Who, exactly, are persons of color? (And a note on “victimhood culture”)

A modest proposal: it’s time to ditch the phrase “persons of color” when used to refer to either oppressed people who are white or as a general cover-all term for minorities who consider themselves oppressed. That’s because many “persons of color” are really white, or at least white vis-à-vis skin pigmentation, while many people who do have some pigmentation aren’t oppressed or seen as oppressed.

Take (please!) Linda Sarsour, who referred to herself as a “white girl” until she put on the hijab, as the article below notes.  And indeed, she is white—whiter than I am. She’s the descendant of Palestinians, born in America, and is not a person of any color. Nor did she see herself as one:

The headline above is a bit misleading, for, as you can hear below, Sarsour said she wears a hijab not to be seen as a person of color, but to show that she’s a Muslim. The important thing, though, is that before she donned the headscarf she considered herself a “white girl.”

I would argue that she mainly wears the hijab not out of respect for Islam, but to flaunt her supposed victimhood, which otherwise wouldn’t be visible in a “victimhood culture“. In fact, if your skin is white, there’s no way people can tell you’re a victim unless you put on a hijab.


But we can see from this quote that now Sarsour does consider herself as a “person of color”, so clearly the hijab is equivalent to melanic pigmentation, and she says that more or less explicitly (my emphases):

In one profile, Sarsour said she wanted to become a high school teacher “inspiring young people of color like me.” The piece notes that The New York Times called her a “homegirl in a hijab” and that black nationalist Malcolm X’s autobiography “changed her life.” It adds, “For Sarsour, being identified as a person of color ‘is important in the political climate that we are in,’ she says, ‘because it allows for us to understand where we fit in in the larger political landscape. We fit in with marginalized groups, who oftentimes are other people of color.’”

Equally telling is the fact that Sarsour has taken part in openly segregated forums. At one point, she attended an event open to “all individuals (from ages 4 and up) who self-identify as women of color” from which white people were apparently barred.

But why can’t you fight for marginalized people without having to pretend you’re one of them? You know the answer: the fight is more than a fight for social justice, but also a way to display your own moral purity.

The article above also cites an admiring one at the Fader website:

After watching Michelle Pfeiffer’s character in Dangerous Minds, Sarsour decided to become a high school teacher, “inspiring young people of color like me, to show them their potential.” She graduated a year early, gave birth to her eldest son, and enrolled in community college.

Then 9/11 happened — and suddenly, the oppression, violence, and discrimination she saw her black classmates experiencing felt much more personal. “People were like, ‘Linda, this apparatus, this racial profiling that you’re speaking of is impacting immigrant communities, black communities,’” she recalls. “I finally realized that my community was just an additional community that was being targeted.”

That was when Sarsour says she began to think about race more critically. In the U.S. Census, Middle-Easterners are categorized as “white,” but for Sarsour, being identified as a person of color “is important in the political climate that we are in,” she says, “because it allows for us to understand where we fit in in the larger political landscape. We fit in with marginalized groups, who oftentimes are other people of color.”

At end, author Atossa Abrahamian buys into Sarsour’s narrative that she’s a woman of color.

. . . .The dinner is the first time all day that Sarsour has seemed uncomfortable. She has little common ground on which to make small-talk, and she’s the only woman of color there. As she shares stories about the Women’s March and her experiences with post-Trump Islamophobia, I sense that she easily prefers being in the thick of the action to commenting on it from afar.

What Sarsour and Abrahamian mean by “color”, then, is “marginalization”. I would suggest, then, that “marginalized person”, or “member of a marginalized group” should be used instead of the pigmentation term. You can say “Palestinian,” or “African American” or “Asian”, or, if you refer to different ethnicities or genders, “Maginalized people”, all of which are more accurate than “people of color.”

And sometimes pigmentation is not an indication of marginalization. Several of my Middle Eastern friends who are light-skinned and not from Palestine are not considered people of color. Nor are Israelis, many of whom share both pigmentation and genes with their Middle Eastern neighbors. One could, I suppose, use pigmentation to see East Asians like Chinese and Japanese as “people of color”, but they’re not really marginalized in the U.S. Again, “color” isn’t equivalent to “oppression.”

