In the U.S., the term “people of color” has been around since the 1800s.  The term referred to those who were classified “negro,” “mulatto,” or other quantifications of “black blood” — regardless of how the individual visually presented racially. 

In the 1960s, the term began to be used as a political umbrella term uniting disparate “outsider” groups traditionally marginalized from structural, institutional, economic, and cultural power. It was also used to avoid the negation that the term “non-white” implied, as well as a “socially polite” way of saying Black/African American.

The terms Latino or Hispanic were used like the term people of color: to unite disparate nationalities (Mexican, Puerto Rican, Columbian, Dominican, etc.) under one umbrella term for solidarity and political power.

Unlike the term “people of color,” in the U.S. context the terms Latino/Hispanic did not focus on race but on geographic and/or cultural identity and the assumption of shared language (Spanish). Latinos/ Hispanics could and can be of any race, with the racialized power dynamics of colorism and anti-Blackness in Latino communities mirroring those in the U.S. and impacting Afro-Latinos in similar ways.

Latinos — just like all groups of peoples — have both personal identities (how people think about themselves as individuals) and socio-political identities (how society thinks about and negotiates with individuals based on the racial/other groups in which it classifies the individual). Personal identity can be different than socio-political identity. 

For instance, both white Latinos and Afro-Latinos can personally identify as “Latino.” However, white Latinos can assimilate into a socio-political racialized landscape in a way that Afro-Latinos cannot because of their race as opposed to because they are Latino. 

We must begin to acknowledge that the term “people of color” continues to expand from its original race-based meaning to one that also encompasses groups with individuals who are socio-politically white or white-presenting but who may not feel that they are culturally white — even though they benefit from varying levels of white-skin privilege. 

That level of honesty creates space to acknowledge the racial privilege that white Latinos hold and Afro-Latinos do not, while also acknowledging the difference of experience between white Latinos who have not yet fully assimilated into “whiteness” culture, as well as those who have.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      

There are times when the phrase “people of color” is strictly about race. And there are times when it is not. Being clear and transparent about the difference — and using the term accordingly – allows us to acknowledge the fullness of racial identity in Latino communities, including who is, in the U.S. racial context, a “person of color” and who is not.                                                                                                    

Written by A. Adar Ayira for

Baltimore Racial Justice Action’s Racial Equity Practices (R.E.P.)

A Monthly Newsletter for 21st Century Institutions