McWhorter: Vocabulary imposed from on high sometimes just can’t catch on

Before the Canadian government considers embracing the US term BIPOC in its review of the Employment Equity Act, a useful reminder that it is no better than visible minorities in terms of how people see themselves, beyond academics and activists:

“BIPOC” has been with us for a few years now, and a certain verdict would appear to be in. Beyond academic and activist circles and some corners of social media, the acronym, which stands for “Black, Indigenous and people of color,” seems to strike most as rather peculiar. Clumsy, even. The Black academic and San Francisco Examiner columnist Teresa Moore wrote that the term “means well, but I want it to go away,” calling it “a solution to a problem that hadn’t needed solving,” a “‘New Coke’ of a word.”

I agree. Yet this does not mean that the term is, in itself, a mistake or a failure.

To be sure, the term has major problems, despite the good intentions of those who have broadcast and embraced it. The “POC” part is a frustratingly broad category, implying that Latinos and Asians (umbrella terms that are, perhaps, also too broad) constitute a coherent set — not to mention one that is somehow separate from Black and Indigenous people denoted by the “BI.” And “BI” is confusing, in that the term sounds at first as if it refers to bisexual people. Then, even when we are clear that it doesn’t, “BI” still sounds like a prefix of some kind, leading one to wonder just what a “POC” is. When spoken, “BIPOC” sounds like pocks who are bi in some way. And in English at least, “pock” doesn’t sound much like a person. Or, to my ear, if it did refer to a person, it would be in derision: “You pock!”

Although this isn’t how the term actually emerged, “BIPOC” sounds like one in a bunch of names thrown out amid a brainstorming session but never taken seriously, passed over in favor of something better that came up later. And that’s just it: “BIPOC” emerged — or, at least, broadly gained traction — not via a gradual consensus but via abrupt imposition amid the racial reckoning that began two springs ago, when many Americans were determined to renew our commitment to approaching race and racism in constructive ways.

Now, this kind of imposition does not automatically prevent a term from catching on. The problematizing of the term “master bedroom,” out of a sense that we should retire “master” as a relic of plantation slavery, arose from the same impulse as the usage of “BIPOC” and seems to be a success: “Master bedroom” is becoming non grata among some adjuncts of the real estate industry. Issues relating specifically to Black people seem particularly likely to dig a term in, as we also saw with how quickly “African American” caught on around three decades ago.

However, we are not merely passive supplicants at the mercy of prelates imposing lexical fiats from on high. Not everything settles in. For example, we are seeing that proposals for group names are less likely to be embraced when imposed from outside the group itself. When the Rev. Jesse Jackson called for the use of “African American,” his status and authority in Black America were roughly equal to Oprah Winfrey’s today. “African American” would have been much less likely to get around if it had been proposed by academics or lesser-known activists.

That kind of imposition from the outside has meant that “Latinx,” a gender-neutral alternative to “Latino” and “Latina,” is hardly used by the people it purports to refer to. In 2020, Pew Research found that only 3 percent of Latinos use the term. “BIPOC” isn’t doing much better. Too often, we take terminology proposals from academics and journalists as if we will henceforth be penalized — even if only socially — for going against their prescriptions. But their suggestions do not automatically affect language as it is used by ordinary people making themselves understood casually and comfortably.

It can seem that way because academics and journalists do a disproportionate amount of public writing and talking. For example, I suspect that normal people will continue saying “master bedroom”; I certainly will. Thus, there is no need to bristle at the proliferation of “BIPOC” as some kind of glowering fiat. Very few BIPOCs use it, and as Amy Harmon reported last year for The Times, in one national poll, “more than twice as many white Democrats said they felt ‘very favorably’ toward ‘BIPOC’ as Americans who identify as any of the nonwhite racial categories it encompasses.” And that is unlikely to change.

Again, this doesn’t mean “BIPOC” is a failed term. It has simply become part of a burgeoning register of English favored primarily by certain professors and political activists. This is no more a problem than another register, the academese favored by many scholars of literature and the social sciences. People of this realm have a way of writing and even speaking to one another on academic subjects that seems almost exotic to the outsider. For example, the renowned critical theorist and University of California, Berkeley, professor Judith Butler was granted first place in the journal Philosophy and Literature’s tongue-in-cheek bad-writing contest in 1998 for her prose in a 1997 essay, “Further Reflections on Conversations of Our Time,” that included this passage:

“The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.”

I find it a little facile to dismiss this genre, even in jest, as simply bad writing. Its practitioners intend it as studiously objective and precise. And the main thing, despite how unaesthetic this writing may be, is that it has no effect on how most of us communicate. It’s an in-group practice that people look upon from the outside with a certain bemusement. It is a jargon.

People who refer to hegemony and structural totalities have a jargon. These days, there is what we could call, yes, a woke jargon. That is where “Latinx” and “BIPOC” live. These terms are not mistakes or misfires in not being taken up by most of the people they refer to, then. Who, after all, has an issue with there being jargons?

As Sandra Garcia reported for The Times in 2020, Sylvia Obell, a host of the podcast “Okay, Now Listen,” said, “We are asking for a lot of things, and being called BIPOC is not one of them.” She added, “Stop making decisions for us without us.” She need not worry: The decision cannot be, and will not be, forced on her or anyone else. People will be referred to as BIPOC among a certain contingent who, like all contingents, have ways of speaking that signal membership in their group and dedication to the group’s fundamental commitments.

