The Lexicon Origins of People of Color

Hammonton, NJ / United States – June 6 2020: Black Lives Matter Protest at City Hall (Steve Calen/ Shutterstock)

The term “people of color” is in a strange place in its evolution as part of the American lexicon. The phrase is frequently thrown around by media figures as a shorthand for the United States’ numerous minority populations. People more specifically labeled as “Black,” “Asian,” “Hispanic,” and “Indian” frequently fall into this catch-all category. In an attempt to be more specific, some people have adopted “Black and Indigenous people of color,” more commonly known by its abbreviation, BIPOC.

As “people of color” has become more entrenched in media language, however, it has also developed a cadre of critics. The backlash has included an assortment of misunderstandings and flat-out conspiracies about the origins and purposes of the term. Numerous critics on social media claim that “people of color” is a recent invention. Some assert that the term originated in the last decades of the twentieth century. Others have expressed on social media that the use of “people of color” is part of a modern plot to erase “Black” people.

How we got to this point in the history of “people of color” is the result of a two-fold problem. On one end is a misunderstanding about the long existence of “people of color” and its related category “colored” in the United States and other parts of the European colonized world. The misunderstanding that “Black” has long existed in American English as a term used specifically for people of African descent lies at the other end of the problem.

The truth is that English-speaking people in the United States have used “people of color” as a category since at least the 1700s. French-speakers in Louisiana also used the French translation of this term, “gens de couleur.” The concept also existed outside of the United States in other parts of the English-speaking world and French colonies, such as Saint Domingue (modern-day Haiti) and Ille of France (modern-day Mauritius). “Black” has an even longer history in the English language as a category to describe people. Scholars such as Onyeka Nubia and Miranda Kaufmann have found usages of “Black” and other related terms going back to the days of England’s Tudor period.

There is nothing new about “people of color” or its use as a broad catch-all category. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Americans frequently used “people of color” and “colored people” interchangeably to capture a diversity of people whose communities did not view them as “white.” Scholars, such as the late Jack D. Forbes, have shown how these categories included people of African descent as well as Indigenous Americans. The Supreme Court of North Carolina included both “negro” and “Indian” origins when defining the concept as part of the 1850s State v. Chavers court case. Even the United States Colored Troops, segregated units for people of color, included individuals born in places as diverse as India, China, and Africa along with numerous US-born troops.1

It is especially important to note that “people of color” and “colored people” were not simply terms imposed by white elites on other people. Many so-called “people of color” actually embraced these terms. For much of American history, these terms have been preferred terms. When establishing their community organizations, nineteenth-century Philadelphians explicitly referred to themselves as “free men of color,” “free women of color,” or “people of color.” This language appears in charters for such organizations as the Angolian Society, the Daughters of Zion or Angolian Ethiopian Society of Philadelphia, and the African Methodist Episcopal Wesley Church. Even nineteenth-century political activists used these terms. In 1832, Reverend David Nickens, an Ohio civil rights activist, delivered a speech titled “An Address to the People of Color in Chillicothe,” in which he called for a “union” among “people of color” as an “oppressed people.”2

Furthermore, the category “Black” has a long history as a catch-all category that included a diversity of people. Nineteenth-century records from New York reveal an array of people categorized as “Black.” An admission ledger for the New York City Almshouse, the center of the city’s public poor relief program, lists an assortment of people described as “Black.” Among those classified as “Black” were Rachel Dowe, a blind woman from St. Croix; James Dunn, an elderly man born in Calcutta, India; Richard Freedom, who was born in Africa; Peter Lucraw, a native of Bengal, a section of South Asia that includes parts of modern India and Bangladesh; and David Levy, who claimed the “Guinea” section of West Africa as his place of origin.

“People of color,” “Black,” and other racial categories have long histories that are largely unknown by most modern Americans. The lack of historical understanding is leading to unnecessary levels of conflict in some spaces. Until people understand that racial categories have never been accurate reflections of the nation’s or the world’s diversity, these troubling developments are likely to continue.

  1. 7249 State v. William Chavers 50 N.C. 11 (Dec. 1857), Supreme Court Cases, State Archives of North Carolina; Civil War Service Records, National Archives and Records Administration.
  2. Charter Books RG-26, Pennsylvania State Archives; “An Address to the People of Color in Chillicothe,” Liberator, August 11, 1832.
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Warren Milteer, Jr.

Warren E. Milteer, Jr. teaches history at the George Washington University. His publications include Beyond Slavery’s Shadow: Free People of Color in the South (UNC Press, 2021) and North Carolina’s Free People of Color, 1715-1885 (LSU Press, 2020).