Opinions in Dialogue: “BIPOC,” progressive or problematic?

Is the term BIPOC really necessary?

The use of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour) may not be as progressive as we think. PHOTO: Omar Lopez / Unsplash

by Madeleine Chan, Onosholema Ogoigbe, and Idara Udonya

 

BIPOC, an acronym used to encompass Black, Indigenous, and people of colour, has gained increased usage over the past year. A revision of POC (people of colour), the term aims to acknowledge the unique, systemic challenges that Black and Indigenous people face. However, does it adequately accomplish what it sets out to do? Students Idara and Onosholema discuss the term’s usage.

 

Idara: It’s really interesting to see different opinions on whether the term is truly as progressive as everyone claims it to be. As a Black African woman, I find it to be particularly exclusive at times. There’s a level of erasure that happens when the term is used in conversation to refer to only one race. I sometimes wonder, why can’t people just say Black? Is it a dirty word or something? My problem is that BIPOC can be,  to some degree, performative.

Onosholema: BIPOC is a fairly new term which acknowledges that Black and Indigenous peoples’ experiences do not necessarily fit under the neat umbrella of POC. That being said, I do think that erasure still happens even with the distinction made with BIPOC. In response to your statement about why people can’t “just say Black,” I think that POC or BIPOC is really just a more politically correct way for white people to say “colored.” The problem is that any such term that groups, for example, Black, Asian, and Indigenous peoples together assumes that whiteness is the default state and delegates those who aren’t white as “the other.”

Idara: I think that context is so important when we talk about the “progressiveness” of this term. If we contextualize any conversation around an issue that all Black, Indigenous, and other peoples of colour face, then I understand its use. When used to be more particular and concise about race however, I feel as though the term has been created as an easier way to mention peoples of colour. I have an issue with terms born out of convenience that center white ease. Eventually, these terms stand to make talking about specific pain more digestible for white people, which shouldn’t be the case. I see it all the time: people would rather use BIPOC than use Black. Some would even use BIPOC to replace Black in discussing conversations that affect only Black people.

Onosholema: Yes, it may be necessary as a way to refer to the shared and mostly negative experiences of people who are not white. I agree that it is progressive because BIPOC acknowledges that Indigenous and Black peoples’ experiences include those that do not also apply to other POC. However, in acknowledging that there are specific difficulties Black and Indigenous peoples face, the term also (unintentionally, I hope) suggests that other people of color have shared experiences that do not require singling out. Different POC have different racial issues and needs; racial slurs aren’t even the same. 

Idara: People need to be more conscious of the positions they take when they use certain words. This requires a lot of internal, reflective work that has to be done before engaging with any conversation that revolves around issues faced by BIPOC. People need to ask themselves why they are more comfortable using BIPOC as opposed to talking about a specific group of people. I do not necessarily think the whole term needs to be put out of use. It should just be used with greater caution. Besides a more careful usage however, I do not feel it is anything more than a classification, and isn’t particularly empowering.

Onosholema: Exactly! I do not think that it’s empowering, but that it might remove any possibility of empowerment altogether by simplifying these groups too much. Let’s start by individualizing these races and acknowledging their differences in difficulties and cultural rejoices. Start by calling all Black people Black, and so on. Even within the existing categories of race there’s an erasure that happens. For example, South East Asians are sometimes not considered when generally talking about Asians, and dark-skinned women are often not considered when talking about Black women. How much more harm to the particular nuances and struggles of different people of color can be brought if we simply refer to all of us as POC or BIPOC? Especially with the term BIPOC singling out Black and Indigenous persons and referring to other non-white people under an umbrella term. 

Idara: These conversations are great because I think it’s generally important to talk about how we interact with identity, race, and language. A lot of what I have come to know as an adult is that language is an extremely important part of existence. It is political and shapes your understanding of the world. Just because something is said in a certain way, or used in a lackluster manner, it doesn’t justify its usage. Words are never just words. Factors of language, like etymological origin and connotative context are so important. 

Onosholema: The negative impact of any umbrella term, much less one which, as Idara points out, interacts “with identity, race and language,” needs to be assessed along with its usage in everyday conversation. Why are we using said umbrella term? In what context are we using it? For example, are we using these terms as a way to signify unity amongst non-white people? Or, is it simply there to make things easier for white people, and the systems that serve them than “BIPOC”? 

I think the negative effects of such an umbrella term are evident when you think about the fact that although BIPOC is an acronym for Black, Indigenous and people of color, when you say BIPOC it sounds like a single entity. So, instead of a constant acknowledgement that these systems serve neither Black, Indigenous, nor people of color we have conversations about how systems do not serve BIPOC. Who is a “BIPOC?” No one, that’s who. It’s just a nice, pretty little package to hold conversations about the people it claims to represent.

Idara: It is important to note that I can only talk from my position as a Black, African female. My views are influenced by my perspective on modern activism and my experience navigating Blackness in spaces where discussions around social issues happen, like online, in class, and in-person. I often come across solutions to issues that lack substance, solutions that become performative and more symbolic than visceral. I sometimes feel as though they only ever end in becoming watered down symbols.

Onosholema: I am also talking from the position of a Black, Nigerian female. My personal experience comes from one too many conversations where the term POC is used to reference Black people.

Idara: I definitely think we have taken a more adverse perspective on BIPOC and it’s usage, but I can acknowledge that the term allows the experiences of people of colour to be highlighted rather than assumed the same as white experiences. That, in of itself, is somewhat progressive at its core. 

Onosholema: There are probably quite a few perspectives we aren’t considering especially because we’re both Black, female, and African. However, perhaps because we are Black, female, and African our perspective should be more strongly considered? Ultimately, the term is a result of mostly positive change surrounding how we treat people of color in our society. Since the only constant thing in life is change, the term is subject to revision and subsequent change as well. Much like how BIPOC has replaced POC for better or worse, something else will replace BIPOC, and hopefully rectify its adverse points.