There isn’t a thing wrong with that, but the rest of us can — and will — happily continue speaking and writing of Black people, Latino or Hispanic people, Native American or Indigenous people, people of South Asian or East Asian descent and all the other kinds of people, including, if we please, people of color.

Source: Vocabulary imposed from on high sometimes just can’t catch on

Paradkar: Why I’m saying bye-bye to ‘BIPOC’ this year

While Paradkar’s points are valid when applied to the individual, groups are needed to assess differences in socio-economic outcomes at a broader level and understand the degree to which these reflect systemic or other barriers.

As Joseph Heath has argued, we need to stop using the American term BIPOC given that it reflects the centrality of Blacks in American history and exclusion, and use terms more appropriate to Canada’s history and context.

Needless to say, discussing terminology is easier than dismantling barriers and improving inclusion:

Who on earth is a BIPOC person?

BIPOC is an acronym that has flared into public consciousness since the 2020 summer of protests against police brutality against Black people. It stands for Black, Indigenous, People of Colour and was quickly pronounced bye-pock.

I thought it held some promise then. It appeared to be a thoughtful political coalition term, acknowledging disparate impacts of white supremacy by singling out Black and Indigenous experiences, even though both “Black” and “Indigenous” are homogenizing identities in themselves, and not always disparate.

When it comes to police brutality, we’re not all in it together. Black and Indigenous people are treated more unjustly than just about anyone else in our criminal justice system. Other people are treated with disdain, but that contempt often stems from anti-Black, colonial ideas of refinement and race.

However, as with POC or person of colour, BIPOC got swallowed up, quickly lost nuance and got spat out at a racial identifier to say “not white.”

Colonized lands that grapple with human rights face a perpetual puzzle: What to name “the other” without saying “the other?” It has led to a long-standing tension on this continent, a tension between a racial identity and a political one, a tension between the labels white people want to apply versus how people identify themselves.

In Canada that desire for euphemistic framing has translated into various terms over the years. “Coloured,” “minority,” “diverse”. They bunch into one box people held together by the most tenuous of all connections, that of not being of European origin.

Words matter, and they are tricky. They swim in the sociological waters around them, meaning one thing at one point in time and something else the next.

Those sociological realities have now claimed the term BIPOC like they do other racial designations that are rooted not just in history but also prejudice.

I had never been called “East Indian” until I came to Canada. If anything I identified as South Indian, as in one who lived in the southern part of the country. Then I began to be called South Asian, another label I’d never heard before. It instantly flattened the vast diversity of all the nations on the Indian subcontinent into one homogeneous lump, but at least it was a geographical descriptor.

I then came across another widely used term: POC, or person of colour. It sounded a bit like “coloured people,” which I didn’t know then was a slur. I assumed it simply referred to the fact of melanin in my skin.

POC became more of a political identity over time when it bonded me with those who experienced similar responses to our non-European origins, including East Asians. In other words, when I underwent the process of racialization or the process of being forced to see that I was categorized as a certain “race” and feel its impacts. This, even though race itself is anthropological fiction, constructed as a tool of exploitation.

Early 1900s U.S. state laws defined a person of colour as one with some “Negro blood,” but in contemporary Canada at least, the term POC erased Black experiences and kept invisible Indigenous ones. The grassroots advocacy for change came from those groups, but its biggest beneficiaries have always been white women, followed by other people of colour. When the fight for civil rights in the U.S. led to the creation of “affirmative action” laws — or a push for corporations and universities to end discrimination — white women over decades received a far higher share of managerial jobs and degrees.

POC was supposed to be a collaborative term. But even when reduced to an identity, it was more positive than non-white, which sounded like a deficit, an accusation of something lacking.

It was also better than the revolting “visible minority,” which made no sense. Visible to whom? How does it account for those that might be “invisible” but still in the margins, such as First Nations, Métis and Inuit? There is also an irony in naming a global majority a “minority,” but more than that, colonization globally has showed that numerical domination has nothing to do with power.

In a city like Toronto where the presence of “visible minorities” causes white flight, statistics showing that it is populated by a visible “majority” causes white fright, and spawns far-right white grievance ideologies in the rest of the country.

Words are not the solution, but yes, they matter.

That’s why I heard alarm bells ringing when a corporate executive said BIPOC stats had gone up in their staff demographics, but a closer look revealed there were no Indigenous hires.

Emails from publicists began routinely throwing up lines like these: BIPOC founder behind (XYZ) coffee shop. BIPOC sommelier breaks barriers on wine’s role.

At a discussion on online harassment, a white woman described another woman at the receiving end of abuse saying, “And she’s bye-pawk. She’s bye-pawk.”

How does an individual become BIPOC?

In that moment I realized I’d gone from being Indian to being South Asian to be a person of colour to now being either Black or Indigenous and a Person of Colour. In the span of a few years, my identity had been diluted beyond recognition. This absolute homogenization is the opposite of what the term BIPOC was meant to do.

It’s true that some people are simply anxious to keep up with the terminology to signal support for anti-racism, but when they do so without paying attention to the nuance of those terms, and flatten our identities and conflate the unique struggles of different groups, they replicate the problem the terminology is trying to eradicate.

I am done. Bye, bye BIPOC.