Actually, it’s useless to try to get rid of the PoC term now, but we should at least clarify that it’s connected not with skin pigmentation, but with claimed marginalization. Yet that won’t even do, for it would be hard for a privileged Asian, say like Sarah Jeong, to say that she’s “marginalized”, because she isn’t. On the other hand, it’s easy for her and her defenders to say she’s a person of color, and therefore by proxy marginalized. This is why the whiter-than-white Linda Sarsour would much prefer to call herself a “person of color” than a “marginalized person”. The former will fly; the latter will not.

And on that note, I’ll recommend an article in Quillette by Bradley Campbell, who, with coauthor Jason Manning, wrote a book I like and wrote about (see also here): The Rise of Victimhood Culture: Microaggressions, Safe Spaces, and the New Culture Wars. In that book, Campbell and Manning describe three types of “moral cultures”: dignity culture, honor culture, and victimhood culture, which is the current culture on campus and a hybrid of the first two. If you don’t want to plow through the whole book, the article below (click on screenshot). It’s a very good summary of Campbell and Manning’s thesis:

The article begins with a chilling but true story of the fate of Samuel Abrams, a professor of political science at Sarah Lawrence College, who published an op-ed in the New York Times pointing out that American college administrators were far more liberal than the markedly liberal college professors in our country, who are already mostly liberal. According to Abraams, this caused a skewing of the ideologies seen by students. (I agree with that take, but am not so sure that we can keep academics from embracing the Left, nor should we.). But despite my mild disagreement with Abram’s thesis, what happened to him when the students got hold of his article shouldn’t happened to anyone.

Campbell goes on to describe the nature of victimhood culture, to disagree with Jon Haidt and Greg Lukianoff on its causes, and then to prognosticate about its fate (short take: we won’t be able to get rid of it easily).

It was only after I read that article that I realized that the hijab is a way to assume pigmentation, for once you put it on, you’re seen as a Muslim and therefore an oppressed victim. You become special, as did Sarsour. (Remember that the admiring profile of Sarsour in the New York Times was titled “Brooklyn homegirl in a hijab.“)

The hijab apparently gives you bonus points in fighting the oppressed, as Sarsour pretends to do, but the real import of the headscarf, for many who don it, is to give them visible credibility as victims. The sad thing is that it’s a double victimhood, for the hijab exists to hide the sexually alluring hair of Muslim women, helping them fend off the uncontrollable passions of men who would become raping animals at the sight of a wisp of hair. In other words, the hijab may be equivalent to the victimhood of pigmentation, but it’s is also a sign of the victimhood of Muslim women by Islam itself.

h/t: Orli


  1. Diana MacPherson
    Posted November 16, 2018 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

    I find often when people use the term “white girl” it’s somewhat pejorative. When I use it, I’m usually being snarky or self-effacing. Sarsour saying she was a “white girl” has a whiff of frivolity in its infantilized “girl”. The same goes for “white boy”. What’s wrong with “white woman” or “white man”?

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted November 16, 2018 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

      I think ‘girl’ (like ‘boy’) has become pretty much age-neutral these days, and has been for decades.

      To me, ‘white girl’ (without any surrounding context) implies any young white woman under the age of, say, 30.

      Any snarkiness is more likely to attach to the ‘white’ than the ‘girl’.

      Just IMO.


  2. Posted November 16, 2018 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

    You can say “Palestinian,” or “African American” or “Asian”, or, if you refer to different ethnicities or genders, “Maginalized people”, all of which are more accurate than “people of color.”

    Aren’t we way too ready to accept claims of “marginalisation”? Are Sasour or Sarah Jeong or others really “marginalised” in any significant way?

    • yazikus
      Posted November 16, 2018 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

      I’m sure they are, in small and larger ways. Anyone who is ‘different’ seeming in a place will usually end up being marginalized by assholes (excuse my language) who are afraid of the other. That said, it doesn’t change the color of one’s skin.

      Speaking of skin color, I found the film Skin (the biography of Sandra Liang – a South African woman born to two white parents but who was classified as colored) to be an illuminating watch.

      • Posted November 16, 2018 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

        I don’t agree. Could you give me evidence of how Sarah Jeong has been marginalized? Or what about Yo-Yo Ma? Has he been marginalized as an Asian, too?

        You’re “sure” without much evidence, I suspect.

