What Does BIPOC Stand For? Why It’s Important to Know What This Acronym Means
Have you been seeing this term a lot lately? Here’s what it means and when you should—and shouldn't—use it.
To understand what BIPOC means, it’s necessary to look at the events of the past year. There is, without a doubt, a powerful anti-racism movement underway in the United States and around the world. Since the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, people have taken to the streets en masse, demanding everything from police reform to legislative action. Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and AAPI activists and their allies are tackling societal prejudices and institutional racism head-on and banding together to affirm that Black Lives Matter, to demand that Native Americans get a proverbial seat at the table, to stop hate crimes against Asian Americans, and to show that the discrimination the Latinx community faces is much broader than problematic immigration policies. If you want to be an ally in the movement toward equality, as well as be able to identify and address subtle microaggressions, there’s a lot you need to know—including the proper terminology to use when discussing the affected communities.
Naturally, as people’s understanding evolves regarding the role that racism plays in society and institutions, so does the language they use to describe these communities. It’s not surprising, then, that the centuries-old term people of color—which, according to The American Heritage style guide, was first cited in the 1796 edition of The Oxford English Dictionary with the British spelling of colour—is often short-handed these days with the acronym POC or completely supplanted by BIPOC. But what is BIPOC’s actual meaning, and when should you use this term? It’s not as straightforward as you might think, and, in fact, its usage can be surprisingly loaded. Once you’re up to speed, you’ll also want to learn more about BLM’s meaning and history.
What is BIPOC?
According to advocacy organization The BIPOC Project, BIPOC is an acronym for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color, and the term is meant to “highlight the unique relationship to Whiteness that Indigenous and Black (African Americans) people have.” But BIPOC’s definition is a little more complicated than that, explains Rob Buscher, an adjunct professor in the Asian American Studies Program at the University of Pennsylvania. “I’ve heard it mean two different things, so it’s important to make a distinction: Are we talking about Black and Indigenous persons of color, or are we talking about Black, Indigenous, and persons of color? Because some people mean that exclusively to talk about Black and Indigenous communities,” he says. “I don’t know that there’s a consensus about what it means.”
Some people also believe that the term is redundant, which further confuses BIPOC’s meaning. “For me, Black and Indigenous people are people of color,” says linguist Tracey Weldon, PhD, a professor and the interim dean of the graduate school and vice provost for graduate education at the University of South Carolina. “So, both definitions carry an element of redundancy.”
The benefits of using BIPOC
Regardless of whether BIPOC is redundant or lacks consensus about its definition, activist Allie Young considers it a plus that the term is even being spoken. Young is the founder of Protect the Sacred, a grassroots organization that advocates on behalf of and serves the Navajo Nation, and she thinks the fact that a widely used acronym centers Indigenous people in its construct is an important step forward. “For me, as an Indigenous person, I actually like the term because it names Indigenous people,” she explains. “We’re often left out of the conversation [and face] invisibility every day. And so, to be named and specified in BIPOC, for me, is significant.”
Buscher adds that because BIPOC has become part of the lexicon of activism, Indigenous people are now more often part of conversations about institutional racism in the United States. That is progress in and of itself. “Unless you live in a place that has a reservation nearby,” he says, “most people don’t think about Native Americans at all—full stop.”
It’s also about solidarity and the commitment of mutual support by activists from different ethnic backgrounds. As they say, there is strength in numbers, and that’s important for all members of these communities, but perhaps even more so for Native Americans, who, through BIPOC’s meaning, are included in the broader fight for social justice in a way that the terms people of color and POC do not directly indicate. “It’s important, especially as we’re up against things like voter suppression right now,” Young says. “I’m a strong believer in allyship and solidarity. When we join forces that way, we’re even stronger.”
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Some people take offense to the term people of color
While Weldon prefers descriptors like People of Color, or Scholars of Color, because she views BIPOC as a generational term used more by young progressives, she still thinks BIPOC is necessary in certain contexts and recognizes that some people may prefer it. She cautions, though, that BIPOC should not replace the individual words that comprise it.
“I’m mindful that some people take offense to [the term] people of color and perhaps think it’s not broad enough. But I think there’s probably room for both,” she says. “I don’t necessarily know that they need to compete against one another. That’s the fun thing to linguists. I’m always fascinated when terms gain currency to sort of see what the life span is and what its experience is during that life span. It’s still very much in progress and still unfolding, so we have to kind of wait and see where it goes.”
