It wasn’t until I was accepted to Brown University, more than 20 years ago now, that I understood I was a “Person of Color” (POC). Or at least that others labeled me as such. It wasn’t a term I’d heard in Miami, where I am from, where over 50 percent of the population is something other than white.
At 18, I, like most people, knew a few things about myself. I knew that I was the ambitious daughter of two Cuban refugees; that I wanted to be an artist; that I had Chinese ancestors, Black ancestors, Indigenous and Iberian ones. I was and am, also like most people, a mixture. And proud of it.
And then I got my acceptance letter to Brown, alongside a hefty scholarship, and an invitation to an Orientation for People of Color. I was confused.
What was that? Why should I go to a separate orientation than everyone else? And if most people were “of color,” then who was going to be at the “other” orientation? Did this mean that there would be another orientation only for “white” people? Who were the “white” people? I wasn’t sure what it all meant, but it felt like segregation instead of inclusion.
I was the first in my family to go to college, so there was no one to guide me through this quagmire. My mother sure didn’t know what to make of it. She remembered the days of “spic” and “Cuban go home” and bumper stickers that read “will the last American to leave Miami please take the flag,” but she wasn’t sure what to do with POC. Was that just another way of saying Spic? Or was it a well-meaning effort to try and “include” me…us.
Thing is, I didn’t feel excluded until I got that letter.
I didn’t get a full ride to Brown because I was “Latina” (it was “Latina” back then, not Latinx yet). I got in because I was at the top of my class at one of the best schools in Miami, where I was also on full scholarship, given my GPA, service work, civic duties and leadership activities, which included being Student Body President.
I got into Brown because I sacrificed every single weekend of my teenage years in order to ensure that I got into the Ivy Leagues and that they would pay me to go there. My mother made 20-something thousand dollars a year at the time and was raising two kids. But my parents had instilled in me the drive, faith and initiative of the immigrant. The idea that if I worked hard enough, I’d get to the top.
I took it seriously. The only day I allowed myself to have off was Friday, after school. Most of the time, I ended up at a bookstore. I was a young woman on a mission. But I didn’t write any of this on my application. I didn’t even know it would help me. Because I didn’t yet know that people looked down on me. Why would they? My college essay was an exploration on questioning itself, from Socrates onward. It was called: “Why?”
Of course, it wasn’t until I got to college, that I realized others hadn’t had to work as hard as I had to get there. They’d had full weekends, social lives, boyfriends and girlfriends, and sex. They’d experimented, they’d had fun and gotten into a good school. I realized then that it was, perhaps, for this reason that the institution labeled me, in order to help rectify that very inequity.
The paradox, however, of these labels is that they exist for the same reason they should eventually be eliminated. Labels clump people together in order to, in the best cases, help them, study them, form a platform from which to launch and rise. They help academics gather necessary data, and prove the inequity that makes their studies necessary to begin with. They help create funding in pockets and sectors of need. But they also do all of this at the expense of individualism.
Even when we are using these labels for good, they often feel exclusionary because they are pointing to the person being labeled as a “problem to be solved.” In order to get more Black kids and first and second-generation American kids to rise up, we create POC scholarships, for instance. These labels often get slapped on so that predominantly white institutions can balance their color spectrums, whether superficially or not.
At this point, most of us — hopefully — are all woke enough to know there is not one female experience or a single Black experience or Chinese-American experience. And perhaps labels helped us get there. I, for instance, often use the term ABC, or American Born Cuban, in order to encapsulate my own cultural and political experiences when I write about Cuba. It helps me to quickly state where I’m coming from. But even within that ABC experience there are a myriad of others, and so the umbrella term serves only to give an outsider a superficial summary. On the best days it is an invitation to dig deeper. But not everyone does so. Readers often think knowing the label is enough, and that’s the most dangerous position to be in of all, for both parties — the writer and the reader.
I left Brown after a week. I couldn’t get the POC orientation invitation out of my head, it made everything seem forced and fake. I eventually found my place at Barnard, where I did not attend an orientation for People of Color. I entered second semester, without fanfare. And I learned to go to college just fine without a POC orientation.
