SOC Column: The Social Side of Social Justice


Mia Galvam, Columnist

What’s in a name? Well, according to social identity theory, a lot, if one is talking about labels. Social identity refers to how people’s concepts of themselves are defined by membership in various social groups—like religious affiliation, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, nationality, or even following sports teams. Social identity theory provides a framework for understanding the way social identity affects attitudes and behaviors concerning group inclusion or exclusion, which relates to social power. Social identity is most influential when individuals view membership as a central aspect for their self-understanding and self-worth.

Throughout our live, people attach labels to us. These labels affect not only how others think of us, but also how we think of ourselves. This isn’t always negative. Labels can have a positive connotation or even set expectations, which can inspire or guide us. However, the more salient the social identity of a group, the bigger target that group is for unfounded stereotyping or prejudice. This is one of the reasons labels get switched up fairly frequently, because over time they can get laden with negative meaning. A recent episode of the Code Switch (09/29/20) podcast discussed elements of this issue, weighing the merit of using the label POC (people of color) versus the newer label, BIPOC (black, indigenous, people of color). My ears perked up because I’ve wondered about this myself. What is the most effective or “correct” term when referring to the “non-white” or non-dominant experience in America? And, what is gained or lost when one term is used in place of another?  

The Code Switch podcast reaffirmed the value of tinkering with terminology if the ultimate goal is to bring people together and find commonality. Social identity theory encourages working cooperatively across social groups to reduce prejudice. The commonality found in group identity can unify people into collective action and generate the power needed to overcome injustice. 

So with respect to POC versus BIPOC, the bottom line is that there is no perfect term. Non-whites, minorities, POC, BIPOC are all imperfect labels attempting to describe and effect a position regarding the racial hierarchy and its relation to whiteness. POC or BIPOC each have their unique benefits and shortcomings, but both have the power to describe and create a reality that encourages empathy across racial groups and builds political power. POC is appealing because it centers on the person instead of their relationship to the dominant culture, like the terms non-white or minority. POC is an umbrella term that can be empowering and inclusive of many groups, but also risks oversimplifying and homogenizing experiences. BIPOC attempts to correct this by lifting up the unique black and native experiences, particularly in the US, by broadening and contextualizing POC. However, BIPOC has led to some confusion. For example, how do Latin X or Asian people relate to BIPOC? Did its aim for greater specificity and enhanced representation actually lead to it being less effective?

For now, POC works best for me, but I know labels and terms will come and go. What matters is coming together to overcome unjust social relations to further human rights and distributive justice.