Q: Why aren’t white people included in the expression “people of color”? This has bothered me for a long time. White is a color too, isn’t it?
A: You make a very good point. All people are really “people of color,” since no one’s skin is colorless.
But the description “of color” strikes us as better than “nonwhite,” which describes people in a negative way—that is, in terms of what they lack or what they are not.
And we’re not especially satisfied with “minority,” which is often inaccurate or meaningless.
The term “people of color” has surged in popularity in the last couple of decades, but it’s not as new as you might think.
Citations in the Oxford English Dictionary show that the phrase was in use during the 18th century.
The OED’s earliest citation is from An Historical Survey of St. Domingo (1797), by Bryan Edwards, a planter and politician:
“The inhabitants … were composed of three great classes: 1st, pure whites. 2d, people of colour, and blacks of free condition. 3d, negroes in a state of slavery. … The class which, by a strange abuse of language, is called people of colour, originates from an intermixture of the whites and the blacks.” (The italics are Edwards’s.)
And here are two more early appearances of the phrase: “The Bermudian pilots are men of colour” (from an 1803 issue of The Naval Chronicle), and “She is a woman of colour” (from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, 1883).
The OED says that in phrases like these, “color” means “the hue of the darker (as distinguished from the ‘white’) varieties of mankind,” and “in America, esp. a person of black descent.”
Obviously, today the term “of color” doesn’t necessarily mean racially mixed, as it sometimes did in the 18th century.
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) has an interesting Usage Note on the subject:
“Dissatisfaction with the implications of nonwhite as a racial label has doubtless contributed to the recent popularity of the term person of color and others, such as woman of color, with the same construction. In effect, person of color stands nonwhite on its head, substituting a positive for a negative. It is interesting that the almost exclusive association in American English of colored with Black does not carry over to terms formed with ‘of color,’ which are used inclusively of most groups other than those of European origin.”
You might be interested in a posting we wrote some time ago about how blackness and darkness came to have negative associations (as in in such phrases as “black sheep” and “dark day”).
Check out our books about the English language