BIPOC: What Does It Mean?


Black Americans have been called by many names in the United States. African American, Negro, colored and the unutterable slur that rhymes with bigger. In recent weeks, as protests against police brutality and racism have flooded the streets and social media, another more inclusive term has been ascribed to the population: BIPOC.

The acronym stands for “black, Indigenous and people of color.” Though it is now ubiquitous in some corners of Twitter and Instagram, the earliest reference The New York Times could find on social media was a 2013 tweet.

As a phrase, “people of color” dates back centuries — it was first cited in The Oxford English Dictionary, with the British spelling “colour,” in 1796 — and is often abbreviated as POC. The other two letters, for black and Indigenous, were included in the acronym to account for the erasure of black people with darker skin and Native American people, according to Cynthia Frisby, a professor of strategic communication at the Missouri School of Journalism.

“The black and Indigenous was added to kind of make sure that it was inclusive,” Ms. Frisby said. “I think the major purpose of that was for including voices that hadn’t originally been heard that they wanted to include in the narrative, darker skin, blacks and Indigenous groups, so that they could make sure that all the skin shades are being represented.”

Charmaine Nelson, an art history professor at McGill University, said that the history of black and Indigenous people in Canada calls for the distinction between them and other people of color. In some parts of Canada, mainly east of Ontario, Indigenous people were colonized but not enslaved, she said, unlike Africans who were subjected to chattel slavery everywhere.

“We understand that under colonialism African and Indigenous people had very different experiences,” Dr. Nelson said. “To conflate everything in one is to erase, which is the very nature of genocidal practice.”

If the intention was to help spell it out, some aren’t getting the message. On social media, many assumed the term stood for “bisexual people of color.” Others read it as “biopic,” the shorthand for a biographical movie. The term has caused confusion, and there isn’t universal agreement about what it means or whom it actually includes, but to most, the people of color includes Latinos and Asians.

“What we know is, more often than not, they have been pretty much nonexistent in any discussion about race or any discussion or any kinds of things,” she said. “We don’t see any narratives that include them. What we do see when Indigenous people are included are sports. We have images and mascot controversy, and then you have products that rely on Indigenous people like Land O’ Lakes margarine and butter.”

Many black people are open to giving space to the plight of Native Americans, but there is a frustration when it comes to the BIPOC term.

“It is lazy to lump us all together as if we all face the same problems,” said Sylvia Obell, a host of the Netflix podcast “Okay, Now Listen.” “When you blend us all together like this, it’s erasure. It allows people to get away with not knowing people of color and our separate set of issues that we all face. It allows people to play it safe and not leave anyone out, and it also allows you to not have to do the work.”

In a moment when black Americans are asking that the names of those killed at the hands of the police be said aloud, and when black people are asking for equal treatment on a global scale, trying to fit all people of color and Native Americans in one term can seem tone deaf.

“The whole point is that we want to take up space,” Ms. Obell said. “Take the time to say black, Latinx and Asian. Say our names. Take the time to learn. Show me that you know the difference.”

To attempt to represent so many different identities in a single term is a product of colonialism, according to Chelsey Luger, a wellness trainer at the Native Wellness Institute, and an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, a tribal nation in North Dakota.

“It is a redundant term if anything else,” Ms. Luger said. “All people of color are Indigenous. A lot of people of color are not acknowledged as and don’t have a connection to that idea because their Indigenous identity has been erased through assimilative techniques or just the connection to our stories and our history has been violently taken from us.”

The Indigenous community critiques the designations of Native American and First Nations, as the Indigenous are called in Canada, because their diversity is not recognized in those terms, according to Ms. Luger.

“The fact that people think that we’re one homogeneous group and they don’t acknowledge our diversity contributes to our dehumanization,” Ms. Luger said. “It is common knowledge that European and white Americans come from multinational complex backgrounds with very diverse histories. It is dangerous when you perpetuate the notion that black and Indigenous people of color are homogeneous.”

Some are comfortable saying BIPOC.

“It was, ‘Should I call them black or African Americans,’ but BIPOC came out recently,” said Gabby Beckford, a travel content creator. In a video posted to her YouTube channel, she explained the differences between the terms.

“I don’t think it’s supposed to be dividing,” Ms. Beckford said in an interview. “If you’re talking about black people, don’t say BIPOC. If you’re talking about over policing in the United States, you can say black people. It can seem lazy, but if you’re talking to people of color in general, compared to the white experience, I think you should say BIPOC.”

Others simply want to be included in the process of coming up with terms that are meant to stand for them.

“This is like when we asked that they arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor and they’re like, ‘How about we pass a law?’” Ms. Obell said. “We are asking for a lot of things, and being called BIPOC is not one of them.”

“Stop making decisions for us without us.”


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