        • yazikus
          Posted November 16, 2018 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

          No, you’re right of course. I haven’t any evidence other than what I’ve observed in my own life. I tend to err on the side of believing those who claim marginalization – whether that be foolish or not.

          • BJ
            Posted November 16, 2018 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

            It wouldn’t be a bad idea to accept such claims on their face if we lived in a different climate. Unfortunately, claiming to be “marginalized,” “oppressed,” etc. has now become a sort of weapon, and so, like many other words and phrases that used to be more valuable and defined, it can no longer be trusted on an individual level. This is especially true when it comes to people who are very clearly extremely privileged and/or seeking to use their status to gain powerful positions, either socially or economically (all of these things apply to Sarah Jeong).

            Meanwhile, Sarah Jeong is so privileged she can spout extreme and unmistakable racism toward others without any repercussions. She went to Harvard. She’s a NYT editor. You can’t get much more privileged than Sarah Jeong.

            Additionally, I would consider where the person lives. If you’re a minority living in a very diverse city, it’s unlikely that you’ve been marginalized like a black person living in the rural south.

            • yazikus
              Posted November 16, 2018 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

              Good points, BJ. I’m really not that familiar with Jeong (or Sarsour – tbh). I was thinking in particular of the hijab and of my former small town. Only two or three ladies that I ever saw wore it, and I witnessed more than once passing motorists making nasty comments.

              • BJ
                Posted November 16, 2018 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

                Yes, location/environment is definitely important.

              • infiniteimprobabilit
                Posted November 16, 2018 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

                I make nasty comments or, equally often, pitying comments when I see women in black sacks; but I make them only to myself 😉


      • Posted November 16, 2018 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

        There’s a difference between someone being regarded as insignificant by some handful of people, and being regarded as insignificant by society as a whole.

        Surely only the latter amounts to “being marginalized”? I wouldn’t have thought that any of these groups are genuinely “marginalised” in Western societies these days.

        Perhaps homeless people with mental problems and similar can be fairly called “marginalised”.

        • BJ
          Posted November 16, 2018 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

          Good point. People who live in extreme poverty are marginalized by society, be they black or white. But I don’t think most of the people talking about marginalization ever consider the plight of white Appalachians, except to consider them not marginalized for being white.

          • Posted November 19, 2018 at 11:28 am | Permalink

            Susan Haack somewhere lays into those “feminists” who think she (as a woman) is automatically more a victim. Her comparison is (IIRC) between a mentally ill homeless white man and herself, a tenured university professor who is well regarded in her field (and who also happens to be a woman). In contemporary terms, who has more privilege? (Her rhetorical question does overlook that it might not be well defined, which makes ranking even more awkward than the misinterpreted ludicrous cases.)

    • Deodand
      Posted November 16, 2018 at 6:41 pm | Permalink

      I think we are, but then if you look at ‘Six Race’ theory as it is espoused by the Equality, Diversity (of Appearance) & Inclusion (EDI) Movement you realize that it is all a reworking of 19th Century ideas about inherent racial characteristics.

      As to ‘Six Race’ Theory, you have the damned races, who can be blamed for everything.

      White, Jewish

      And the blessed (by their oppression) races

      Black, Latinx, Asian, Muslim

      And yes, I know Islam and Judaism are religions and not races, but the peddlers of ‘Six Race’ theory do not understand that and people like Sarsour are the consequence.

  3. BJ
    Posted November 16, 2018 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

    I actually had this conversation last night. Someone in my house always has MSNBC on, and the host called Young Kim (a Republican candidate for a California House seat. She lost), “one of the only people of color on the Republicans candidate roster.” I asked, “since when are Koreans ‘people of color’?” And then we got into a discussion about how Ocasio-Cortez is people touted as a “person of color.” If Ocasio-Cortez’s last name was, for example, “Smith” or “Lamont,” she wouldn’t be considered so.

    At this point, claiming to be a “person of color” despite all evidence to the contrary is a way to gain power — in conversations and groups on college campuses, in politics, in certain businesses, in college admissions, etc. It’s now a political tool, so it’s understandable that anyone who has the chance to use it will do so.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted November 16, 2018 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

      Any way you wanna define it, you ain’t gonna find many “people of color” on the “Republicans [sic] candidate roster.” Not a whole lotta candidates from the distaff half of the population, either.

