Disconnect between the phrase ‘people of color’ and the science of colour

There is currently a big debate about Critical Race Theory (CRT) – an academic framework which examines race and racism. It’s a very complicated issue but advocates of CRT link animal welfare and/or the lack of it with their theories. And therefore, to discuss race and racism and CRT is indirectly to discuss animal welfare which is why the discussion is relevant to this website. I will be discussing CRT in the context of animal welfare in some future articles as it is very interesting and an important topic. It intersects human culture and animal welfare.

Disconnect between the physics of colour and the phrase ‘people of colour’
Disconnect between the physics of colour and the phrase ‘people of colour’. Image by MikeB – free to use. Click it for a bigger version.
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Scientifically speaking, white people are ‘people of colour’.


And this morning I want to touch on something which has sort of troubled me for a while which is that black people sometimes like to be called “people of colour”. It’s a very gentle way of describing all black people and some people insist on it. Although there isn’t a universal preference for using “people of colour” among black people. Although the phrase is inclusive. It acknowledges the shared experiences of facing racial discrimination that black people have with other non-white races.

While black is a valid term, some may feel “people of colour” reflects their heritage and cultural background more fully. And the word “black” can be seen as solely about skin colour, whereas “people of colour” emphasises being a person first.

Although there are some critics of this phrase. It has been criticised for being overly broad as it lumps together many diverse cultures. It defines people by what they aren’t (white) and is therefore a version of “othering”. And some black people seem to prefer to be called black which as I understand it is acceptable today although this been a trend towards “people of colour”.

Science versus culture

Now for the science bit. I’m looking at the physics of colour white and the physics of the colour black. And there is a disconnect between these physical properties and the phrase I mention above. And I find this disconnect slightly disconcerting because it indicates a lack of harmony between science and culture and I would have thought that there should be harmony between the two. Science works the same for both people of culture and other people. It is common to both.

In the world of light in science, white is actually the combination of all colours not the absence. Red, green, and blue are the primary colours for light (additive colour system) and mixing them creates white.

Conversely, black is the absence of visible light. When we see a black object, it’s because the object absorbs all the wavelengths of light and reflects none back to our eyes. Black isn’t on the light spectrum because the absence of a specific colour; it is the absence of light altogether. In the real world, a black object is an object containing pigments which absorb light that’s why it looks black. They are very rarely totally black.

Obviously, white people are not completely white and black people are not completely black. But there’s more pigmentation in the skin of a “person of colour”. This pigmentation absorbs light which makes their skin look darker whereas for white people white light is reflected back from their skin into the eyes of the person looking at them and therefore the skin looks whiter.

Biologically, white people are ‘people of colour’

But the point I want to make is this: white people are also people “of colour”. You could, in the most sensitive of ways, argue that white people, in a scientific sense, are better described as “people of colour” than black people based upon my scientific argument above.

Of course, the term “people of colour” is more about social and cultural identity than the technical breakdown of colour itself. It refers to people who are not considered white in a racial context and the experiences that come with that. So while technically white can be produced by combining colours, “people of colour” is a term used for specific racial identities.

Just saying. It is a thought I wanted to express and it is indirectly connected to animal welfare. Wait and see…

Some more on CRT – summary:

Critical Race Theory (CRT) is an academic framework that examines race and racism. Here are some key things they say:

  • Racism is systemic: CRT argues that racism isn’t just individual prejudice, but rather ingrained in laws, institutions, and policies. These structures create racial inequalities even if no one intends it. Source: Wikipedia.
  • Laws aren’t neutral: CRT scholars say laws appear neutral but often have unequal outcomes for different races. For example, seemingly race-blind housing policies might unintentionally perpetuate segregation. Source: Britannia.
  • Race is a social construct: CRT views race as a category created to maintain social hierarchies, not a biological fact. Source: Education Week: What Is Critical Race Theory, and Why Is It Under Attack?

It’s important to note that CRT is a complex field with ongoing debate. This is just a basic overview of some core tenets.

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