For now, it’s too early to know whether BIPOC will have longevity. Experts debate exactly when the term became part of the vernacular, but it has certainly gained widespread traction within the last two years and especially over the last year, after the COVID-19 pandemic and the death of George Floyd. Its popularity likely resulted from the media, elected officials, and increased conversations about and action around race and race relations. That said, the New York Times traced perhaps its first usage back to a 2013 tweet by a Toronto-based queer, safe-sex activist group. Regardless of when or where people began using the term, its very existence signals its cultural importance in ongoing debates about race, equity, justice, and inclusion.
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Language has immense power
“Language is a funny thing. It reflects things that are happening in society,” says Weldon, adding that it can sometimes even shape public perception and effect larger change. “It’s hard to say where we are with regard to [that], but I would hope that having that kind of language at least reflects some efforts to acknowledge the shared struggle.”
At the same time, Weldon acknowledges some people who belong to the groups included under the BIPOC umbrella may reject it because they believe the acronym can mask the differences of the communities named if not used correctly. “If you’re in a context where you’re really referring to Black people, but you’re saying BIPOC, then it becomes almost a euphemism, a way of avoiding terms that may be seen as more controversial,” she explains. “And that has the effect of perpetuating stereotypes against the very group that we’re trying to uplift.” That’s an additional problem, she adds, because euphemisms can amplify the stigma of the terms they are used to avoid.
“Is it that people don’t even want to say the word Black American or Indigenous or person of color?” asks Buscher. “That was the feeling that I started to get from people saying POC, not even person of color, and I noticed that that was happening a lot in mainstream discourse, in the news media, and in academia. In America, we’ve had so many historic wrongs, and we always used euphemistic language to cover it up.”
Buscher points to the United States’ forced relocation and mass incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II as an example of how language can be used to whitewash history. While history talks of “internment camps,” the Geneva Convention defines that specific term as camps for enemy nationals. In fact, he says, the camps that held Japanese Americans were technically concentration camps, though people shy away from that term for obvious reasons. “I know it’s painful sometimes to use the specific language. Language has real power. Words have power, especially something that carries such harmful, difficult, dark meaning of the history of oppression,” Buscher explains. “But, at the same time, unless we’re willing to face that head-on, I don’t think that we can really overcome racism on an institutional level.”
When to stay general and when to get specific
While BIPOC can be useful when making generalizations, those generalizations can sometimes be counter-productive because even within one group, people’s experiences can be so diverse. For example, notes Buscher, even if an Asian American were forced out of his country because of violence and came here as a refugee, that experience is very different than that of an Indigenous person whose lands were seized by settlers. So, while the broadness of BIPOC’s meaning is useful when you want to describe the collective discrimination certain groups face, it’s essential to remember that the included communities have different histories and different experiences with racism and that they suffer different consequences as a result.
Similarly, Young maintains that it’s important to consider a community’s history when choosing what language to use to describe that community and its struggles. “Each of our communities has experienced different forms of violence throughout history, and our history is so diverse,” she explains. “As native people, we’re asking non-native folks to learn the names of our tribes, and that’s what we prefer. In that sense, overusing BIPOC would lump us in there and set us back in our goal of teaching the rest of the world about the diversity of native people.”
Buscher looks at it this way: “Using the term BIPOC to say Black and Indigenous persons of color is probably more valuable than using it as an umbrella term for all people of color if it’s specifically [being used to refer to] the issues we have to reckon with, the foundational sins of our country.” He notes that the history of slavery and the displacement of Native Americans is truly at the center of this, despite the racism and hardships experienced by other minority communities. The bottom line: While it’s all problematic, it’s not all the same. “It’s important to be able to use the words that make sense in context, in the movement and in broader conversations in public.”
But, overall, deciding which term to use depends on the context and nuance. For example, Buscher says, “if you’re talking about the danger that Black Americans face from the police or talking about the overall institutional prejudice against Black people and darker-skinned people, saying BIPOC is not getting you any closer to eradicating that issue.” Instead, Young suggests reserving BIPOC to describe gatherings of people or representatives of those communities coming together. But for specific groups, specific terms should be used. “We need to talk about all of our communities and name our communities,” she says, “instead of lumping us in one category.” Next, find out more ways you can fight racism every day.
- The BIPOC Project
- Rob Buscher, an adjunct professor in the Asian American Studies Program at the University of Pennsylvania and an Asian American activist
- Tracey Weldon, PhD, a linguist, the interim dean of the graduate school and vice provost for graduate education at the University of South Carolina
- Allie Young, founder of Protect the Sacred
- New York Times: “Where Did BIPOC Come From?”