Nobody had to tell me I was part of the United States and worthy of being at a particular university, nor how to navigate studying and making friends. I’d put in the work and I deserved to be there.
Some will argue that we, POC, are the ones that label ourselves and that we use this to fight the good fight for our own rights. That we do this to band together, be “stronger together,” in a Hamptonian “rainbow coalition.” This is true of some. But, it is also true that oftentimes what we are doing is taking back the labels, in order to make them ours instead of imposed. This expansion of the label, however, should be the surest sign there is that they are not working. Because you cannot expand the label forever, and you must, if you are going to actually include everyone.
What ultimately happens is that we start to say: Well, hang on: I’m not just “of color,” because I’m actually Indigenous, which is different. Or, I’m not a person of color, I’m Black, that’s not the same thing. So we add two more letters to the abbreviation and get BIPOC. By doing so, we are ironically pointing out our differences.
Also ironically, the reason we do this, particularly in the United States, is because our souls are democratic. And we don’t want anyone dissolving our individualism, and rightly so.
There are not enough letters in the alphabet to fan the rainbow of our individual selves and experiences. There is no such “coalition,” it’s a state of being called human. The very act of needing to add two letters to POC, proves that POC doesn’t work to define us. No matter how many letters we add, it never will.
There won’t be a letter I can add for my daughter, who was born to a Guatemalan birth mother and adopted by me, her “ABC” mom, and my husband, her Uruguayan dad. She also has a mixed-race brother, we think. We don’t actually know. His birth mother said his birth dad was “most likely” Black. What that means, we don’t know yet. What we do know is that right now I don’t have to label anyone in my family in order to love them.
Later, identity will play a role in my children’s lives as they become themselves. It is my job to help them discover what that means, who they are, what they were put on Earth to do – aid them in every way I can to self-actualize and become individuals in society. I want them to fulfill their absolute potential.
But, for me, that doesn’t mean having them become another letter in an acronym.
I have personally participated in POC calls to artists, have used the term when I needed to, and will continue to have to do so in the near future, as I am doing here. But, I’m trying to use these terms less. Because what I would like is true understanding, not the lazy diversity and tokenism that labels lend their hand to. What I want is people to stop and think, and if I don’t do that myself — if I defer to the fast POC tag, without thinking about what I’m actually trying to say, then I’m failing in my communication methods and I’m failing my democracy.
In his book On Tyranny, Timothy Snyder warns us to be “kind to our language.” He writes: “Avoid pronouncing the phrases everyone else does. Think up your own way of speaking, even if only to convey the thing you think everyone else is saying.” This is one of his lessons from the 20th century.
This is a democratic ideal.
“In a democracy, the individual enjoys not only the ultimate power but carries the ultimate responsibility,” wrote Norman Cousins. Democracy is a push and pull between the individual and the collective majority – the voice of the people by the people. To push too far into individualism or the collective creates despotism both to the right and left of the spectrum. Don’t take it from me, ask Plato and Aristotle. Or my parents, who had to flee Cuba when the pendulum swung so far to the left that it created a tyranny that’s still in power over six decades later. A tyranny where Black lives matter less than they do here.
The true semantic symbols of our success will be when these labels no longer exist. Or exist only in the lexicon of our past, as a tool some used to oppress, while others used in the process of rising-up. Terms that unraveled in the 21st century's mixture and merger, making way for neither the extreme of the individual or the collective, but the next phase of our living and breathing democracy.
Vanessa Garcia is an award-winning novelist, playwright, screenwriter, and journalist. She has a PhD from the University of California Irvine in Creative Nonfiction. Her debut novel, White Light, was published in 2015, to critical acclaim. Named one of the Best Books of 2015 by NPR, Al Dia, Flavorwire, and numerous other publications and institutions, it also won an International Latino Book Award. Her plays have been produced in Edinburgh, Miami, Los Angeles, New York, and other cities around the world. As a journalist, feature writer, and essayist, her pieces have appeared in The LA Times, The Miami Herald, The Guardian, The Washington Post, Narrative.ly,and American Theatre Magazine, among numerous other publications. She’s also a Huffington Post blogger.