In my work I opt to use individuals’ own preference for identities and describe backgrounds as specifically as I can. I’ve also deliberately used non-white, not as a racial identity, but to emphasize experiences of people who are penalized for not being white. I quite like the term “racialized” although plenty of people of colour have not awoken to their own racialization and plenty of white people have. I realize that “racialized,” too, is used as another word for “not white.” But like “marginalized” — an even bigger umbrella term — it at least insists on being seen as a process.

Several months ago, NPR journalist Gene Demby referenced the linguistic term “euphemism treadmill” on the podcast Code Switch. It’s a term that refers to polite words, softer words used to replace those that might give offence. But over time, these euphemisms become toxic by association and themselves need to be replaced. Demby pointed to words such as Oriental, Coloured or Negro that were all proper terms at some point.

“The terminology can only stay ahead of the negative attitudes for only so long,” he said presciently. “The problem is not the language we use to refer to people. The problem is the attitude we have when referring to those people.”


BIPOC or POC? Equity or Equality? The Debate Over Language on the Left.

Good discussion of the various positions and rationales, along with the risks of language debates distracting from addressing the harder intractable issues. I share the latter concern, as these debates are much easier than actual initiatives to reduce barriers and improve inclusion.

And a reminder that BIPOC is an American term, reflecting their reality, as Joseph Heath correctly called out in his The term ‘BIPOC’ is a bad fit for the Canadian discourse on race:

In California, a Black college freshman from the South is telling a story about his Latino friends from home when he is interrupted by a white classmate. “We say ‘Latinx’ here,” he recalls her saying, using a term he had not heard before, “because we respect trans people.”

In Philadelphia, Emma Blackson challenges her white neighbor’s assertion that Black children misbehave in school more than others. “It’s just my implicit bias,” the neighbor offers, saying that she had recently learned the phrase.

In Chicago, Kelsey O’Donnell, 31, wonders why colleagues and friends have suddenly started saying “BIPOC,” an acronym that encompasses individuals who are Black, Indigenous or other people of color. Where had it come from? “There was really nobody to ask,” says Ms. O’Donnell, who is white. “It was just, ‘This is what we say now.’”

Americans have always wrestled with language when it comes to describing race, with phrases and vocabulary changing to meet the struggles and values of the moment. But especially in the wake of last summer’s protests for social justice, there is a heightened attention to this language, say scholars and activists, as some on the left try to advance changes in the culture through words.

“You can’t change what you can’t name,” Cathy Albisa, vice president of institutional and sectoral change at the racial justice nonprofit Race Forward, said.

For some people, though, the new lexicon has become a kind of inscrutable code, set at a frequency that only a narrow, highly educated slice of the country can understand, or even a political litmus test in which the answers continually change. Others feel disappointment, after so many protests last summer demanded far deeper change on issues like criminal justice and voting rights.

“I really believed America was having a reckoning when it came to race,” said Ms. Blackson, a Black graduate student in epidemiology who has expressed her disillusionment on Twitter. “So far it’s been a lot of words.”

Unsurprisingly, the language itself has become contested, especially by conservatives who have leveraged discomfort with the new vocabulary to energize their base of white voters, referring to it as “wokespeak.” One conservative think tank circulated a list of words — including “microaggressions” and “Black Lives Matter” — that it said could alert parents that what has been labeled “Critical Race Theory” is being taught in their children’s schools. 

The new language extends beyond race, adding phrases and introducing ideas that are new to many Americans. Gender-neutral terms like “Latinx,” for people of Latin American descent, “they/them” pronouns that refer to a single person, and “birthing parent” or “pregnant people” instead of “mother,” to be inclusive of trans people, are also gaining traction.

Some activists defend the focus on language, saying that the way people use words is not mere symbolism but is necessary to achieving justice.

“Saying something like, ‘Black people are less likely to get a loan from the bank,’ instead of saying, ‘Banks are less likely to give loans to Black people,’ might feel like it’s just me wording it differently,” Rashad Robinson, president of the racial justice organization Color of Change, said. “But ‘Black people are less likely to get a loan from the bank’ makes people ask themselves, ‘What’s wrong with Black people? Let’s get them financial literacy programs.’ The other way is saying, ‘What’s wrong with the banks?’”

Mr. Robinson added, “When you’ve been on the margin, being able to claim a language and a narrative and a set of words to express yourself is incredibly important.”

Still, some other self-identified liberals who said they care deeply about social justice feel uncomfortable with some of the changes and the pressure that can be associated with them.

Ms. O’Donnell of Chicago said that, especially when she is among other white, college-educated liberals, “I’m exhausted by the constant need to be wary or you’ll instantly be labeled racist or anti-trans.”

And Stephen Paisley of Ithaca, N.Y., said he cringed at hearing libraries described at an academic conference as “sites of violence,” which is intended to reflect biases in how their rare books collections are curated. Rather than language that “tries to guilt people into action,” he said, he wishes the message was “white people, too, suffer from living in a society in which racial injustices and inequities persist.”

Many of the words surfacing in today’s language debates are not new.

“Implicit bias” traces to the work of psychologists in the 1990s, when the field began to document the subconscious associations that cause people to harbor stereotypes. The effort to substitute “enslaved people” for “slaves” has been long advocated by many Black academics to emphasize the violence that defined American slavery and the humanity of those subjected to it, said Anne Charity Hudley, a linguist at Stanford.

