Students of mine who are unversed in race politics frequently use the phrase “colored people.” They hear me use the phrase “people of color” and assume that the phrases are equivalent. This is a truly reasonable assumption, even as people familiar with race-based struggle know for sure that “colored” is an offensive term and “people of color” is typically not considered so.

Occasionally a student asks me what the difference is and, to be frank, I’m not quite sure. I’ve simply absorbed the rules of talking-about-race and have a good idea of how to do so in ways that reflect grass roots language claims.

Accordingly, I was really excited to see a clip of famed activist Loretta Ross at Racialicious explaining the history of the phrase “women of color,” and later “people of color.” She explains that, while “colored people” was a phrase used to delegitimate black- and brown-skinned people, “people of color” was coined by activists hoping to bring all non-white people together into a coalition against racism.

(Thanks to decius for placing a transcript in the comments. I’ve pasted it in after the jump.)

Loretta Ross: Y’all know where the term “women of color” came from? Who can say that? See, we’re bad at transmitting history. In 1977, a group of Black women from Washington, DC, went to the National Women’s Conference, that [former President] Jimmy Carter gave $5million to have as part of the World Decade for Women. There was a conference in Houston, TX. This group of Black women carried into that conference something called “The Black Women’s Agenda” because the organizers of the conference—Bella Abzug, Ellie Smeal, and what have you—had put together a three-page “Minority Women’s Plank” in a 200-page document that these Black women thought was somewhat inadequate. (Giggles in background) So they actually formed a group called Black Women’s Agenda to come [sic] to Houston with a Black women’s plan of action that they wanted the delegates to vote to substitute for the “Minority Women’s Plank that was in the proposed plan of action. Well, a funny thing happened in Houston: when they took the Black Women’s Agenda to Houston, then all the rest of the “minority” women of color wanted to be included in the “Black Women’s Agenda.” Okay? Well, [the Black women] agreed…but you could no longer call it the “Black Women’s Agenda.” And it was in those negotiations in Houston [that] the term “women of color” was created. Okay? And they didn’t see it as a biological designation—you’re born Asian, you’re born Black, you’re born African American, whatever—but it is a solidarity definition, a commitment to work in collaboration with other oppressed women of color who have been “minoritized.” Now, what’s happened in the 30 years since then is that people see it as biology now. (Murmurs of understanding, agreement) You know? Like, “Okay…” And peopleare saying they don’t want to be defined as a woman of color: “I am Black, “I am Asian American”…and that’s fine. But why are you reducing a political designation to a biological destiny? (Murmurs of agreement) That’s what white supremacy wants you to do. And I think it’s a setback when we disintegrate as people of color around primitive ethnic claiming. Yes, we are Asian American, Native American, whatever, but the point is, when you choose to work with other people who are minoritized by oppression, you’ve lifted yourself out of that basic identity into another political being and another political space. And, unfortunately, so many times, people of color hear the term “people of color” from other white people that [PoCs} think white people created it instead of understanding that we self-named ourselves. This is term that has a lot of power for us. But we’ve done a poor-ass job of communicating that history so that people understand that power.

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.