “Person of darkness” isn’t parallel because “darkness” isn’t the same sort of property.

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