But it is only recently, Dr. Hudley said, that “all these terms are swirling around more in the public consciousness.”

The murder of George Floyd by the police and the outraged protests that followed — in large cities but also in small towns and suburbs across the country — was one catalyst for spreading the terms. The words reverberated across social media and book groups. The word “racism” is being looked up online twice as often as before the killing of Mr. Floyd, according to Merriam-Webster, which has updated its definition to illustrate how racism can be systemic. And more companies, small and large, began requiring language training as part of broader programs they say are aimed at creating a more welcoming culture for diverse work forces.

In a reflection of its surging popularity, “BIPOC” (pronounced “bye-pock”) received its first Merriam-Webster dictionary entry this year, though a number of linguists said they were not sure how the term emerged.

One reason BIPOC has engendered both backlash and bewilderment, said Nicole Holliday, a linguist at the University of Pennsylvania, is because it seems to be an example of “top-down language reform.” Widely shared over social media last year, its champions have said it is intended to emphasize the severity of racial injustice on Black and Indigenous people. But few Black or Indigenous people use it, language scholars say.

In a national poll conducted by Ipsos for The New York Times, more than twice as many white Democrats said they felt “very favorably” toward “BIPOC” as Americans who identify as any of the nonwhite racial categories it encompasses.

In “Why BIPOC Fails,” an essay in a recent issue of the Virginia Law Review, Meera Deo, a sociologist and professor at Southwestern Law School, notes that the term can end up being “confusing” or “misleading.”

The acronym, which was widely adopted only in the last year or so, is often misread as meaning “bisexual people of color.” Asian and Latino Americans are often left to wonder whether they are covered by the “POC” part of the acronym.

Racial justice activists have also long distinguished “equality” from “equity,” but the latter has filtered into the mainstream more recently. Supporters of the word say that it is preferable to “equality,” which they argue suggests that equal treatment is sufficient to achieve fair outcomes — a premise they maintain disregards built-in disadvantages caused by past and present discrimination, and the need for policies to counteract them.

The terms can seem to change swiftly too. Some scholars are now arguing that “implicit bias” should be replaced with “complicit bias,” saying that the former has been used as a kind of exoneration from the biases one holds rather than a call to address them.

In another example, “L.G.B.T.Q.,” the abbreviation for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer or questioning, has recently incorporated an “I” for intersex, for people whose biological sex characteristics don’t fit the traditional definitions of female or male, and an “A” for either asexual — someone who experiences little or no sexual attraction — or ally. And the addition of a “+” at the end is aimed at indicating that the term should not be seen as comprehensive.

“I’m trying to think why it makes me so angry that they keep adding letters,” said Laura Bradford, 52, of Nashville, Tenn., who is bisexual and married to a woman. “It’s like, ‘We’re trying to understand, but you’re making it too complicated!’’’

Still, like many Americans, Ms. Bradford said that she had felt “woken up” last summer after educating herself about racism in America. And the identity-politics term that disturbs her most is the pejorative use of “woke,” a word that has cycled through several meanings, including one that reflected her own experience but now carries the implication that social justice ideals are absurd or insincere.

“It’s mean,” she said. “Being woke is about realizing that you’ve been hurting someone for a long time.”

Whether using certain words is an indication of a willingness to upend the traditions that reinforce social inequalities, however, is unclear. For white liberals especially, “there is social pressure to engage with these words in the social moment,” Dr. Hudley said. “They see this as part of what it means to be an educated white person in certain places and spaces, whether they agree with it or not.”

The current struggles over language reflect meaningful shifts in thinking on some essential issues, experts say.

The addition of the word “structural” or “systemic” ahead of “racism,” for instance, stems from a broader acceptance of the idea that racism is not just personal prejudice but a set of disadvantages that start with the average white child being born into families that are wealthier than others, and extend to laws related to housing and voting, bank-lending policies and education systems.

“Compared to 18 months ago, the term ‘systemic racism’ is being used across the board, whether people are talking about it or denying its existence,” said the historian Ibram X. Kendi, whose book “How to Be an Antiracist” has been widely read.

For Nancy McDonald Ladd, a white senior minister at a Unitarian church in Bethesda, Md., that is made up of mostly white progressives, the fixation with language stems at least partly from a sincere desire to reorient one’s worldview. It can be hard to stay on top of lexical tweaks, which include words that distinguish between defining a person and describing a situation — “unhoused” instead of “homeless.”

Although the Rev. Ladd has sometimes seen her congregants’ deliberations over words as a substitute for more substantive action, the language is “not just virtue-signaling,’’ she said, referring to expressions of opinion intended to publicly demonstrate a person’s good character.

“It’s this deep-seated anxiety about failing,” she said. “So they’re reaching, we are reaching, reaching, reaching for the perfect language.”

Language change, linguists say, has long been a tool in shaping social perceptions of identity.

“Queer,” once a pejorative for gay, has been reclaimed as a self-affirming term, especially by a younger generation of the LGBTQIA+ community. “African American,” which became prevalent in the 1980s after the Rev. Jesse Jackson objected that “black” reduced the complexity of race to a skin color, is now being superseded by “Black,” with a capital “B,” to underline a shared political identity among disparate groups.

Changes in language, of course, also make people feel anxious because they signify changes in society.

