In 2020, Google searches for the acronym “BIPOC” spiked to its highest popularity. Before that year, the world was essentially not searching for the term. What changed? And what does “BIPOC” even mean? In this article, we’ll explore where the term Black, Indigenous, and People of Color came from, what facts everyone should know, and why it matters at all.
BIPOC stands for “Black, Indigenous, and People of Color.” Unlike the vague term “POC,” or “People of Color,” BIPOC emphasizes the unique oppression faced by Black and Indigenous people in the United States.
What does BIPOC mean?
“BIPOC” stands for “Black, Indigenous, and People of Color.” It’s a variation on the term “POC” or “people of color,” which refers to communities that aren’t white. Supporters of the term, including The BIPOC Project, believe that the term “people of color” flattens everyone’s experiences and erases important differences. It separates society into essentially two parts, white and non-white, which is a gross oversimplification of reality.
Like the term “POC,” “BIPOC” is constructed as an umbrella term. It isn’t meant to refer to a specific group of people (like Black people) or individuals. On its web page explaining why it uses the term “BIPOC,” YWCA recommends that people be specific whenever possible. As an example, the gender wage gap has specific impacts on specific groups. Black women earn 63 cents to every white man’s dollar, while Latina women earn 55 cents. These specifications are more accurate than saying “BIPOC women earn less than white men.”
When was BIPOC invented?
“BIPOC” joins a long history of terms that attempt to describe groups. “Person of color” is one of the oldest terms still used today. The Oxford English Dictionary says it comes from the French gens de couleur in the 19th century, although a 1797 survey used the term to describe people with mixed white and black ancestry. Today, it’s a more all-encompassing term without a clear definition. The phrase “women of color” or “WOC,” was developed by a group of Black women in 1977. In 2011, Loretta Ross, the co-founder of SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, described the term as a “solidarity definition.”
The exact origins of “BIPOC” aren’t clear, but according to reporting from the New York Times, it was first used on Twitter in 2013. Usage of it spiked in 2020 after the murder of George Floyd, worldwide civil rights protests, and heightened awareness of the specific oppression facing Black and Indigenous people.
What are the most important facts?
There’s a lot to discuss about the term “BIPOC,” so here are five of the most important facts everyone should know:
#1. Supporters of the term say it’s necessary because of the unique struggles of Black and Indigenous people
Not all people of color are treated the same in the United States. The term BIPOC is an attempt to recognize those essential differences, especially when it comes to Black and Indigenous people. In quoted remarks from Vox, linguistic anthropologist Jonathan Rosa describes how during 2020’s conversations about police brutality, the term “people of color” wasn’t the right fit. Police weren’t being recorded attacking “people of color,” they were attacking Black people. Data reveals the grim reality. While Black people make up just 13% of the US population, they accounted for 27% of those shot and killed by police in 2021.
The need for “I” in BIPOC is also held up by data; Native people are 2.2 times more likely than white people to be killed by police. A study of the Ninth Federal Reserve District in Wisconsin (data didn’t include anything past 2017) found that Native women were a shocking 38 times more likely to die. Because of the United States’ legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, genocidal practices against Native peoples, and continued discrimination, Black and Indigenous people face unique marginalization. BIPOC is an attempt to center that reality.
#2. Not everyone likes the term
“BIPOC” as a term is not flawless. Jonathan Rosa points out that while the term tries to prioritize the experiences of Black and Indigenous people, lumping “Black” and “Indigenous” away from the rest of “People of Color” could imply Black and Indigenous people have the same experiences as one another. Historically, the one-drop rule categorized anyone with any Black heritage as Black, which enabled more marginalization. On the other hand, white America tried to eradicate Indigenous people, so Indigenous people were constantly being questioned and tested on whether they were “really Native.” These differences are important and affect the unique struggles of the two groups. A term like “BIPOC” could blur the lines too much.
