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colored people

2009-06-05

We had an intense meeting at work yesterday, the third in a series where we spoke about how we exist in a heterosexist priviliged world, while we tried to understand how we could best serve people who identify as LGBTQ.

As the conversation progressed, we talked about how our upbringing affects our perspective, how we serve clients, as well as how the social work culture makes the assumption that all providers grew up in liberal, people-first environments, and that everyone knows what is politically & socially correct and why.  I shared my story as an example:

Growing up in the Bronx, we didn’t really have to “refer” to groups of people (Hispanic, African-American, etc.) because we were in such a diverse environment that there weren’t really groups, just people.  Fast-forward to my first job, and all of a sudden you had to identify clients into groups… the forms said “Black,” most people used “African-American” and I noticed that the most progressive people said, “people of color.”  Since I had no idea what the thinking was behind any of this, I stayed quiet, observed and stored this information away for future use.  My opportunity to show off my new knowledge came when I was doing a training, and as I attempted to use my new progressive phrase, I said, “colored people” instead. 

As further evidence to what I was saying about assuming that everyone knows what you’re talking about, the entire room was stunned, laughed, made jokes, and moved on, all demonstrating that they “got it.” 

For those of you who are like me and need it to be spelled out a little more, here’s a New York Times article from 1998 (that is now 11 years ago, people!) explaining the difference between using the terms “people of color” and “colored people.”

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