The honorific “Ms.” for instance, encountered decades of resistance before it became a widely preferred alternative to identifying women by their marital status.

Still others see the attention on language as a dodge.

Increasingly prevalent statements known as “land acknowledgments,” in which officials mention that a speech or public event is taking place on land once occupied by Indigenous people, have recently come in for criticism. Summer Wilkie, a member of the Cherokee Nation, suggested in a recent essay that they can simply seem shallow and take focus away from policies that support Indigenous people.

Those statements that are meant to convey “thank you” or indicate that the speaker is a “guest,” Ms. Wilkie said, are especially “empty and alienating.”

Lucia Martel-Dow, an immigration lawyer in liberal Marin County, has had a similar thought about white progressives who reflexively use “Latinx.” She has no problem with the term, which has been adopted by a small fraction of U.S. adults who identify as being of Latin American descent, to avoid defaulting to the masculine “Latino” and to be inclusive of people who identify as neither male nor female. But how many white Marin residents making a point to use inclusive language, she wondered, also supported changing the zoning laws to create more housing opportunities for Latin American immigrants?

“You can say ‘Latinx’ all day,” she said, “but if you’re not doing the work, I don’t care.”

Such observations are borne out in a national survey this year by Jennifer Chudy, a political scientist at Wellesley College. Even white Americans with the highest levels of concern about racial discrimination, she found, ranked activities like “listening to people of color” or “educating myself about racism” as more important than “choosing to live in a racially diverse community,” “bringing racial issues to the attention of elected officials,” or voting.

One risk of using words without really meaning them, said Dr. Holliday, the linguist, is the overuse of a term — like “inclusion” — to the point where its meaning is diluted, which linguists call “semantic bleaching.”

Lucia Martel-Dow, an immigration lawyer in liberal Marin County, has had a similar thought about white progressives who reflexively use “Latinx.” She has no problem with the term, which has been adopted by a small fraction of U.S. adults who identify as being of Latin American descent, to avoid defaulting to the masculine “Latino” and to be inclusive of people who identify as neither male nor female. But how many white Marin residents making a point to use inclusive language, she wondered, also supported changing the zoning laws to create more housing opportunities for Latin American immigrants?

“You can say ‘Latinx’ all day,” she said, “but if you’re not doing the work, I don’t care.”

Such observations are borne out in a national survey this year by Jennifer Chudy, a political scientist at Wellesley College. Even white Americans with the highest levels of concern about racial discrimination, she found, ranked activities like “listening to people of color” or “educating myself about racism” as more important than “choosing to live in a racially diverse community,” “bringing racial issues to the attention of elected officials,” or voting.

One risk of using words without really meaning them, said Dr. Holliday, the linguist, is the overuse of a term — like “inclusion” — to the point where its meaning is diluted, which linguists call “semantic bleaching.”


The term ‘BIPOC’ is a bad fit for the Canadian discourse on race

Joseph Heath’s piece questioning the prevailing wisdom of Canadian diversity discourse and its reliance on American language and context struct a nerve and provoked a debate that earlier articles had not, including his defence of the term visible minorities rather than separating Blacks from other visible minority groups.

While I agree with his focus on Indigenous peoples and visible minorities, and use of those terms until the employment equity act terminology is changed. We also need to recognize the differences and the similarities with the USA, both overall and with respect to specific groups.

I am less convinced by his arguments of French as the other group, given constitutional guarantees and a provincial government with extensive powers (nationalist currents in Quebec might agree on the “oppression” aspect but would likely bristle at being lumped together with visible minorities):

One of the biggest problems in Canadian politics is that large segments of our population seem to think they live in the United States. How else can one explain the fools running around in MAGA hats and holding demonstrations in support of former U.S. president Donald Trump? Sometimes, I feel like I should shake them by the shoulders and shout, “You live in Canada!”

Unfortunately, I am beginning to feel the same way toward people who talk about “BIPOC issues,” as though it were normal for Canadians to use that expression. After all, BIPOC (“Black, Indigenous and People of Color”) is an acronym developed in the U.S. to discuss domestic race relations, just as BAME (“Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic”) is used in Britain.

Rather than developing our own acronym to reflect the reality of race relations and multiculturalism in Canada, far too many people have chosen just to use the American term. This cognitive capture by American social-justice discourse is, in many ways, just a left-wing version of what’s been happening with MAGA on the right.

All three components of the acronym, B, I and POC, are problematic in a Canadian context. Let’s start with “Black.” In the United States, there is good reason to put the B first, because Black people are by far the most important minority group in that country, making up more than 12 per cent of the population. Furthermore, as descendants of slavery, most can trace their ancestry in the U.S. back hundreds of years.

The situation in Canada is quite different. When I was born, in the 1960s, Black Canadians made up 0.2 per cent of the population. This number has grown to more than 3.5 per cent today, but the consequence is that the Black population in Canada consists almost entirely of immigrants and their immediate descendants. Furthermore, Black Canadians are not the largest group of recent immigrants, as they are outnumbered by both people of South Asian and East Asian ancestry.

Because of their distinctive history in the U.S., it makes sense to treat Black people as a separate category in that country. And because of their demographics, it may make some sense to put them before Indigenous people, who make up only 1.6 per cent of the U.S. population. In Canada, however, where Indigenous people make up almost 5 per cent of the population, it makes no sense at all to put the B before the I, or even to treat Black people as a separate category from other ethnic groups. Indeed, it is in many ways offensive to the distinctive status of Indigenous peoples in Canada to put the B first. From the perspective of many Indigenous people, the Black population of Canada are settlers, just like white Canadians – that is, part and parcel of the continuing colonial project.

