The Problem with Labels: People of Color

I woke up at 5:30 this morning in Fargo, ND for a couple of reasons. The main one being the fact that I am sleeping about 100 feet away from Interstate 94, the main East-West artery across North Dakota. Let me tell you, things don’t slow down at night. Not all campgrounds are a wonderful taste of the peaceful great outdoors. This campground offers a taste of vehicle exhaust coupled with the subtle earthquake of 18-wheelers barreling over concrete and steel.

The other reason I’m awake at this early hour is because I am constantly wrestling and trying to process the experiences I am having on this journey. We are taking a crash course on America, state by state, one week at a time. It is like drinking from a fire hose each week. There is hardly time to digest what we are experiencing.

This morning, I am thinking about the phrase we have heard quite often: “people of color” or POC if you are really “woke.”

I don’t like the label, POC. Sorry. There are many problems. One is that it attempts to lump a multitude of people with an even greater number of experiences into one homogeneous group. We have met so many “people of color” who do not fit this mold that I have trouble using it to describe such a large group of Americans. I read an interesting article on the issue from the point of view of a self-described black African woman that offered a great perspective: “It strips away our individual experiences, and instead decides the colour of our skin is what’s relevant.”

If she is a labeled a POC, then what am I? A person without color or PWC? This is one of the other major problems I see with the term POC. It further establishes whiteness as colorless and the “normal” or standard. This gives many white people an understanding that they don’t have any connection to the system of race in America. I have said in the past that I am just a normal, average, everyday American. I haven’t heard many people with black or brown skin refer to themselves in that way. I have been on a journey this year that has led me to a greater understanding of what it means to be on the white side of the social construct of race in America. I really had never thought of it before because I probably felt that I was race-less or colorless.

In reality, my skin actually has a color. My kids are creative little ones and we have Crayons and colored pencils all over the RV. Our refrigerator and bedroom walls are adorned with their beautiful creations. Here is one thing that I have yet to see: the use of the color white for someone’s skin. Why? It makes them look silly, like a ghost or something. As I try to find a Crayon that matches the color of my skin, I think I can most closely relate to neon carrot, goldenrod or macaroni and cheese. I’m not even close to white, especially in the summer. Now I realize that is the label that has been placed upon me by the social construct of race I live in, but I don’t like white. I need to do more of a scientific study, but I’ll take goldenrod for now.

So as a 40-year-old goldenrod guy, I have a color that represents the melanin levels in my skin much better than boring old white. I have struggled with the issue of whiteness as a race and the entire system of race we have in America. I have come to see many of the events, laws and systems through our history and up through our present day that have benefited people labeled as white. Most of us white folks don’t know this part of the story. There are many great resources to learn about some of this history, but a recent book I read by Debby Irving titled “Waking up White” is a good place to start.

We love our labels in America and race has been one of the most consistent and powerful classifications throughout our history. Physically, is there much difference between the different races to justify these classifications? Not really. We learned from the groundbreaking Human Genome Project completed in 2003 that we are all genetically 99.9 percent alike. Despite attempts for hundreds of years by scientists and sociologists to show that Anglo, white or Caucasian people are superior to all others, these claims are absolutely bogus. This was an important step in my journey towards understanding whiteness.

One question I struggled with is how can race be a thing when it is not actually a thing?

I have concluded that race as a concept is quite weak, but as a system is quite strong.

The social construct of race is powerful and can be seen by the significant levels of social and economic division across America. Throughout the 33 states we have visited this year, we have seen housing segregation, major health disparities, educational inequalities in both opportunities and attainment, and income gaps that fall largely along racial lines.

I am walking a fine line of understanding that the scientific concept of race is bogus, but how it manifests as a social construct in America is very real. This takes me back to our labels. Yes, there are overall disparities and disadvantages faced by many POC in America. There are advantages often unknowingly received by white people in America. This doesn’t mean that POC can’t achieve great success in America. It doesn’t mean that white people don’t have to work hard to succeed in America. We must take a hard look at the systems in place that have led to these major inequalities. We must also look at the heart within us as Americans that has created and continued these systems. If we change systems without changing the heart behind them, I believe the systems will reinvent themselves as something more sinister than before (see: convict leasing).

I understand that labels are useful when we are discussing issues of inequality, injustice and the like. But labels also divide us and can strengthen the system of race in our country. I think one reason that we change labels assigned to certain groups of people is that the labels are often not a good way to describe individual people with unique stories.

I don’t have any real answers to these problems. But what this 40-year-old white/goldenrod guy does have is the power to listen, learn and ponder out loud as we continue this journey to all 50 states.

  • Teresa Eaton says:

    Thank you for your insights, David. Continued happy trails to you and your beautiful family!

  • Roheryn says:

    I have told my story hundreds of times. My parents never spoke of different skin colors when I was young. To me, people looking different was normal. All cats and dogs looked different – even in the same litters, so different colors were interesting and wonderful!
    Then I was put in public school for first grade. One day at recess, a boy said to me, “I’m black. and you’re white.”
    I thought the poor kid hadn’t learned his crayola colors yet, so I corrected him. “No, you’re brown, and I’m peach.”
    You see, if we remove the nonsense the adults pass onto kids, children have no ideal of these complex concepts that separate people. I was teased for my freckles and skinny legs as a kid. But that didn’t have me looking for a group of skinny freckled kids to hang out with. I simply looked for kinder kids. My band of friends at recess included mostly Hispanics and Koreans, because they were the ones that played with me without drama. And the ethnic range in the kids I refused to play with was just as diverse and due to their attitudes only.

  • Shelley says:

    This is just a reply to the previous comment. While I am sure your feelings are well-intentioned, you cannot fault POC for speaking to their children about race. I grew up with parents who were self loathing about their race and therefore when I went to school my experience was to feel shame when I was faced with racism and name calling. I had no context or pride or understanding of why children would say hateful things to me. Children and adults. So now as a parent myself I make sure that my own child sees color and celebrates it. There is no way I will have him left standing afraid and unable to stand up for himself like I was. We read a lot of books and talk about it the historical context. It’s important to talk about race. Just like it’s important to talk about history.

Leave a comment