There’s a lot of things that people will remember about summer 2020 in future history lessons. The pandemic, of course. The nationwide and global uprisings against police brutality and the continued state-endorsed murder of Black lives. Along with those things, this summer also is marked with the first of rampant, mainstream, widespread use of the acronym BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color) — which has been used in some activist and academic circles with increased frequency over the last roughly five years, but has now caught on like wildfire. As it’s rise continues through these hot months, term has been met with everything from confusion to antipathy to straight up disavowal.
Linguists and historians have debated the origin and efficacy of the term in academic circles. The New York Times published a cultural anthropological study of its growth. But what about everyday, political aware and active, smart (and we can say it… cute) queers of color grabbling with the changing landscape right in front of their eyes? What does this term mean to US? Let’s find out.
How do you understand the definition of BIPOC? How have you seen it used? What do you believe it means?
Abeni: HEY Y’ALL I’m curious: When you use (or read) BIPOC, do you interpret it as: “Black and Indigenous people of color” (exclusive to Black/Indigenous folks) or “Black, Indigenous, and other people of color?” (inclusive of all POC)?
- The first one is weird to me because why wouldn’t you just say Black and Indigenous people? I get if you want an acronym, I guess?
- The second one makes sense sort of if you want to… emphasize Black and Indigenous people? But why not just say POC?
Anyway I’m not sure what this acronym is really for. Anyone know?
Natalie: I always have to remind myself that it doesn’t mean bisexual people of color.
Shelli: I usually mean it for the second. I’ve been seeing a lot of discourse around it though, about what it actually means — mostly on Twitter.
Ari: I personally think BIPOC is used by non-Black and Indigenous people who don’t want to recognize that Black and Indigenous people have a very specific relationship to racism. But I don’t think that’s ever what it was meant to do….
Abeni: Yeah, I get the feeling it means the second definition? But then again, like, here’s an example from Autostraddle’s own Instagram about the CuTie.BIPoC Festival in Europe. Is the caption implying that everyone in the illustration is Black and/or Indigenous? Or is it just another way of saying POC? In this context, if it’s not implying that, and if it’s not emphasizing anything, then really … is it being used correctly?
I guess I want to engage with the discourse but then again … I hate discourse.
Jehan: My understanding is that it‘s meant to highlight particular oppressions/marginalization that impact Indigenous and Black folks more than other POC.
Abeni: That’s what I was thinking too, Jehan, which is like, the first, “exclusive to Black and Indigenous people” meaning. But then why not just say Black and/or Indigenous? Why add-on the POC?
Jehan: Oh no, I actually meant that I think it’s more aligned with the second meaning. For when a person is trying to signal that all POC are affected by ______, but don’t want to collapse Black and Indigenous folks in that grouping because of their own unique histories.
Abeni: I feel you, but then I just don’t get how it could be used in that way in common settings. Like in this Instagram example I’m talking about, it’s not being used in the way we’re talking about. It’s being used to describe a group of people in a photo? Which is also how I often see it used?
Jehan: I feel you Abeni. I think the Instagram example is actually maybe a case of misuse?
Carmen: I just wanted to clarify that we (Autostraddle) used BIPOC in both on Instagram and in the accompanying article because that’s how the CuTie.BIPoC Festival identifies specifically. So, we are purposefully reflecting their intention.
I’ve known BIPOC to be used for differentiating the experiences of Black and Indigenous folks from other POC, but to still be able to talk about everyone as a group.
Abeni: I guess what I really wanted to know was, how are people using it? Is there an actual definition yet? And it seems like, “not really, yet” is the answer?
Jehan: I think not really yet is accurate!
Shelli: I agree with the «not really yet. » I also may put off using it more until an actual definition of what BIPOC means is agreed upon by the masses. (But like — how do we do that?)
Jehan: I’ve heard that the acronym was borne out of movement circles, but now since it’s frequently being used in wider contexts, I think it’s getting confused as a replacement for POC.
Carmen: So, I was reading in The New York Times recently (could I sound more nerdy right now?) that the earliest use of BIPOC is publicly traced to Twitter, no surprises there, back in 2013. That said, I think that Jehan probably has a point in tracing it to movement circles, if only because the mainstream use of POC/people of color and WOC/women of color can be directly traced to solidarity movements and grassroots organizing work of the militant 1960s and 1970s.
Kamala: The second definition suggested by Abeni is what I’ve known BIPOC to be used for: to differentiate the experiences of Black and Indigenous folks from other POC, but to still be talking about everyone as a group.
Himani: This conversation is super interesting! My understanding of BIPOC was actually the first one, with the idea being that POC was being used to conflate the experiences of all people of color even though the experiences of all POC are (obviously) not the same or even comparable. So the idea was to signal that a conversation was about or a space was for Black and/or Indigenous people specifically because of the disparate systemic racism and violence committed against those groups.