      The GOP did an “autopsy” after Mitt Romney’s 2012 loss (when Michael Steele was RNC chair) trying to figure out ways to correct that, ways Republicans might attract more minority voters, but then along came … ah, well, we all know the rest of that story.

  4. Posted November 16, 2018 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

    I’ve stated this before, but it’s worth repeating: Mohawk principle. Anyone can get a mohawk (or hijab). You will be distinguished. You will be noticed. It, however, takes no effort.

    Compare that to swimming across a pool faster than anyone in history or embarking on a Phd in science. It will distinguish you. It will get you noticed. And it will take immense effort and years of hard work.

    Standing for and believing in criteria that subscribe to a ‘mohawk principle’ are miguided at best and insecure for most situations.

    • kps
      Posted November 16, 2018 at 9:17 pm | Permalink

      > Anyone can get a mohawk

      You should be ashamed of that egregious display of follicular privilege.

  5. Christopher
    Posted November 16, 2018 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

    I don’t understand the rules. Isn’t this what got that one woman into so much trouble, claiming to be a PoC when she was actually nothing of the sort? Isn’t Sarsour appropriating the culture of the oppressed people of color? Wouldnt this be the case if a white man born and raised in West Africa were to put on a dashiki? This is the nonsense we get when the left practices it’s form of racism while thinking it is fighting the right’s form of racism.

    • Posted November 18, 2018 at 1:14 am | Permalink

      The key feature of the hijab is that it is a display of hate to the West, and the West is in love with people hating it. This is why people like Sarsour (or, say, Farakhan) are applauded while non-white people cherishing freedom and democracy are stigmatized as “Uncle Toms”.

  6. Neil Wolfe
    Posted November 16, 2018 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

    So does wearing a colander on my head as prescribed by my Pastafarian faith make me a person of color too?

    • Linda Calhoun
      Posted November 16, 2018 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

      Red if sauced, still white if not.


      • Michael Hart
        Posted November 16, 2018 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

        Ok but what about clam sauce?

  7. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted November 16, 2018 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

    Coleman Hughes has a podcast with Sam Harris, and a Rubin Report, where the topic is very close to this one.

  8. Posted November 16, 2018 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

    I don’t know anyone who is white. Some are lighter than others. But wveryone has some shade.
    Time for everyone to quit pretending that they are something that they are not.
    Drop the hyphenated self references to ethnic groups and all the political correctness.

  9. Posted November 16, 2018 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

    Seeing how the term “Person of Color” conflates Asian techies, Mexican farm hands, Black inner city kids, Indian taxi drivers, as well as Asian laundy workers, Mexican businessmen, Black professors, and Indian programmers – in other words, people whose lives, cultures and origins have very little to do with each other – it’s clear that the term only serves one purpose: to establish a dichotomy between White people (bad) and People of Color (good). Everyone who uses the term unironically is immediately suspicious of being a dividise PoMo douchebag, in my eyes.

    • Posted November 18, 2018 at 1:15 am | Permalink

      And too often the suspicion is justified.

  10. Jon Gallant
    Posted November 16, 2018 at 7:27 pm | Permalink

    Speaking as a person of no color, I agree entirely with our host’s point. The correct term for Sarsour and for those she imitates should be “person of margin” (or pom). A still better term is: the marginalariat, the subgroup of the human species sanctified by the modern pop-Left, in the same manner that the proletariat was sanctified by its precursor two generations ago. I fondly remember the rituals of a Socialist group I dallied with in my youth: everyone solemnly deferred to a genial old Irishman who was the only actual worker among us.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted November 17, 2018 at 6:47 am | Permalink

      Errm, no, not ‘pom’, it’s taken. ‘Pom’ or ‘pommie’ was a slightly derogatory term used in Enzed and Oz to refer to persons of recent English descent, such as me. As in ‘pommie jokes’ which I fondly collect. Repurposing the term would probably spoil many of the best jokes.)

      A Pommie walks into a bar in Queensland with a cane toad sitting on his head.
      The barman says “Where’d you get that?”
      And the toad says “It started as a wart on my arse”.


