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‘People of Colour’ (POC) is an inclusive term referring to non-white people but, like all language, semantics have impact. Today, the umbrella term POC is widely recognised in relation to social justice movements. But, this meaning was only popularised in the U.S. a few decades ago; the phrase has a much longer history as a classification of mixed race people throughout the colonial period. The term Women of Colour (WOC), however, has very different roots and I want to unpick where the term comes from, why some have their reservations about the term and what it was intended to mean for WOC and their activism.
According to Loretta Ross, Co-Founder of SisterSong, one of the defining moments of the emergence of the term was in 1977. Black women attending the National Women’s Conference that year in the U.S. were unconvinced by the 3-page “Minority Women’s Plank” out of the proposed 200-page long document. In protest, they wrote a Black Women’s Plan of Action to substitute for this underwhelming plank and, when other minority women saw this, they wanted to be included in this far more detailed proposal. As an act of solidarity, the Black women joined together with the other minority women to create the Women of Colour’s Agenda. I feel a sister sister moment coming on…
The origin of the term WOC makes its intentions very clear – it was a political identifier to unify the struggle of women who face intersecting racism and sexism. Ross stresses that it was never a ‘biological’ classification, rather, it was born a “solidarity definition, a commitment to work in collaboration with other oppressed women of colour.”
Not entirely, some people still take issue with these terms because, like I said before, semantics have impact. Some people feel that the catchall terms like POC and WOC signify erasure because
I’m not here to tell you what you should or shouldn’t say – just to remind you that people identify with different things and we should be sensitive to one another’s preferences.