Kamala: I think some of the conversation is that BIPOC is definitely getting used in ways that are not always accurate (or relevant?) to the situation. I just had a talk with friends about how people should say what they mean.
Do you (personally) use BIPOC? Is there anything you wish people would consider before they also use the acronym?
Shelli: I do use it, although sparingly. I use it in my writing if I am referring to many groups of people of color. I use it a lot in social media posts if I am trying to signal boost an organization, GoFundMe, pitch calls and more.
I do it on social media mostly because I know, or perhaps assume, that people will look at whatever the post is and quickly know who it’s for or about. When it comes to writing or other media opportunities, I use it so non-POC know very clearly said opportunity is NOT for them and I hope they pass word on to people that it is for.
Ari: I do not use BIPOC! I say “Black, Indigenous, and brown people” or “Black and brown people” when I’m not being as careful. I also say “non-white people” a lot, but I don’t think I love that. The number one reason I don’t use the term is because I know people mean different things when they say it and I value clarity.
Himani: I do not use the term BIPOC for some of the same reasons as Ari and Shelli. There’s a value to being both specific and intentional, particularly when we’re talking about race. Too often, POC get lumped together as a group in a way that is generally meaningless for all involved, and this happens with a lot of different terms like POC itself, non-white people, BIPOC and even the term “brown.” It’s tricky.
Christina: I don’t use BIPOC that often! I think I am either super specific OR super broad when I am writing or talking about groups of folks. As I’ve been thinking about the language I use, I‘ve noticed that I tend towards “POC” when I mean “everyone who is not white” and when I want to be specific, I’ll use the language that best describes the group I am talking about. I probably use Black most often, because that is my community, and I don’t think anyone is clamoring for me to really dive into the specific experiences of groups I don’t belong to. I am mixed, but I don’t identify as white in any tangible way — I experience life as a Black person. Now, there is a lot to go into regarding how whiteness affects my experience of Blackness, like how I am often seen as approachable or “safer” than other Black folks because I am lightskinned. But! We’ll save the colorism discussion for another day!
Shelli: “Wish” may be the wrong word, but I hope that BIPOC sticks around with a more clear explanation as to what it means. I hope that this, and other discourses around it, continue to include Black, Indigenous and other people of color coming together to land on what we want as a unit. That may be hard because it includes so many of us but I think we can make it happen — I’m forever the eternal optimist.
Christina: I really value specific language, and I think the confusion about what BIPOC means — who is included in that phrase, who isn’t and why — makes it slightly less helpful than I think it is intended to be. It also doesn’t feel super natural to me yet; my brain doesn’t reach for it first. I leave open the possibility that there might come a time wherein BIPOC feels like that natural term to reach for, and maybe it will, and maybe my thoughts will change down the line!
Kamala: I personally don’t use BIPOC. I like the idea of the word though, because I think a lot of times when we are trying to call for reparations and for the kinds of art we want to see or resources, classes, workshops we want to support — I like the idea of acknowledging that these are the people (Black and Indigenous people) we want to be first and best affected. But a lot of times, that’s just a wish and not a reality. So maybe I’m afraid to use BIPOC because it’s a promise I can’t keep, that I may not have the resources to ensure.
Let’s be honest, you cannot talk about anti-Blackness if you won’t even say “Black.”
Ari: One reason I don’t use BIPOC is because naming and centering Blackness and Indigeneity has become so important to me that using an acronym has stopped feeling good. If I’ve learned anything this year, it’s that a lot of white people still think Black is like… a curse word? Like, they’re terrified to call me a Black person?! It’s incredibly strange, so I say Black as often as possible as a way to hopefully get more white people more comfortable saying “Black” (because let’s be honest, you cannot talk about anti-Blackness if you won’t even say “Black” and THAT is a very, very, very real problem that I could go on for years about, but chile, that’s not what we’re here for right now…).
This often means I’m super wordy when I’m talking about race, but the thing is these conversations shouldn’t be easy! They are complex, and sometimes we don’t have enough language to talk about complex things, but to me, the way around it isn’t to mince our words.
I want difficult concepts to feel difficult coming out of my mouth. When I struggle to figure out how to say something, it often means that I’m still learning or that there’s more that I need to work through. I will be working through what it means to be Black my whole Black ass life, you know? So I want people to feel that I’m working through what I’m trying to say. The messiness is the form, the function is to generate generous questions. Form and function for life, y’all!!
Himani: I feel like the powers that be want to collapse all the experiences of all non-white people to avoid addressing the most harmful forms of oppression that are leveled at very specific groups. This is how South Asians like me and East Asians become the diversity hires of otherwise entirely white tech / data teams, so that these organizations can maintain the status quo of discriminating against Black, Indigenous and non-white Latinx people while meeting diversity numbers.
