Just as the talented Chloe Zhao won the prestigious Best Director Oscar for the impressive, documentary-like Nomadland (2020), just about every newspaper in the UK started hailing “the first woman of colour” to win the statuette. They include our beloved The Guardian and indeed The Independent, not to mention a string of titles across the pond.
While the importance of such prize cannot be understated, we must also pay attention to the chosen semantics.
So I ask: Can we please stop calling non-white people “people of colour”? Chloe Zhao is a C-H-I-N-E-S-E woman. Yes. The nationality Donald Trump hates and misleadingly associates with Covid-19. Or you might prefer Chinese-American, in case she is a naturalised citizen. I am Brazilian-born and I hold British nationality. I don’t mind being called “Brazilian”, “British”, “Anglo-Brazilian”, or “Latin”. You can even call me “brown”, if you like. But please don’t ever call me a “man of colour”!
The “painted” people
“Of colour” sounds as if someone added a lick of paint to a white surface, thereby desecrating it. It suggests that white is pure, while anything else is foreign and artificial. It’s almost as if non-whites had their skin been painted over. In this sense, “of colour” legitimates blackface.
This bizarre generalisation puts all races and nationalities in the same group, as if their “colour” was monolithic. Plus it denies these people their national/racial identity. Chinese, Black, Middle Eastern, Indigenous American and many others all end up in the same category.
While the intention may be good, its impact is highly questionable. The “of colour” accolade ultimately serves to perpetuate racism, establishing a very simplistic and binary “us” (the white) versus “them” (everything else on this planet) narrative. This amounts to futile tokenism, and is detrimental to diversity in film.
Similarly with the ugly label “world cinema”. Such products are eternally relegated to the bottom shelf, second-category section, where primitive cultures belong. World cinema is merely a genre amongst so many others (thriller, horror, romance, documentary, etc). Because we all know the world outside the US and the UK is tiny, isn’t it?
The world isn’t duo-chromatic. People come in all colours. It’s about time we look at non-whites in their incredible diversity, and permanently shun blanket terms such as “people of colour”, “ethnic”, “world” and the horrific acronym Bame.