The Perils of “People of Color”

E. TAMMY KIM: Rejecting the term “people of color” may be of little consequence, but rejecting the solidarity it implies can result in an inaccurate and unduly limiting world view.

As Margo Okazawa-Rey, a professor emerita at San Francisco State University who participated in the Black feminist Combahee River Collective of the nineteen-seventies, put it, “The history of this country is told from the East Coast,” thereby privileging the Black-white binary. This lens is foundational, and central to our racial imaginary, but it should not be the only one. The enslavement of Black people on this continent—and the caste system devised to maintain it—cannot fully explain the attempted genocide of indigenous peoples, a decades-long ban on Chinese immigration, the mass deportations and lynching of Mexican migrant workers, the crackdown on Arab and Muslim communities after 9/11, or our wars in the Philippines and Iraq. The wealth of the United States owes not only to slavery but also the exploitation of migrant workers and poor whites, and the theft of land and natural resources here and abroad. And although it is now common to attribute the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 solely to the civil-rights movement, its more proximate cause was the injunction of anti-Communist foreign policy.

Recognizing the various strands in the warp and weft of our history, alongside slavery and Black liberation, should be possible without unravelling the whole into “All Lives Matter.” This more complicated telling incorporates those who defy stereotypes of color and race: Black refugees, Samoans, biracial Arabs, Asian adoptees, and Latinx “immigrants” whose families have been in the Americas for centuries. The University of Connecticut philosopher Lewis Gordon, the author of “Bad Faith and Antiblack Racism,” told me that it’s crucial to be “precise about how American racism manifests” while understanding “that there were internment camps of Japanese-Americans, that there are reservations for indigenous peoples that were basically the inspiration for the South African Bantustans.” More here.

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