Also, if we use “BIPOC” in place of “POC,” it implies Black and Indigenous people always face the most discrimination. In a piece for the Virginia Law Review, Meera E. Deo writes: “While concentrating on these two groups may make sense in particular contexts, it cannot be true that every example of race and racism should center Black and Indigenous voices or experiences.” The rise in anti-Asian hate after COVID-19 is a key example, as was the increase in hate crimes against Muslims after 9/11. “BIPOC” could end up confusing the facts and misrepresenting who should be prioritized in specific contexts.
#3: BIPOC may have limited usage outside the United States
How useful or relevant is “BIPOC” outside the United States? It’s meant to draw attention to the unique disenfranchisement of Black and Indigenous communities, but not every country has the same issues as the United States. Linguistic anthropologist Jonathan Rosa points out that “well-meaning white progressives” could accidentally project “US-centric ideas of race into racial conversations in other countries.” Looking at Google trends can give us a glimpse into the global usage of “BIPOC.” For our experiment, we compared searches of “BIPOC” with “POC.” Worldwide, while there was a huge spike in searches of both terms at the end of May and early June 2020, “POC” is searched consistently more. Since 2020, however, “BIPOC” is being searched more than it was before 2020. In the US, “BIPOC” was at its most searched (100/100) in early June 2020. In India, “BIPOC” was searched significantly less between February 2020-March 2023; it peaked at just 9/100. “POC” is searched way more often.
What can we glean from this information? Even in places where “BIPOC” searches are increasing, “POC” is still searched more. This could indicate that “BIPOC” hasn’t caught on yet (and may not catch on) in places like India. While this data can’t tell us what people think of the terms “BIPOC” or “POC,” it does imply limitations based on geography.
#4. Terms like BIPOC have a complex history
As criticisms show, “BIPOC” is not a perfect term. This is nothing new as all terms have long, complex histories. Many terms once used in everyday conversation (which we won’t print here) are now considered blatant slurs. The term “colored,” which is also now considered offensive, was widely used for many years. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which was founded by Black Americans, still retains this name. “Colored” was eventually replaced by terms like “minorities,” “POC,” and “BIPOC.”
“LGBTQ+” also demonstrates the complexity of terms. In the 1990s, only four letters were used: L (lesbian) G (gay) B (bisexual) T (transgender). The “Q” refers to “queer or questioning.” As an umbrella term, it’s meant to include everyone who isn’t heterosexual or cisgender. For some, “queer” remains a slur. The “+” is another attempt to include all gender identities and sexual orientations not included in “LGBTQ.” You may see variations on the acronym like LGBTQIA+ and LGBTQQIP2SAA.
#5. Language is evolving all the time
That last variation on LGBTQ+ looks intimidating, doesn’t it? While it’s inclusive, it’s a mouthful and not exactly practical. That’s the trick with trying to create terms that reflect a variety of identities and experiences. New terms can sound clunky. The process can also move quickly and for those who aren’t on the internet a lot, it can seem like terms change overnight. At the end of the day, it’s about being flexible. Organizations use different terms. Individuals may have preferences or they may not care what they’re called as long as they’re treated with respect. Our last fact is that language is always evolving, as are individuals and communities. “BIPOC” may become the most widely-used term, it may fade into obscurity, or it may just become one of the many acceptable terms circulating in society. Only time will tell.
Why does any of this matter?
Words are never just words. They have the power to hurt or to heal, to shape narratives, and to change how people think. One of the best examples of this is found in the study of dehumanizing language. In a post from The Conversation, psychology researcher Allison Skinner describes two studies that examined how language affected racism and sexism. In one study, participants were primed to associate apes with Black people. Afterward, the participants were more likely to tolerate police brutality against Black suspects. Another study showed that when participants were exposed to comparisons between women and animals, “hostile sexism” shot up. Language impacts a person’s thoughts and behavior. That’s why terms like “BIPOC” matter. They’re trying to create inclusive and empathetic environments, and while they’re not always successful or accepted by everyone, the process is important. When it comes to interpersonal relationships, the process is much simpler: call people what they want to be called.