The term "person of color" (plural: people of color, persons of color; sometimes abbreviated POC) is today primarily used in the United States to describe any person who is not considered white, including in various points in US history, African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, Asian-Americans and others. The term emphasizes common experiences of systemic racism. The term may also be used with other collective categories of people such as "communities of color", "men of color" (MOC), and "women of color" (WOC). The term "colored" was originally equivalent in use to the term person of color, but usage of the appellation "colored" in the Southern United States gradually came to be restricted to "negroes", and is now considered a racial pejorative.
The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style cites usage of "people of colour" as far back as 1796. It was initially used to refer to light-skinned people of mixed African and European heritage. French colonists used the term gens de couleur ("people of color") to refer to people of mixed African and European descent who were freed from slavery in the Americas. In South Carolina and other parts of the Deep South, this term was used to distinguish between slaves who were mostly "black" or "negro" and free people who were primarily "mulatto" or "mixed race". After the American Civil War, "colored" was used as a label exclusively for black Americans, but the term eventually fell out of favor by the mid-20th century.
Although American activist Martin Luther King Jr. used the term "citizens of color" in 1963, the phrase in its current meaning did not catch on until the late 1970s. In the late 20th century, the term "person of color" was introduced in the United States in order to counter the condescension implied by the terms "non-white" and "minority", and racial justice activists in the U.S., influenced by radical theorists such as Frantz Fanon, popularized it at this time. By the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was in wide circulation. Both anti-racist activists and academics sought to move the understanding of race beyond the black-white dichotomy then prevalent.
The phrase "women of color" was developed and introduced for wide use by a group of black women activists at the National Women's Conference in 1977. The phrase was used as a method of communicating solidarity between non-white women that was, according to Loretta Ross, not based on "biological destiny" but instead a political act of naming themselves.
According to Stephen Saris, in the United States there are two main racial divides. The first is the "black–white" delineation. The second racial delineation is the one "between whites and everyone else" with whites being "narrowly construed" and everyone else being called "people of color". Because the term "people of color" includes vastly different people with only the common distinction of not being white, it draws attention to the fundamental role of racialization in the United States. Joseph Tuman argues that the term "people of color" is attractive because it unites disparate racial and ethnic groups into a larger collective in solidarity with one another.
Use of the term "person of color", especially in the United States, is often associated with the social justice movement. Style guides from the American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style, the Stanford Graduate School of Business, and Mount Holyoke College all recommend the term "person of color" over other alternatives. Unlike "colored", which refers only to black people and is often considered offensive, "person of color" and its variants refer inclusively to all non-European peoples—often with the notion that there is political solidarity among them—and "are virtually always considered terms of pride and respect."
Many critics, both whites and non-whites, of the term object to its lack of specificity and find the phrase racially offensive. It has been argued that the term lessens the focus on individual issues facing different racial and ethnic groups. Several people, whites and non-whites alike, have compared it to the terms "colored" and "negro".
For example, the person of color (POC) racial identity model describes racial identity development for people of color...
The term People of Color emerged in reaction to the terms "non-white" and "minority." … The term people of color attempts to counter the condescension implied in the other two."