As far as discrimination is concerned, comparative victimization claims are difficult to assess, but only someone who was confused about the differences between American and Canadian history could think that the suffering of Black Canadians outranks that of Indigenous peoples.

This brings us to the “POC” part of the acronym. This is slightly less important, but the term traditionally used in Canada is “visible minority.” And apart from being American, “person of colour” is not very popular among those it used to describe.

Finally, it is worth noting that the largest group of people in this country who were victimized by British colonialism, subjugated and incorporated into confederation by force, are French Canadians. This is why the status of the French language has served as the major flashpoint for conflict over minority rights in this country.

And so, if there is the need for an acronym to identify the most important minority groups in Canada, I would propose “FIVM”: Francophone, Indigenous and Visible Minority.

For all those who have enthusiastically adopted the BIPOC acronym – along with the American habit of analyzing social conflict through a racial lens – it is worth keeping in mind that the U.S. approach to race relations has been a recipe for conflict. Why anyone would want to import this way of thinking into Canada is a mystery to me. When people around the world look for models of pluralist integration to emulate, Canada’s federalism and multiculturalism policies are generally pointed to as among the most successful.

An important feature of these policies, traditionally, is that Canada has not sought to racialize what amount to ethnic differences among peoples. The idea that a recent immigrant from Ethiopia has something important in common with a descendant of African slaves whose ancestors have been on this continent for 300 years is not just a fiction – it is pernicious misrepresentation. Even the suggestion that all Black communities here face the same racism is likely to obscure more than it reveals.

The idea that we should continue with the failed American BIPOC model instead of using the far more appropriate FIVM acronym is difficult to understand – except as a consequence of American cultural imperialism. How else could anyone get the wild idea that it might advance the cause of social justice to import American racial politics?

Source: The term ‘BIPOC’ is a bad fit for the Canadian discourse on race

More neutral and less controversial question of the term BIPOC is seen in this piece by Azra Rashid:

On April 20, a jury in Minnesota found Derek Chauvin guilty of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in the killing of George Floyd. Following the verdict, Canadian media was filled with extensive coverage and endless analyses of the story.

Many Canadians watched the racism unfold in the United States with a sense of moral superiority and relief that “this kind of thing does not happen in Canada.” The Canadian response to racism south of the border can be described as an Americanization of Canadian history. The media’s lack of coverage of racism in Canada, in its historically accurate context, is a cause for concern.

Different histories of racism

Canada’s history of racism is different than the United States.

In 1619, the first slave ship docked on North American shores, bringing 20 enslaved Africans. This was the start of the transatlantic slave trade that saw at least 300,000 Africans brought to and sold at U.S. ports. Historians estimate that in Canada, between 1671 and 1834, there were 4,200 slaves – about two-thirds were Indigenous and one-third were Black.

Outlawing the slave trade and restrictions on non-European immigration later slowed down the growth of the Black population both in the U.S. and in Canada.

Immigration regulations introduced in 1962 in Canada eliminated preferences for immigrants of European origin for a points-based system, prioritizing skilled labour. As a result, the immigrant population became more diverse in Canada. Similarly, in the U.S., the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, the Refugee Act of 1980 and the Immigration Act of 1990 have helped to increase the number of immigrants in the country.

Immigrants today account for 13.7 per cent of the U.S. population compared to 22 per cent in Canada.

The history of slavery and immigration provides an important context to contemporary conversations on racism. But an increase in immigration does not automatically lead to more or less racism.

In a country like Canada, it’s important for us to acknowledge our differences in history from the U.S., account for racism within a particular historical context and reflect on what racism actually looks like here.

Difference can provide a space for understanding the implication of race in defining the various experiences of racialized groups, instead of a universalized representation of race and racism.

Racism towards Indigenous people

Canada has a long history of racism towards Indigenous people – from the colonization of their land and enslavement to the violation of treaties and policies that led to residential schools and the ‘60s Scoop.

Abuse and racism suffered by First Nations, Inuit and Métis people at the hands of the government continue to take a toll on Indigenous lives. Many remote communities face challenges accessing basic necessities like clean drinking water.

Indigenous people in Canada also experience the highest levels of poverty: 25 per cent of Indigenous people live in poverty while 40 per cent of Indigenous children live in poverty.

Accessing health care has also been a challenge for many First Nations people. Several months ago, Joyce Echaquan died in a hospital in Joliette, Que. Not only did she not receive the help she needed, but hospital staff told her that she would be better off dead. Meaningful action to fight the systemic racism Indigenous people are experiencing is yet to come.

In the U.S., genocidal policies aimed at Indigenous people changed when legislators passed a number of laws, most importantly the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975, which resulted in the U.S. government’s recognition of Indigenous statehood.

In recent years, some policies, especially those implemented by former president Donald Trump’s administration, have been diminishing tribal land rights, sovereignty and resources. The Keystone XL Pipeline project, approved by the Trump administration and cancelled by U.S. President Joe Biden, was met with strong resistance from Indigenous people in Canada and the U.S. The project had the backing of Canadian government.

