A Linguistics Expert Explains What BIPOC Means, and How It Evolved

·7 min read
Photo credit: wildpixel - Getty Images
Photo credit: wildpixel - Getty Images

From Good Housekeeping

Language, like the society we live in and the people who inhabit it, is constantly evolving. There comes a point in all of our lives when we realize this firsthand: Maybe a younger sibling or cousin uses a word you’ve never heard before or you come across a Tweet that might as well be written in Greek. And of course, it’s not just slang that shifts as social norms evolve. The words my grandmother might have used to describe Black people in her youth are considered highly offensive today. Conversely, some of the terms LGBTQ+ people use today to describe themselves were too, until a few short years ago.

John Baugh, Ph.D., is a renowned linguistics expert and Washington University professor who’s experienced this linguistic journey firsthand. “When I was a young boy, the terms Negro and colored were not only used by Black and African American people, those were the terms we consider to be respectful,” he explains. “If someone called you Black, that was considered offensive. Depending upon your sensitivity, linguistic changes are a lot like erosion. You may not notice it happening around you because you're going through the gradual process yourself.”

What does BIPOC mean?

Each person’s familiarity with new terminology and how new words are used depends on how tightly you keep your finger on the pulse of popular culture (or, to use a phrase that’s growing passé even as I write it, how “extremely online” you may be). “What has happened with some of these acronyms is they've been given birth in ways that are similar to how slang terminology is introduced,” Baugh explains. “It happens within a small group and then it spreads. The extent to which it lives or dies is then based on utility.” These days, social media can hasten that process.

The acronym BIPOC, which stands for “black, Indigenous, and people of color,” is one prime example. Though it’s now ubiquitous on social media, the earliest reference was a 2013 tweet. BIPOC intends to center the experiences of Black and Indigenous people, within the POC population, which encompasses all non-white people. While BIPOC is a relatively new term, POC has technically been around for centuries. The first known citation was in The Oxford English Dictionary in 1796, but it wasn’t until the late 1970s or early 1980s that the phrase really began to surface in conversation. Even then, as a 1988 New York Times article points out, many Americans were still unsure about its proper usage. The phrase “women of color” arose at the 1977 National Women's Conference in Houston, explains Loretta Ross, the co-founder of SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective. “It is a solidarity definition, a commitment to work in collaboration with other oppressed women of color who have been minoritized,” she says.

BIPOC centers Black and Indigenous people

Those who use BIPOC have a similar aim. Advocates of using BIPOC argue that Black and Indigenous people suffer disproportionate injustice in the United States that calls for particular focus and solidarity within those groups. And some activists are working to carry the movement beyond the acronym. The BIPOC Project “aims to build authentic and lasting solidarity among Black, Indigenous and people of color in order to undo Native invisibility, anti-Blackness, dismantle white supremacy and advance racial justice,” according to its mission. That organization highlights that Indigenous and Black communities have a unique experience of racism in the U.S. which calls for a particular focus on those populations within that conversation.

And when we look at our country’s history with regard to Black and Native populations, we can’t argue against that premise. Our very country’s existence is predicated on forcibly removing Native people from their land and erasing their claims to it. The devastation slavery and the deeply entrenched anti-Black racism has leveled against Black Americans is also unparalleled. Those two legacies of violence and oppression cannot, and should not, be erased or forgotten.

Some say BIPOC misses the mark

Critics of the term believe BIPOC still serves as an umbrella term that flattens Black and Native populations into a monolith. Similar to the way POC lumps all nonwhite people together, they argue that the diversity of each group’s experience isn’t adequately addressed. And while racist policing disproportionately affects Black communities, other areas impact different nonwhite populations similarly.

Latinx and Black populations are both seeing higher rates of COVID-19 infection, according to new data. Racist rhetoric surrounding the pandemic has also caused anti-Asian xenophobia to skyrocket, to the degree that the UN committee that monitors compliance with the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination has recommended that governments adopt “national action plans against racial discrimination.”

The acronym’s original genesis may have to do with that, Baugh posits. “As the term BIPOC grew in its usage, its effectiveness was diminished. When it was originally coined, it was in Canada, which does not have a substantial LatinX population,” he explains. “And the person who coined it wasn't doing so in a context to imagine all of its potential political growth that it embraces today, but rather celebrating historically oppressed populations.”

The speaker’s intention matters.

People who aren’t sure if Black or African American are the appropriate terms du jour might use BIPOC to be on the safe side. Those who want to encompass as many minorities as possible may use it in an attempt to be inclusive. Still others, especially the socially media literate, may use it because they’ve heard others do so, which just contributes to its spread.

The context in which we use words makes a difference, because time and place can change their meaning. But not everyone’s up on the latest lingo, whether that’s the latest synonym for “cool” or what’s racially sensitive to call someone different than you. Baugh recollected an instance in which an acquaintance observed that “all lives matter” in response to hearing “Black lives matter.” When she was told her response was offensive, she was genuinely surprised. Not a digital native, she hadn’t been privy to how an innocent-sounding phrase had been weaponized against the Black community.

Another time, someone asked Baugh, “What are you people calling yourself these days?” Baugh responded, “Call me John.” That interaction perfectly illustrated the challenges language’s mutability presents. “For a lot of people, the very thing we're talking about is an annoying moving target that they feel is politically correct,” he explains. “They're annoyed by it and they feel that it's divisive, but for the people who innovate these things, they're actually trying to be inclusive. So what you see is emerging terminology on a political collision course.”

Aim to center kindness

So what’s a well-intentioned person to do? Aim for specificity, above all. If you’re talking about an issue that impacts Black people in particular, say that. If you’re discussing broader issues that impact several minority groups, consider listing them all to demonstrate that you’re cognizant that differences between them exist. And if you do stumble (or hear someone else do so), consider where they’re coming from.

“To the extent that you can treat someone whose background is different from you with kindness, empathy and acceptance, you can forgive yourself if you're not up on the latest terminology,” Baugh notes. “Respect and kindness should be our primary choice.”

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