      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted November 17, 2018 at 6:49 am | Permalink

        In other words, it’s ours, don’t you oppress us and marginalise our victimhood status by culturally appropriating our racial epiphet! 😎

  11. Posted November 16, 2018 at 9:18 pm | Permalink

    In regards to “victimhood culture“ or “marginalized people”,rather than distinguishing on the basis of shades of color or differences of race, I would like to look briefly at marginalization of elder, retired or disabled Americans dependent upon on Social Security. According to the November 2018 AARP Bulletin, 1 in 6 Americans receive Social Security benefits (63 million)to the total amount of almost $1 trillion ($952.5 Billion). This seems like a lot of retirees and disabled, etc. and an enormous amount of money. However, that amount of money is not available to all retirees and is insufficient to provide all required income.

    “Social Security is not meant to be a retiree’s sole source of income. The SSA says if you have average earnings, the program’s retirement benefits will replace only about 40% of your preretirement wages. Nevertheless, 26 percent of those 65 and over who receive a monthly social security benefit today live with families that depend on it for almost all of their retirement income. And 50 percent of them say their families depend on Social Security for at least half of their income.”

  12. Barry McGuire
    Posted November 16, 2018 at 9:24 pm | Permalink

    Are not we all persons of color? I am Irish/German and an orange-y,reddish pink. The only person I ever saw that could be said to be truly white was an albino chap from Africa.

    • Posted November 17, 2018 at 11:58 pm | Permalink

      I agree with you.

      As an excessively white child in a classroom with more colorful students, I was thought to be sick. As I’ve gotten older, having been a California girl in the sun a lot, I have tanned and freckled and acquired brown age spots. Not only that, but have blood vein highways on the portions of my body that’s remained out of the sun, and acqquired blue flowers of broken blood veins.

      I’ve been fortunate enough to have had people of all colors that loved me. And I, them.

  13. Roo
    Posted November 16, 2018 at 10:53 pm | Permalink

    I think Andrew Sullivan commented once that as countries become more diverse they sometimes become more hair-split-y about races – I wonder if this is the path the US is on. Looking at the link in the post, it would be weird if I actually became a new race within my own lifetime. I can’t say I have strong feelings about it one way or the other, it would just be weird.

    I think walking the tightrope between addressing real discrimination and oppression vs. creating an unhealthy ‘locus of control’ schema is very very difficult. My upbringing certainly erred on the side of caution on that one, and I now feel fully sure that anything that goes wrong, ever, including the weather, is entirely my fault. I’m probably on the unhealthy end of the other extreme from victim culture – egocentric magic thinking culture, lol. I honestly don’t feel that I have ever experienced discrimination, which is probably statistically unlikely – again, though, I tend towards the other extreme of “I am responsible for any and every outcome, pretty much everything is my fault.” What a healthy happy medium on that topic looks like is probably for more balanced psyches than mine – but I do agree that phrase ‘people of color’ is more or less meaningless, as it doesn’t appear to have any specific referent. If someone moves here from Greece and is fully enculturated into another culture and language, they are still ‘white’, while a Latino person whose family has been here for a few generations is a PoC, even if they have basically the same complexion.

    • Posted November 19, 2018 at 11:32 am | Permalink

      Dunno, but my “olive” (in summer) Inuit-by-choice (French and Cree biologically, largely) friend Raven told me that in Brazil she was thought to belong to every group she encountered …

  14. FB
    Posted November 17, 2018 at 11:51 am | Permalink

    The most marginalized people are those that are incarcerated. And what the vast majority of them have in common is that they had bad parents.

    Marginalized people are those that are unattractive, unintelligent, and have bad parents with no money.

    • Posted November 18, 2018 at 12:13 am | Permalink

      You have a point, but much too broad, I think

      Not all incarcerated people are
      “unattractive, unintelligent, and have bad parents and no money.” Some have. Some haven’t. Much as I hate it, there are people who deserve to be kept away from general civilization because they are a danger. Skin color and where you grew up has much more to do with incarceration than lack of beauty or intelligence. We’ve all known of children with horrible parents who didn’t end up in jail and children with wonderful parents who did.

      One crucial element of this terrible situation is that we need to learn what conditions cause incarceration and how to circumvent it. Keeping people out of “the system” is the best way to ensure that they are less likely to be chronic offenders.

  15. Diane G
    Posted November 20, 2018 at 4:06 pm | Permalink


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