• Conversations on Diversity

    A blog by Eboo Patel, Mary Ellen Giess and Tony Banout that looks at identity and diversity issues from multiple angles.


What’s Lost When We Are All Categorized as Either 'White' or 'People of Color'

The uses, misuses and overuses of racial categories.

February 18, 2020

David Von Drehle had a fascinating piece in The Washington Post recently about the demise of white ethnic politics. On the national level, there’s no such thing as a discernible Irish American vote, Italian American vote or Greek American vote. One reason for that is because so much of what were once considered distinctive ethnic heritages have been juiced into the category “white.”

As Von Drehle points out, how often does presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg talk about being Maltese American, or Amy Klobuchar speak about her Slovenian American story? And if one of them wins, which would be a first for their ethnic group, it will hardly be noted in the press.

Things have changed rapidly in the world of whiteness. In 1988, Michael Dukakis spoke frequently of his Greek American roots. A generation before that, the scholar Michael Novak used the word "PIGS" to describe how the WASP world derided certain more recently immigrated white ethnic groups -- Poles, Italians, Greeks and Slavs. These groups, and one could argue the Irish as well, made up America’s “unmeltable ethnics.”

In his book of that title, Unmeltable Ethnics: Politics and Culture in American Life, published in the early 1970s, Novak details his family’s distinctive Slovenian American story, and then notes that he had avoided learning about it for so long because the people who owned the term “white” in America -- namely, the WASPS -- had made him feel embarrassed about his ethnic roots. The realization caused a searing internal anger. Novak writes, “The PIGS are not silent willingly. The silence burns like hidden coals in the chest.”

If “white” as a category hides (or, perhaps, stomps out) so much internal diversity, then the category “people of color” has to plead guilty as well. Think, for a moment, what percentage of the world would qualify as “people of color,” at least the way the word is used on, say, the pages of The New York Times. For starters, virtually anyone whose heritage can be traced back to Asia, Africa and Central and South America. Also, people from Mexico and the Middle East. Right there you have something like 70 to 80 percent of the human race. This doesn’t even count indigenous people the world over.

How can a racial category that includes the vast majority of human beings on the planet possibly have descriptive, analytical or moral value?

And if the answer to that question is that the term “people of color” really means “not white,” I refer you back to the complex and changing character of the term “white” and ask this question: If Greeks and Italians were viewed as not white just a few decades ago, but are considered in the fold now, what might happen to hundreds of millions of light-skinned people from India or Iran or Mexico or Egypt (to name just a few possibilities)? And if the category “white” does one day expand to include them -- as it most certainly will -- what stories and practices will be lost in that process?

Do you really want to be white if it means giving up your heritage?

Do you really want to be categorized as a person of color if it means being thrown into a barrel with six billion or so others?

Also, what’s the use of belonging to a category (“people of color”) whose principal purpose is opposing another category (“white”) that keeps changing? You don’t get to define the terms of the category game, ever.

And if this is all about the names we go by or the color of our skin, consider how often we read those things wrong. Beto O’Rourke, Irish American as can be, keeps getting mistaken for being Hispanic.

Also, consider the situation of people of mixed race. Of the 20 kids or so that hang out at our house -- friends of one or both of my kids -- over half are of mixed race/ethnicity. My brother is in a mixed race/ethnicity marriage. My sister-in-law is in a mixed race/ethnicity marriage. If you saw half of them from a couple hundred feet away, you might think they were Greek or Italian, rather than half Mexican American and half Palestinian American. That would mean you would mistake them for white, unless of course this was America in 1970, in which case they would be … well, what?

What shall we say to these kids as they grow up? That they get two choices -- “white” or “people of color”? And whatever choice they make will almost certainly be a mistake. After all, they are sure to frequently get misidentified for the other category. They will no doubt be viewed as not pure enough by many people in their “home” category. And the definition of what constitutes that “home” category doesn’t take into account the most important parts of who they are, anyway.

Obviously race matters. It seems to me that the categories “white” and “people of color” help explain and describe some things, especially when used in certain contexts and with proper caveats and explicit contingencies.

Unfortunately, such terms are not often used with particular care. From the pages of The New York Times to discussions in diversity programs, racial categories like “white” and “people of color” are used ubiquitously and as if they have total explanatory power.

It seems to me that those of us who categorize the world for a living can come up with a better system than this.


Back to Top