BIPOC, POC, or Black?: A Note on Terminology

Last week I came across this tweet about the term ‘BIPOC’:

https://twitter.com/MadisonPayton2/status/1429854285836300294

It reminded me of when I raised the question of what term people preferred to use when referring to people of color: BIPOC, POC, non-white, or some other term. I raised this question because even then there were mixed feelings about the use of ‘BIPOC’ when discussing the experiences of people of color.

I was genuinely surprised at the results (most people preferred ‘POC’) and the discussion it prompted. 

I’ll admit that when I first created this blog, I wasn’t 100% clear on how the term should or had been used. It was a new and thought-provoking term that I thought was more politically correct and inclusive than POC (which I now realize is part of the problem). 

Like most people, I didn’t do my research and just made the switch without really understanding the significance of (and problems with) the term.

When I asked POC studying the ancient world on Twitter last December to share who they were and what they studied as a way of signal-boosting historically excluded groups in the field, one individual claimed that using the term ‘BIPOC’ in my call for contributors was ‘insulting’:

Even now, it seems like the animosity toward the term remains. 

So, I figured that, since I continue to use the term in conjunction with this blog, it was time to set the record straight:

What does ‘BIPOC’ mean?

Where does it come from?

How should (and shouldn’t) it be used?

A Black Lives Matter protest in June 2020

The origins and meaning of the term ‘BIPOC’

Although the term has been used much more liberally in the past year, especially following the rise in visibility and awareness of police brutality against Black individuals last summer, the “New York Times” claims that the earliest use of the term ‘BIPOC’ is this tweet from 2013. 

I think that the disdain for the term these days comes from a combination of two things: a lack of consensus about what the term actually means, which has led to the frequent misuse of the term (as tends to be the case with many terms associated with social justice movements). 

Some believe that the term means “Black and Indigenous People of Color,” which speaks directly to its intentions of highlighting the historical and systemic oppression of Black and Indigenous people in the United States. In this sense, BIPOC is a more specific term than ‘People of Color’ (POC) as it calls attention to the experiences of specific groups under the broader umbrella of people of color.

More common, however, is the understanding that BIPOC is meant to be all-encompassing, meaning “Black, Indigenous, and People of Color.” A quick search on Google indicates that this is by far the most preferred definition of the term, and a couple of days on Twitter shows that this is perhaps what makes the term so problematic. 

On the one hand, the term is meant to be all-inclusive and promote solidarity between Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color in the United States. I prefer to use and think about the term in this way.

However, on the other hand, the term runs the risk of homogenizing and flattening out the experiences of these distinct groups. This is not unlike the similar problems with using the terms “underrepresented” and “marginalized” when referring to people of color.

The problems with ‘BIPOC’

The reason I wanted to write this blog post was because a few days ago I watched an episode of 30 Rock where a running joke centered around whether or not it was okay to call someone a “Puerto Rican” despite the fact that she identified herself that way. 

Sketch on 30 Rock about racial terminology

I get that it was supposed to be a joke but…why are we still afraid to name people’s racial and ethnic identities in the year 2021??

Indeed, a common rationale for adopting newly popular terms like ‘BIPOC’ – and indeed part of the reason for its sudden popularity – is because it appears more ‘appropriate’ and politically correct than terms like “Black” or “Korean.” 

However, as one article noted “when well-meaning white progressives adopt terms like “BIPOC” indiscriminately, they end up erasing such differences [and] end up projecting US-centric ideas of race into racial conversations in other countries, where groups are constructed differently.” This latter issue is one which I have had meaningful conversations about with folks in other countries, particularly the UK. 

I’ll admit that I myself struggle with avoiding the broad application of a single term like BIPOC when talking about historically excluded groups in Classics – a discipline that exists at institutions across the globe – on this blog; however, there isn’t a simple answer to how best to navigate this. 

I think one of the most important things to do is to always define your terms. If you don’t know what they mean and where they come from, it’s probably better not to use them.

How the term ‘BIPOC’ should be used

In my investigations of what the term BIPOC means and where it comes from, I found a really helpful guide on how and when the term should be used. 

“BIPOC” is okay to use when advocating for diversity, having broad conversations about racism, and describing opportunities for equity in your classroom, department, institution, or other organization. 

Some examples of good uses of BIPOC (from the Greatist article linked above):

“If we claim to be an inclusive organization, shouldn’t we make it a point to have more BIPOC representation in the room?”

When learning about racism in America, it’s better to default to BIPOC authors, as opposed to white ones.”

“This is an open call for members of the BIPOC community to apply to this scholarship program.” 

However, it’s not okay to use “BIPOC” when:

  1. Referring to an individual person of color or generalizing a neighborhood or city
  2. Discussing issues that predominantly affect particular groups or communities, such as anti-Black police brutality or anti-Asian violence during the COVID-19 pandemic
  3. Talking about racial categories outside of the US

Some examples of bad uses of “BIPOC”:

“I thought that person was a BIPOC when I read their name.” (NB: Don’t be afraid to call someone Black – I promise it’s not a dirty word.)

“This is a BIPOC neighborhood.” 

Final Thoughts

In lieu of a good solution for referring to all individuals from historically excluded and marginalized groups in Classics, I will continue to use the term ‘BIPOC,’ while also being mindful about the contexts in which I use it. (As always, I’m open to other ideas if people have better solutions to this persistent problem!)

However, a general rule of thumb is that when in doubt, avoid generalizing and be specific about the groups and communities that you are talking about. This is especially important when talking about race and racial categories outside of the US. 

I have seen “BAME” (Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic) used in reference to the UK and “BPOC” (Black and People of Color) in German-speaking countries. However, be careful of adopting ‘popular’ terms. Don’t just assume that these terms are unproblematic because they’re frequently used, no matter the context (be especially wary of usages in academic contexts). 

Do your research.

Finally, part of doing your research includes asking your friends and colleagues what terms they prefer you use. When they tell you, trust them. I’m not trying to entrap you by asking you to call me ‘Black;’ that’s just what I am and how I prefer to be recognized. 

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