The American influence

The U.S. influences Canadian lives in many ways – from the economy to culture. Canadians often mindlessly consume U.S. media and politics without thinking twice about how those issues manifest themselves in Canada and what the differences are in the history of race and racism between the two countries.

The Americanization of Canadian culture is not new. In 1926, in an essay titled Is Canada Being Americanized?, journalist and philosopher C.H. Bretherton offered reflections on Canada’s movement toward American models of social and economic life. However, Americanization of Canadian history is a rather new phenomenon.

About a decade ago, a national survey of 18- to 24-year-olds found that only 46 per cent of respondents knew Sir John A. Macdonald was the first prime minister of Canada, let alone the racist policies he implemented in the country. Polls conducted more recently by Historica Canada show a similar lack of knowledge of Canada’s history.

The blame falls not only on our education system, but also on our news and media that continue to lead with American stories and fail to report on what is historically important and relevant in Canada. In the last 100 years, immigration reforms have made Canada more diverse, but the systemic racism faced by Indigenous peoples and immigrants fails to make a mark on the Canadian conscience.

The same day a jury reached a verdict in the Chauvin trial, a superior court in Québec decided to uphold Bill 21. The law prohibits public sector workers who are in positions of authority (including teachers, police officers and judges) from wearing religious symbols (such as hijabs, niqabs, kippas, yarmulkes, crucifixes or turbans) at work. The judge made an exception for individuals working in English-language schools. That story, however, was buried under the coverage of the Chauvin verdict.

While news outlets are flooded with stories on anti-Black racism, many stemming from the other side of the border, there’s still no uproar in Canada about legitimizing racism by targeting non-white communities.

Source: Racism & the Americanization of Canadian history: Why we shouldn’t look at ourselves through a U.S. lens

BIPOC or IBPOC? LGBTQ or LGBTQ2S+? Who decides which terms we should use?

Good discussion on names or labels, along with practical advice on their use.

I still stick with visible minorities as it is the term used by the employment equity act and thus Statistics Canada and other government data sources. I have largely shifted to using Indigenous peoples instead of Aboriginal peoples given that the government has taken some symbolic steps in that direction (eg., department names) without formally changing the language of the EE act.

And personally, while I understand that names and labels are important, I am more interested in what the data shows in terms of differences and similarities between and among groups than discussing terminology.

And sometimes new usage can be silly, e.g., pregnant people rather than pregnant women:

It does not take a degree to notice that the names for groups of people sharing a common skin colour, ethnicity, gender identity, disability or racial background change frequently — and how the grammar of these names also change. 

In many cases it is no longer acceptable to use a plain unadorned noun to identify someone from a marginalized group (this person is a(n) X). Nouns become adjectives (a disabled/homeless person) and those adjectives are then further embedded in modifying phrases (a person with disabilities/experiencing homelessness). 

Longer strings of adjectives are gathered into acronyms, which can be pronounced as one word (BIPOC), or initialisms, which cannot (LGBTQ+). The issue of which letters should be included along with the order in which they should appear may be debated (BIPOC vs. IBPOCLGBTQ+ vs. LGBTQIA vs. LGBTQ2S+).

Capitalization may vary (black vs. Blackwhite vs. Whitedeaf vs. Deaf). Some of these new terms open up grammatical questions: should I ask my non-binary friend to introduce themselves or themself?

If you are the type of person who finds this baffling or intolerable, you probably hold the mistaken belief that names stay fixed over time, or at least that they should.

If, on the other hand, you are sincerely concerned with using the appropriate terms, you may wonder how to determine what is correct. Who is the person or committee invested with the power to decide which terms are the right ones and which should be put to rest? Who is the arbiter of contentious language? The answer, in the case of terms that refer to people, is the people to whom those terms refer

Use the description the person has chosen

On an individual level, it is common courtesy to ask someone what their name is with the intention of using that name for them. We do not meet a new person and decide what their name should be. If we have only seen their name written down we may also check the pronunciation, although we may discover that we are unable to reproduce it. And if we forget someone’s name or mispronounce it, most of us instinctively apologize. When people change their names, as women who marry sometimes still do, we endeavour to call them by their new name. 

This courtesy extends to the way we describe people. Taking nationality as an example, someone may have parents from one country (Iran), have been born in another (Great Britain) and have lived most of their life in a third (Canada). Whether that person thinks of themself as Iranian, British, Canadian or some hyphenated blend of the three is as much a personal choice as it is legally defined. Politeness dictates that we use the description the person in question has chosen.

Names and descriptions of groups of people are necessarily more complicated because groups can be smaller or bigger in size. Canadians can include Iranian-Canadians while Indigenous communities can include Anishinaabeg and Cree peoples. Asians are members of the BIPOC community and lesbians are members of the LGBTQ+ community. And all of these people can be members of multiple communities.

It is incumbent on us to use the level of granularity that fits the context and when unsure, ask the people we are introducing or speaking about how they want to be identified. Where group membership is contested (for example, should women include people who do not menstruate? Should people who menstruate be called women?) opting for a superordinate term (adults, humans, people) is one way for non-members to avoid taking a side.

Describing groups can be even more difficult

Descriptions of groups of people can also be complicated by the fact that group members rarely all hold the same opinion regarding what they should be called. 

