It’s everywhere! “BIPOC.” You can’t seem to get away from it. We both remember when the preferred reference for those receiving racist and national oppression was “people of color”. Then, suddenly, we became BIPOC – a change advocated by many as a specific form of enlightenment.
BIPOC, of course, means “Blacks, Indigenous and People of Color”. The rise of the term in favor can be attributed to several factors. One is the demographic transformation of the country after the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which gave preference to relatives of US citizens and people with specific abilities. As a result, more migrants from the Global South have come to our shores and, in many ways, have transformed discussions of race and color. Second, the decline—until recently—of the Black Freedom Movement, beginning in the 1970s, has led many leftists and progressives to downplay the ongoing significance of anti-Black racism, the oppression of African Americans, and the importance of the Black Freedom Movement. in shaping American policy. The third is the political resurgence of the neo-fascist and racist social movement unleashed in full fury by Donald Trump. One of the main goals of this movement is the full institutionalization of white minority government – an American apartheid state – motivated by a deeply rooted fear of the “Great Replacement”, that a “majority-minority” country will dismantle the systemic white privilege that permeates every political, economic, and social institution in the United States. The campaigns of this right-wing movement against immigrants, Muslims, Black Lives Matter, critical racial theory, etc. — from Donald Trump’s rhetorical attacks to the murders in El Paso and Buffalo — have understandably motivated oppressed communities of color to consider how to designate communion in their collective struggle for freedom.
However, there is an additional factor – one that many people want to deny or downplay. And it’s an extremely sensitive issue. Under the rubric of diversity, after the Immigration Act of 1965, immigrants of color (and their descendants) began to be moved – by whites – into leadership positions in various nonprofits, unions, and other progressive organizations, replacing non-immigrants of color. These promotions were identified as representing “diversity”, although those chosen had a very different – indeed qualitatively different – experience with the national oppression of white supremacy. Over time, this process resulted in a slow but steady rise in resentment among nonimmigrants of color.
Originally, “BIPOC” emerged as a means of asserting that the experiences of black and indigenous peoples could not and should not be erased or subordinated. We agree with the intention. However, there remains a problem – or perhaps some problems. For starters, the label created a racial hierarchy similar to the old “Black people and other minorities”. I was basically saying that there was a scale of oppression that must be recognized – and at the top of the scale were the most oppressed people of color. The creation of such hierarchies leads to an “Olympics of oppression” in which various populations and movements compete. This is deeply problematic.
Second – and of equal, if not greater importance – is how BIPOC invisible-iza entire populations, ignoring what should be understood as national oppression, a direct consequence of colonizing colonialism.
The construction of American capitalism begins with the invasion of the Western Hemisphere and the wars against indigenous inhabitants. It is then complemented and reshaped by the introduction of forced labor – especially, and eventually, lifelong racial slavery for Africans captured and taken to the thirteen colonies. As a result, all populations brought to North America or who came voluntarily were racialized, that is, placed in specific racial categories (having nothing to do with science), but also enlisted – voluntarily or involuntarily – in the expansion of the growing colonizing-colonial state. Thus, what came to be understood as North American capitalism cannot be understood apart from its history as a racialized colonizing state, identified by theorists such as Lerone Bennett Jr, Theodore Allen, Rodolfo Acuna and Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz.
While capitalism is always “racial,” there were particularities to US capitalism that were rooted in this interrelationship of indigenous genocide and expropriation, racial slavery, and settler colonialism. This colonization state evolved into full-blown imperialism and colonialism as the US captured and oppressed entire populations – and immediately racialized they. The conquest and annexation of northern Mexico is a major case, but would eventually include other populations such as Hawaiians, Puerto Ricans, Filipinos, and Micronesians. In each case, however, the racism that each population experienced – while sharing common characteristics with that experienced by other populations of “color” – was also unique.
What the indigenous experienced was not the same as the Africans, which was different from the Mexicans, etc. However, racist and national oppression had many common features and, in all cases, was a primary method of social control over all subaltern populations.
“BIPOC” ignores that story and relegates millions of people to the “us too” column – not quite the “Other”, but still an afterthought. These populations are not just insulted; there is also a strategic myopia that grows out of a failure to understand the nature of the US state. The US state was founded on racism and national oppression. This myopia also leads to the misconception that the remedies for the particular experiences of different racialized and nationally oppressed populations must all be the same.
An example might help. While indigenous and African Americans were both racialized by the white supremacist/colonial colonizing state, indigenous demands cannot be met, even at the reform level, for equal rights and anti-discrimination. These are nations whose sovereignty has been attacked and undermined. Any satisfactory resolution to your experience with settler racism and colonialism must address treaties and sovereignty. African Americans certainly fought for equal rights, against discrimination, and for various forms of national self-determination. But the African-American struggle is not identical to that of the First Nations.
Another example: Chinese immigrants in the 19th century were often captured and brought to the US involuntarily, brutally oppressed and segregated by the white supremacist/colonizing colonial state. However, her experience, and that of other Asian migrants, was not the same as the African-American experience, including the impact of racial slavery on family structure, connection to countries of origin, etc.
“BIPOC” acknowledges none of this history, simply throwing all these groups into a stew while allowing Blacks (who are never defined) and Indigenous people to be floating on top.
Where does that leave us? There is no satisfying term for victims of racist and national oppression. At different times we were all called “people of color”; in the 1960s and 1970s, we called ourselves “Third World people”. The first Rainbow Coalition, organized by Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, emphasized the strategic similarity of the struggles of recipients of racist and national oppression (but also included poor whites as a necessary component of a strategic alliance!). Later, the black-led electoral uprising of the 1980s boosted the term “people of color”, again emphasizing the critical need for a strategic alliance. There is no ideal term. We can offer a new acronym, for example, BICPAMIC (Black, Indigenous, Chicano, Puerto Rican, Asian, Micronesian and immigrants of color). Or simply “the Global Majority”, which some have started to use. Or we can keep “people of color”. But what must guide our thinking is an effort that expresses the unity of the oppressed in our common struggle for freedom – without sacrificing the specific character of each population.
It’s time to blow the final whistle in the Olympics of oppression.