Are Immigrants and Refugees People of Color?

The American context demands an understanding of the countryu2019s racial history and hierarchy. Luckily, the human spirit is flexible enough to hold existing identities while adding elements that help us adapt.

By Rinku Sen Jul 10, 2007

Today, I could be considered a professional person of color because I’ve worked on race issues for more than 20 years. So colleagues are sometimes surprised that I wasn’t always of color. Until I was 17, I was an Indian immigrant and a “minority.”

The transformation started in my second year of college. A Black freshman had been beaten by two white football players, sparking the kind of outrage that Black student leaders channeled into a tight campaign for campus policy changes. There had been meetings and a rally, and I had skipped them, just as I had skipped my school’s Third World Transition Program, the pre-orientation for first-year students of color.

One night I was with my friends Yuko, a Japanese national who had grown up partly in California and New York City, and Valerie, a biracial Black woman from middle-class Connecticut. They wanted me to go to the rally scheduled for the next day. I gave them the 1980s version of  “I’m not feeling that.” And they gave me a serious talking-to.

“You’re not a girl,” Yuko said. “You’re a woman. And you’re not a minority, you’re a person of color.” It was time to grow up and go to the rally.

So I went and began to change myself and my relationship to the people around me. My family had emigrated when I was 5 and a half, and I was raised completely apolitical in white, working-class factory towns just as the factories were closing in the early and mid-1970s. It wasn’t so much the rally, exciting as it was, as the subsequent political education that illuminated my life’s context, giving it a certain sense.

I had grown up struggling with the weird mix of pandering (“You’re such a genius like all your people! Let’s skip you to seventh grade!”) and exclusion (none of the white girls showed up to my 13th birthday party) that I would later learn characterized the model-minority experience. Model minorities don’t exist without a foil: the messed-up minority. As my friend Vijay Prashad says, the mainstream role of South Asians in the United States post-1965 is to solve the problem of Black rebellion simply through our supposedly exceptional existence. If I was going to help win a new Third World Center on our campus and later lead multiracial political organizations, I had to expand my identity in a way that tied me to Black people as part of their rebellion, not as the ringer that would suppress it. So I became a person of color.

I’ve been obsessed with this memory for the past year as I’ve struggled to bring together the racial justice and the immigrant rights movements in my own head and with ambitions for our organizations, activists and agendas. The term “people of color” has deep historical roots, not all of them positive. Many confuse it for the clearly negative “colored.” The Oxford English Dictionary finds a usage as early as 1781, and its liberatory origins seem to be in the French colonial reference to “gens de couleur libre,” or free people of color. Racial justice activists here, influenced by radical theorists such as Franz Fanon using it, picked it up in the late 1970s and began to use it widely by the early 80s. A decade later, it was in popular use. Although I couldn’t confirm it, it’s quite possible that socialist feminists of color first used “women of color,” which was then broadened.

I spend a lot of time with immigrants and refugees from the global south who are not only unfamiliar with the term, “people of color,” but quite hostile to it. Last summer, while I was training immigrant and refugee advocates on racial justice principles, a Somali woman and a Vietnamese man told me that they didn’t relate to the label, and indeed, didn’t think their struggles had anything to do with race. They were Somali and Vietnamese, and they were immigrants. They were disinclined to spend much time figuring out the racial dimensions of anti-immigrant rhetoric or how to make common cause with U.S.-born people of color, especially Blacks and Latinos. I gave the group a little lecture about how identities change through a combination of what happens to you (the external) and how you react to those events (the internal). It can be hard to accept, but a new context demands a new identity–being Indian became far more important to my family here than it was in India, where language, region, religion and caste mattered more. The American context demands an understanding of the country’s racial history and hierarchy. Luckily, the human spirit is flexible enough to hold existing identities while adding elements that help us adapt.

Those folks seemed to take these ideas to heart, but the question remains: are immigrants and refugees people of color? The answer, of course, is that it depends. Just because I found a home in the term doesn’t mean that everyone has to, however brown her skin. Given the ways in which the field was changing when the term came into use, with the first generation of young Asian immigrants like me coming of age, with the success and potential entrenchment of monoracial liberation movements, and with the rise of the Rainbow Coalition, “people of color” was extremely useful for moving multi-ethnic alliances.

It seems that now we need a new term, as this nation changes with the globe and changes the globe. Ten years ago, I was at a community dialogue on race in California, when an Iranian woman asked me who were included in “people of color.” The Black, Asian, Latino and American Indian mix didn’t cover her; she was Persian. Later, the list expanded to include Middle Easterners and Arabs, but it’s unclear that would have changed her feeling.  Identities change, both for individuals and for groups, and that has to be okay. I’m prepared for that; indeed I hope to contribute to that process.

But I am anxious about how the search for a comfortable identity will affect the racial politics of the immigrant rights movement. I don’t buy the argument that because immigrants don’t identify as people of color, they can’t get down with a racial analysis. American racism, after all, is an extension of white supremacist colonialism –the kind that characterized the vast majority of the globe as little as 30 years ago. I have never met an Indian who didn’t realize that the British were white (although I do get the occasional crazy person carrying on about our Aryan roots), and color-conscious discrimination permeates Indian institutions from school to marriage. This analysis is easily available to all South Asians living in the United States, and a version of it is available to the Cambodian, the Congolese, the Jamaican and the Brazilian.

Immigration policy is race policy in this country, as it has been since the genocide of its native people. Current immigration rates have so changed U.S. demographics because Africans, Asians and Latin Americans were barred except as slaves, indentured servants and guest workers until Congress removed immigration quotas in the 1965 Immigration Reform and Control Act. Asians were banned completely from 1885 to that date. All that banning worked to create the United States as a white country. I don’t think my family is the only one in which Americans were always white people and everyone else, Blacks especially, got another title. I can understand the urge to identify with someone other than the people at the bottom, but without the anti-racist pressures of liberation movements among Blacks, Latinos, Asians and American Indians, the 1965 act that brought me here wouldn’t have come into being.

The ongoing immigration debate revolves around two questions with deep racial subtexts: labor and terrorism. Who will do what kinds of work in this country? And whom will the government attack to convince Americans that they are safe?

An immigrant rights strategy that can’t handle race, both historically and currently, may leave us with policy that allows immigrants only to clean toilets for 23 hours a day, leaving their families thousands of miles away, or one that provides no protection from abusive law enforcement for anyone perceived to be Muslim. The racial dynamics of immigration should concern white immigrants too. Unless we’re going to accept selective enforcement, English-only ordinances will also ban Russian translation and the end of family unification policies will affect Europeans trying to keep theirs together.
So, are immigrants and refugees people of color? To my eye, most are, but it’s not ultimately for me to decide. No matter what, though, immigration policy itself is about race and color as well as nationality and class, whether immigrants themselves feel like people of color or not. A new category will emerge, but it will be terribly limited unless we create it through consistent and forward-looking engagement between our communities whose fates are so linked.

I remember the first rally on my campus that I had skipped. I watched it from across the green. I can see now that I kept my distance out of fear. Somehow, I knew that moving toward that action would change me forever. I was forced to leave behind a certain independence, born of innocence that some would call naiveté. In return, I got a life of dignified struggle, tied to millions of others who bring their own histories, cultures and experiences. All things considered, it was a worthy trade.

Rinku Sen is the publisher of ColorLines.