I am ethnically Chinese.
I was born and grew up in Myanmar for the first eight years of my life before moving to the U.S., so I also consider myself culturally Burmese.
These two aspects of my identity and upbringing play a critical role in feeding my anxiety around identifying as a person of color.
For the first 18 years of my life, I didn’t even know the term ‘people of color’ existed. I primarily identified as Chinese, Burmese, and sometimes Asian. I only learned of the term and started adopting it in college when I became active in social justice movements on campus and learned about white supremacy and the racialization of non-white people in America. These days, as a social justice educator and facilitator, I have acclimated to the term simply because it is the currently accepted term for describing non-white people. But deep in my psyche, I have long had my issues with the term and a palpable discomfort with identifying as a person of color.
The term ‘people of color’ centers whiteness even as it attempts to be an affirming identity label for non-white people. The term perpetuates the pernicious idea that whiteness is the default and white people therefore have no particular race. Race is a special identity marker that is only assigned to people who are not white; who are the other. Race comes with color. Non-white people are subsequently of color by virtue of not being color-free, white people. The term ‘people of color’ situates non-white people’s existence in strict relation to whiteness, rather than liberate them from it.
I am deeply uncomfortable with having my identity exist in relation to whiteness, especially when that relation situates whiteness as normal and my ethnic and cultural identity as deviant. I feel incredibly lucky to have lived in an Asian country where I was not racialized. In Myanmar, Chinese people are by no means the majority. We are in fact an ethnic minority in a Burmese-majority society, but that is immaterial, because Chinese people are not racialized as an other and there is no systemic racial oppression of Chinese people in Myanmar. I was able to grow up affirmed of my various cultural identities, and more importantly, see myself as a unique individual who was judged solely by his individual merits. I was not representing any oppressed, minority group and my individual successes and failures did not reflect on such a group. Because of these formative childhood experiences, I could never get used to the idea that I had color, that I was of color, because I lived for a time free of such an idea.
In contrast, I have Asian American, Latinx American, and black American friends who have gone to countries of their heritage either to visit or live there for a period of time and reported how amazing it felt to blend in with everyone else. They felt invisible for the first time — in a good way. They were no longer singled out for their race. They were just themselves in a sea of people who looked just like them. I wish for more people of color who have spent the majority of their life in the U.S. to get to experience as I did living as a human being not in relation to whiteness, as a human being free from racialization. At this point in my life, I have spent 25 years in the U.S. — three times longer than I have in Myanmar. I have become pretty racialized and spend most of my days existing as an Asian person, as a person of color whose identity exists in relation to the dominant whiteness all around me. But I am able to remember easily, if only for a moment, what it’s like to live outside of whiteness every time I think of my childhood in Myanmar.
The term ‘people of color’ centers the American experience, which is not relatable to the majority of non-white people around the world. ‘People of color’ is a racial nomenclature that originated in American racial discourse and was coined primarily to describe black American identity that is rooted in being racialized and treated as the other in a white-dominant society.
The term is largely unfamiliar to most people outside of the U.S. as it does not reflect their lived experience. While white supremacy and racism have certainly altered societies all over the world through centuries of colonization, most non-white people outside of the U.S. do not live as minorities in white-dominant societies and do not lead racialized lives. Many people who come to the U.S. are often perplexed by why Americans are so “obsessed with race”. Race, racialization, and racism are not a daily lived experience for people who come from other societies. I will take a moment here to speculate that non-white people who live in the UK, Australia, Brazil, and South Africa experience similar levels of racialization and racism given these countries’ similar histories of white supremacy and systemic racism.
The term ‘people of color’ reflects black Americans’ particular history with racial oppression in the U.S., which should be honored and not erased. Not too long ago, black people in the U.S. were called colored people as a way to segregate them from the color-free, white people. This term was dehumanizing and hurtful. It still is. It triggers memories of intergenerational trauma. The term ‘people of color’ is simply a grammatical inversion of the derogatory term, coined to shed the derogatory term’s awful legacy and reclaim it as an affirming identity label. For many decades, ‘people of color’ was predominantly, if not exclusively, used by black people to refer to themselves. But as social justice discourse evolved over the years, the term began to expand and include more and more groups of non-white people including indigenous people, Latinx people, Asian people, Arab and other Middle Eastern people. But this expansion has not been a smooth experience. In fact, it has been a painful process for both black people and all the new groups of non-white people that were suddenly considered people of color.