Unanimity on virtually any issue is almost impossible to achieve. What do we call people who cannot agree on what to be called? If we are guided by politeness, we can check with a group member who we perceive to have influence or follow what seems to be the dominant usage of the moment. And courtesy goes both ways. If we use an outdated or disliked term in good faith, we are entitled to polite, not hostile, correction.

Politeness and courtesy are best practices when we use language as individuals. But some of us also speak or write as members of organizations. For example, teachers, professors, journalists, editors, politicians and policy writers all represent institutions that set standards for language use. 

While the use of an older-term-now-replaced can be excused at an individual level, it is unacceptable at the institutional level where power resides. Institutions do well to choose language carefully, to be prepared to change often and to be fully open about how decisions around language have been made. Language acknowledgement statements, to the effect that the language chosen may not be used by all communities and individuals, can highlight, in a positive way, that choices are never perfect and that they are contingent on time and place.

People are not organized into neat categories and the names of categories are never static. Language is fluid and always moving.

The sound of language change is the sound of people using language differently until the majority settles on one usage. The voices of people debating and arguing about which terms that apply to them are pejorative, inadequate, or inappropriate demonstrates the ways in which language choice matters deeply. It is a beautiful chorus and the best practice is to listen closely.


ICYMI: Where Did BIPOC Come From? The acronym, which stands for black, Indigenous and people of color, is suddenly everywhere. Is it doing its job?

Good explainer on the origins of BIPOC. Personally, I find debates over the various terms – radicalized minorities, persons of colour, visible minorities, BIPOC – less interesting than more detailed examination of what socioeconomic and other data says regarding comparative outcomes between different groups.

But separating out Indigenous from visible minorities (I stick with the official government term), of course, makes sense given the very different histories and experiences, notwithstanding the common thread of racism:

Black Americans have been called by many names in the United States. African-American, Negro, colored and the unutterable slur that rhymes with bigger. In recent weeks, as protests against police brutality and racism have flooded the streets and social media, another more inclusive term has been ascribed to the population: BIPOC.

The acronym stands for “black, Indigenous and people of color.” Though it is now ubiquitous in some corners of Twitter and Instagram, the earliest reference The New York Times could find on social media was a 2013 tweet.

As a phrase, “people of color” dates back centuries — it was first cited in The Oxford English Dictionary, with the British spelling “colour,” in 1796 — and is often abbreviated as POC. The other two letters, for black and Indigenous, were included in the acronym to account for the erasure of black people with darker skin and Native American people, according to Cynthia Frisby, a professor of strategic communication at the Missouri School of Journalism.

“The black and Indigenous was added to kind of make sure that it was inclusive,” Ms. Frisby said. “I think the major purpose of that was for including voices that hadn’t originally been heard that they wanted to include in the narrative, darker skin, blacks and Indigenous groups, so that they could make sure that all the skin shades are being represented.”

Charmaine Nelson, an art history professor at McGill University, said that the history of black and Indigenous people in Canada calls for the distinction between them and other people of color. In some parts of Canada, mainly east of Ontario, Indigenous people were colonized but not enslaved, she said, unlike Africans who were subjected to chattel slavery everywhere.

“We understand that under colonialism African and Indigenous people had very different experiences,” Dr. Nelson said. “To conflate everything in one is to erase, which is the very nature of genocidal practice.”

If the intention was to help spell it out, some aren’t getting the message. On social media, many assumed the term stood for “bisexual people of color.” Others read it as “biopic,” the shorthand for a biographical movie. The term has caused confusion, and there isn’t universal agreement about what it means or whom it actually includes, but to most, the people of color includes Latinos and Asians.

To attempt to represent so many different identities in a single term is a product of colonialism, according to Chelsey Luger, a wellness trainer at the Native Wellness Institute, and an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, a tribal nation in North Dakota.

“It is a redundant term if anything else,” Ms. Luger said. “All people of color are Indigenous. A lot of people of color are not acknowledged as and don’t have a connection to that idea because their Indigenous identity has been erased through assimilative techniques or just the connection to our stories and our history has been violently taken from us.”

The Indigenous community critiques the designations of Native American and First Nations, as the Indigenous are called in Canada, because their diversity is not recognized in those terms, according to Ms. Luger.

“The fact that people think that we’re one homogeneous group and they don’t acknowledge our diversity contributes to our dehumanization,” Ms. Luger said. “It is common knowledge that European and white Americans come from multinational complex backgrounds with very diverse histories. It is dangerous when you perpetuate the notion that black and Indigenous people of color are homogeneous.”

Some are comfortable saying BIPOC.

“It was, ‘Should I call them black or African-Americans,’ but BIPOC came out recently,” said Gabby Beckford, a travel content creator. In a video posted to her YouTube channel, she explained the differences between the terms.

“I don’t think it’s supposed to be dividing,” Ms. Beckford said in an interview. “If you’re talking about black people, don’t say BIPOC. If you’re talking about overpolicing in the United States, you can say black people. It can seem lazy, but if you’re talking to people of color in general, compared to the white experience, I think you should say BIPOC.”

Others simply want to be included in the process of coming up with terms that are meant to stand for them.

“This is like when we asked that they arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor and they’re like, ‘How about we pass a law?’” Ms. Obell said. “We are asking for a lot of things, and being called BIPOC is not one of them.”

“Stop making decisions for us without us.”

Source: BIPOC: What Does It Mean? – The New York Times