“People of Color” Is Supposed To Unite Racial Minorities – But Is It?

Authored By 
Brittany Torrez
Blog contributor 
Policy Fellow
March 1, 2022

In 1977, a group of Black women went to the National Women’s Conference to advocate for the Black Women’s Agenda and were met by appeals for inclusion by non-Black minority women. The Black women agreed but negotiated a new term in the process: “women of color”. This term would be used not for categorical or descriptive purposes, but to promote solidarity. “People of color” originated with the goal of uniting a collective of oppressed peoples to advocate for policy changes —but what barriers prevent identification with this term in the first place? Though the term “people of color” has become prevalent in everyday discourse on race and is key to intraminority policy support, less is known about how members of distinct racial minority groups make sense of and identify with this collective term.

There are many reasons to think a collective term that brings disparate peoples together under one umbrella of racial unity may not be effective. Various historical patterns of racial formation and hierarchy actually serve to separate these racial groups. Specifically, anti-Blackness, a crucial underpinning of US and global racial formation, may influence how likely non-Black racial minority groups are to identify with this term and participate in racial coalition more broadly.

Anti-Blackness is a fundamental organizer of race relations in modern society. Thus, the racialization of non-Black people occurs, in part, through distancing themselves from Black people. This distancing occurs at both a structural and individual level. On a structural level, racist policies have historically denied citizenship to Black people in Latin America and prevented the integration of Asian and Black communities in the US. On an individual level, the stigmatization of Black people remains a psychologically salient feature of some non-Black racial minorities’ understanding of and association with this stigmatized group. People’s psychological desire to avoid associations with stigmatized groups drives this social distancing, a process referred to as stigma by association. Stigma by association can also create distance in people’s group identification because people derive their self-concept in part from their group membership.

Following this logic, non-Black racial minorities might be hesitant to identify with this term, particularly if they already highly endorse anti-Black attitudes. In recent work, we found that the vast majority of non-Black Asian American and Latinx adults conceive the term “people of color” to include Black people and people who still strongly endorse these anti-Black attitudes are less likely to identify with this term (even across varying descriptions of the term). Even more troubling, in a third study, we find that non-Black people who strongly endorse anti-Black attitudes are significantly less likely to identify as a “person of color” when this term is framed as primarily solidaristic in particular versus merely categorical (e.g., descriptive). Overall, these results reveal the limitations of a “people of color” solidaristic and collective frame in the context of non-Black communities where anti-Blackness still shapes intraminority attitudes.  

The purpose of this work is not to discourage activists and social movement organizers from striving to create intraminority racial coalition. On the contrary, intraminority racial coalition and collective policy support is imperative in the fight against racial oppression.

Recent decades have seen persistent racial oppression leveled at various racial minority groups. Black Americans are at a disproportionate risk for police violence. Anti-Asian hate crimes are on the rise. Thousands of Central American immigrants have been separated from their families indefinitely at the border. However, in order to promote coalition against these oppressive conditions, it is first crucial to understand how the sociohistorical and psychological features of anti-Blackness in non-Black communities may prevent effective coalition in the first place. Future research, activism, and policies drawing upon this collective intraminority frame might instead attempt to intervene at this psychological level, attenuating attitudes of anti-Blackness before trying to create coalition amongst groups that are predisposed to separate themselves from each other. 

Brittany Torrez, ISPS Graduate Policy Fellow 2021, is a doctoral student in Organizational Behavior at the Yale School of Management. Her research examines the psychological processes that contribute to the reproduction of race and class inequality in the workplace.