Black people experienced erasure in two ways. One way was that white people who were not comfortable saying ‘black people’ in the new atmosphere of political correctness found a loophole. They could now say ‘people of color’ instead, which apparently was more palatable. A lot of times when white people say ‘people of color’, they are really talking about black people. The other way black people experienced erasure was that in labeling all non-white people as a singular group, we were led to believe that all non-white people experienced racism in the same way. Non-black, non-white people were suddenly able to claim experiences of racial violence that predominantly affected black people, such as extreme violence and death at the hands of the police. Meanwhile, non-black, non-white people did not examine the pervasive anti-blackness that simmered in their own Asian, Latinx, Arab and Persian communities. The pervasive anti-blackness that black people experienced was ultimately made invisible by aggregating all non-white people into a monolithic group.
Non-black, non-white people on the other hand experienced uneasy inclusion. In being told that all non-white people were collectively people of color, the cultural identities of and unique histories of racial oppression experienced by indigenous people, Latinx people, and Asian people were subsumed by the larger black-and-white narrative of American racial discourse. For me as an ethnically Chinese person who was not born in the U.S., I experience this uneasy inclusion mainly as impostor syndrome. I feel like an impostor identifying as a person of color. Many Asians feel particularly stuck in this contrived dilemma. We are obviously not white. But we are not obviously black either. Many light-skinned Asian people benefit from the conditional privileges that come from white-adjacency. But many dark-skinned Asian people do not.
Non-white people are asked to identify collectively as people of color to showcase solidarity against white supremacy, but this should not come at the expense of examining anti-blackness in Asian, Latinx, and other non-black, non-white communities. Solidarity also should not come at the expense of honoring non-black, non-white people’s distinct cultural identities and experiences of racial oppression.
So what’s the alternative?
I am embracing the term ‘people of the global majority’ (acronym: PGM) as a much more affirming and inclusive alternative. I did not invent this term. I only learned of it recently and I instantly fell in love with it. Well, actually, I want the term to be ‘global majority people’ as it is grammatically easier to say and write, but that’s an argument I’ll push for another day.
‘People of the global majority’ is a much more affirming and inclusive term for several reasons.
The term ‘people of the global majority’ makes non-white people’s identities independent of whiteness. It is a term that not only decenters whiteness, but renders it irrelevant. When you hear the term, it does not activate any relation to race or white centrality. The term makes its own relevance. It weaves meaning on its own terms. It speaks to an identity that is free from being in lesser-than relation to whiteness.
The term ‘people of the global majority’ affirms non-white people’s inherent power as the majority of the world’s population. This is in contrast to the fact that people of color in the U.S. are often considered minorities even as they will outnumber white people in the country by as early as 2050. The term ‘minorities’ is intended to indicate people of color’s position in the American racial power hierarchy. The term ‘people of the global majority’ enables non-white people around the world to refuse to play by the hierarchy of white supremacy and autonomously claim their own power — power that is born from global solidarity, rather than oppression.
The term ‘people of the global majority’ is super-inclusive of all non-white people around the world. It does not center the American experience. While the term ‘people of color’ is perfectly appropriate in the American context, the term ‘people of the global majority’ makes space for multi-faceted, pluralistic narratives of the fight against racial oppression by non-white people around the world. It enables global solidarity against white supremacy without cultural erasure.
I hope that the terms ‘people of color’ and ‘people of the global majority’ (preferably ‘global majority people’) can exist side by side in an increasingly global and intersectional racial discourse. If you are so inspired, please consider using the term in your next conversation on race, equity, and liberation, and consider identifying as a person of the global majority if it is more fitting to you.