I have been wondering ever since Hawaii Island Mayor Harry Kim was criticized for calling an African-American emergency official “colored” if the mayor would have gotten a pass if he instead had identified him as “that man of color back there” or “that African-American.”

I am not saying Kim was right to call FEMA coordinating officer Willie Nunn “colored,” but I think many of the sanctioned terms we use today to describe race are just as marginalizing.

Sometimes it seems when we go overboard to be sensitive with politically correct words for individuals, we actually set apart the very people we are trying to include.

Shoppers gather as there is 1 more day, 2 days if you count today in the name of commercial gift giving. 23dec2014. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
A cross-section of shoppers at Ala Moana Shopping Center: Can we just call them all people? Cory Lum/Civil Beat

It is vital to acknowledge discrimination and mistreatment of a person or group of people because of their ancestry, but I wonder if in the 21st century it’s time to get rid of racial descriptions based on the color of someone’s skin.

A currently acceptable term for non-whites is “people of color.” But what color? “People of color” used to mean people of African ancestry, but now it covers huge swathes of non-Caucasian people including Melanesians, East Indians, Hispanics, people of African descent and Polynesians. As a part-Hispanic woman who is white, I am now technically “a person of color.”

The very term “people of color” seems like a throwback to the now-discredited word “colored.” It is exclusionary, as in, “We are people of color; you are not.” Or, “We are white; you people of color are something else.”

Supporters of the “people of color” designation defend it as an inclusive way to rally non-whites behind a shared historical identify based on racial discrimination.

But some critics, particularly individuals of African ancestry, don’t like being lumped into such a large and varied group.

When I was growing up in Honolulu, I marveled at a word that lumped everyone of Asian ancestry together: “Oriental.” That designation was used here up until the 1960s. Never mind if they were Japanese, Korean or Chinese.

Harry Kim, a man of Korean ancestry growing up in Hilo, probably had his share of being called an Oriental. The word Orientals appeared in restrictions at private clubs: Orientals not allowed. Or in newspaper ads for jobs saying “Oriental preferred.” My friend Jean Bart’s granddaughter scoffs at it, saying, “Oriental is for food, not people.”

It is a scientific fact that there is no such thing as race. Race is an invented concept that has been used historically to define and separate people from different geographic areas or cultural origins. Biologists consider the differences between people not race but human variation. All of us are of the same species: Homo sapiens. The difference in the hue of our skin can be traced to something as straightforward as how our ancestors adapted to sunlight.

Even though race is a myth, it continues to hold political power affecting how people think about themselves, the opportunities they are offered and how they are treated.

Skin color continues to be embraced as a rallying call for social action by groups such as the Black Panthers and Black Lives Matter. And race categories still clumsily live on in the U.S. Census, which asks people to identify themselves from six different categories. And if the responder doesn’t fit any of the slots, there is the catch-all: “some other race.”

As proof of the inadequacy of the U.S. Census Bureau’s classifying methods, officials are struggling as the 2020 census approaches to come up with more encompassing race categories after more than a third of the respondents in the last census in 2010 selected “some other race”

Who Picks These Terms?

Walter Dods Jr., the retired CEO of First Hawaiian Bank, and I were talking about race categorizations the other day. Dods brought up a silly way of classifying people’s skin color that is particular to Hawaii.

He is Scottish and English on his father’s side. On his mother’s side he descends from Portuguese from the Azores. Because of his Portuguese ancestry, some people here consider him non-white.

Talk about unscientific.

We both wondered about who gets to pick the various terms for non-Caucasians. Most often it is the people in power.

The term “person of color” was written to describe people of African ancestry back in 1807 in a U.S. law prohibiting the importation of additional slaves into the United States.

Much later, in 1963 in his “I have a dream” speech, Martin Luther King, Jr. referred to “citizens of color.”

The people of color term came into wider fashion in the 1970s as a way to get around the negative categorization of non-white. At about the same time, black power activists such as Malcolm X promoted a new racial identity: black.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson preferred to drop the skin color designation in favor of the ethnic identification African-American. But some Americans didn’t like the African connection, saying were many generations removed from Africa.

Another racial category still used today is “minority.” But that is an odious way to classify non-Caucasians. The word has a negative connotation of lesser than white, unimportant or inferior.

Whites will be a statistical minority soon. The U.S. Census Bureau forecasts that by 2045, whites will be 49.9 percent of the population.

It is time to stop identifying people by the shade of their skin or by terms like “people of color.” Ancestry is a better identifier. I like ancestry expressed with country put first, as in “American of Japanese ancestry” or “American of African Ancestry.”

That is more unifying than “African-American” or “Japanese-American.”

Or maybe, we could just use a single word to identify someone: person. As in “that person over there in the blue shirt” or “that woman in front of the store,” without focusing on the shade of skin or the country of origin of  the person’s grandparents.

I like that best.

Thoughts on this or any other story? Write a Letter to the Editor. Send to news@civilbeat.org and put Letter in the subject line. 200 words max. You need to use your name and city and include a contact phone for verification purposes. And you can still comment on stories on our Facebook page.

About the Author