Additionally, when I do see Indigenous people, Black people and non-white Latinx people that I don’t know personally use terms like “BIPOC” or “brown,” I generally assume that they aren’t speaking to me — which is fine, it’s just confusing and I’m not sure all South Asians, East Asians or white Latinx people view that the same way. On the other hand, when someone I know personally who is non-white Latinx or Black refers to me as a brown person, I greatly appreciate it because it feels like I’m in solidarity and in community.
Carmen: That’s why (even though I don’t use BIPOC), I would mourn the loss of “people of color” or “Black and Brown people” overall. I think that these words should be used carefully, and only specific instances that are mapping out our shared lived realities or shared oppressions under structures of white supremacy. But I think getting rid of “people of color” or “brown and black people” as terms altogether would also be a tremendous blow to our solidarity, and the solidarity fought for by our ancestors.
Himani: The language around race is so politicized and so it feels even more critical to be thoughtful about what terms we use to describe ourselves and each other.
I appreciate what BIPOC is intending to do, which is to recognize that white supremacy is predicated on anti-Blackness and the theft of Indigenous lands/erasure of Indigenous people… At the same time, as a Black person from the U.S., I get the sense that there is often a move away from centering Blackness.
Jehan: Okay so a couple of things. Upon further reflection, I do use BIPOC somewhat regularly. I move primarily through academic and art activist spaces which is to say I’m in a jargon/acronym-heavy world most of the time, where this particular acronym is used pretty heavily.
I appreciate what the term is intending to do, which is to recognize that white supremacy is predicated on anti-Blackness and the theft of Indigenous lands/erasure of Indigenous people. I’ve also seen a recent variation on the acronym which is IBPOC, which I’ve seen some describe as a move to place Indigenous folks first. I agree with others about just being specific about whatever group you’re talking about. And I specifically do not want to get into a discussion about whose oppression gets named first and who should be prioritized and in what context. That conversation feels unproductive and more like a GOP talking point.
At the same time, as a Black person from the U.S., I get the sense that there is often a move away from centering Blackness. We’ve seen this happen a lot lately with the #BlackLivesMatter protests that are surging around this country and a lot of subpar institutional not only more than Black lives matter.” But I want to be clear. I do not say this to pit Black and Indigenous folks against each other. AT ALL. If anything I think these are the nuances that can get lost in a term like BIPOC/IBPOC that, because of its broadness, can’t capture the ways in which Black and Indigenous oppressions are deeply intertwined.
Abeni: If we’re talking about just Black and Indigenous people, we should just say that. But why are those two groups even collapsed together so frequently? The experiences of oppression and racism they experience are so frequently different. I get the idea of highlighting anti-Blackness/slavery and settler colonialism/genocide as like, “original sins” of the United States, but it feels like “Oppression Olympics.”
Himani: Personally, I think using terms that don’t recognize those differences in how we describe ourselves and each other today let’s white people off the hook because they don’t have to do the work of understanding all of the ways in which they have fucked up so many different parts of the world.
I also think it allows conservative Asians to lean into their ugliest anti-Black racist tendencies because they can say things like, “well I’m a POC too, so I don’t understand why the Black Lives Matter movement is necessary” — which is really a red herring of a statement if I ever heard one.
Language is fluid and constantly evolving. We can use language however we want.
Abeni: I just don’t think the term BIPOC is useful. Talking about all people of color, but putting Black and Indigenous people at the front of the acronym, feels like performative solidarity. Who does the acronym serve in that case? Does it effectively highlight that white supremacy is founded on anti-Blackness and settler colonialism? I don’t really feel like it does. Does it actually do anything for Black and Indigenous people or does it just give the person using the acronym woke points?
Carmen: Hear, Hear!
Himani: Using more specific terms to describe ourselves and each other, I think, forces all of us, and especially white people, to understand that we are not the same and our histories are not the same. It’s on all of us who are not Black and not Indigenous to understand the experiences of Black and Indigenous communities, of which there are many. Colonialism and slavery went hand and hand — there is no doubt about that — but they were also distinct forms and lineages of oppression.
Kamala: Language is fluid and constantly evolving. I tend to take caution with words or phrases around identity that seem to be still forming, still getting tossed around to see with whom they land with the most ease. All words have had many shades of meaning and were used in different ways, before we as a group decide to use them in a particular way, and still, they will change. We can use language however we want.
I want all of us to be seen and recognized for our differences, but one of the main reasons that giant identity labels exist, is to give us power, visibility and solidarity as a group. And I respect that, I feel that power. So I think of BIPOC as an awkward middle school photo of where a lot of people are at: we want our collective work to serve Black and Indigenous people, but we don’t always know how to do that. I like the direction it points in, even if I do believe it’s not our final landing place, to be intentional and thoughtful about what our collective body of empowered not-totally white people can do together.