You’ve probably encountered the acronym “BIPOC” a time or two, particularly if you stay up to date on current events and regularly spend time on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media.

If you aren’t sure exactly what this term means — it doesn’t mean bisexual people of color, as many people might have assumed — or how to use it, keep reading for an in-depth explanation.

“POC,” which stands for “people of color,” is a general umbrella term that collectively refers to all people of color — anyone who isn’t white.

But because the term is so broad, it tends to lose some of its power, particularly when used to discuss the specific, separate struggles faced by people of color with different ethnic backgrounds.

Similarly, “BIPOC,” which stands for “Black, Indigenous, and people of color,” is person-first language. It enables a shift away from terms like “marginalized” and “minority.”

These terms might remain factually correct, but they lack a sense of humanity, since there’s no clear indication they refer to people.

As such, they’re generic, inadequate descriptors that also carry a suggestion of inferiority and of being “less than” the group that’s not in the minority.

There’s no denying that non-white citizens of the United States and Canada regularly face racism.

Some effects of racism overlap, but others, such as police brutality, remain largely unique to a specific group.

(It may not surprise you to learn that, according to 2019 research findings, Black men have the highest risk of being killed by police officers than any other group of people. American Indian and Alaska Native men face the next highest risk.)

The choice to use “BIPOC” reflects the desire to illuminate specific injustices affecting Black and Indigenous people.

Here’s a detailed breakdown of what “BIPOC” stands for:

Black

Black” generally describes a person of African or Caribbean descent.

Many people in the United States consider the term “African American” the more polite and correct choice, but this isn’t always accurate; some Black people may not be American, while others may not trace their ancestry to Africa.

Some may prefer to identify themselves by the country their family came from — Kenyan American or Jamaican American, for example.

Indigenous

“Indigenous” (as used in the United States) describes the native inhabitants of North America. Indigenous is a broad term encompassing all tribes of the original residents of the continent.

More specific terms might include:

  • American Indians or Native Americans
  • First Nations
  • Native Alaskans or Alaska Natives

These terms themselves remain broad: In the United States alone, 574 recognized Indian Nations exist. It’s always best practice to use specific tribe names when referring to just one or two people or a small group of individuals.

People of color

“People of color,” as noted above, refers to people who aren’t white. This broad descriptor includes, among others, people from:

  • India
  • East Asia
  • Mexico
  • Hawaii and other Pacific Islands
  • the Philippines

People of color face numerous but varied challenges stemming from harmful cultural stereotypes and systemic racism, from the internment of Japanese citizens in concentration camps during World War II to the incarceration of children whose parents were attempting to immigrate to the United States.

How to pronounce ‘BIPOC’

Just as you’d want to say someone’s name correctly, it’s important to learn how to pronounce terminology accurately.

BIPOC is pronounced “buy pock” (“pock” as in “pocket”). You don’t pronounce each letter separately, so you wouldn’t say “B-I-P-O-C.”

Answers to this question vary, but the first use of “BIPOC” appears to date to early to mid-2010s.

In early 2020, use of “BIPOC” on social media became more widespread as people began to pay more attention to long-standing police brutality against Black people and call for change.

“BIPOC” emphasizes, more specifically than the term “people of color,” the following:

  • People of color face varying types of discrimination and prejudice.
  • Systemic racism continues to oppress, invalidate, and deeply affect the lives of Black and Indigenous people in ways other people of color may not necessarily experience.
  • Black and Indigenous individuals and communities still bear the impact of slavery and genocide.

In other words, the term aims to bring to center stage the specific violence, cultural erasure, and discrimination experienced by Black and Indigenous people.

It reinforces the fact that not all people of color have the same experience, particularly when it comes to legislation and systemic oppression.

Acronyms prove useful in tweets, Facebook posts, and other online writing because they help conserve space.

For example, you might have seen a few posts saying something along the lines of, “It’s important to unpack the lifelong impact of racism BIPOC face, but it’s also essential to do the work yourself instead of asking your BIPOC friends.”

If you’d like to get more familiar with media not created by white people, you might say, “My goal this year is to read more books written by BIPOC authors,” or spend some time researching BIPOC directors or TV producers.

(It’s also OK to get more specific and search out Black authors, Iranian authors, or Cherokee authors.)

In short, if you’re discussing issues that pertain to groups of Black people, Indigenous people, and other people of color, and it isn’t possible for you to get more specific, you might use “BIPOC.”

Acronyms and other abbreviations can feel easy and convenient, and they do have a purpose. But blanket use of these terms can still become problematic.

Putting all people of color into one category, even when attempting to emphasize certain voices, can still effectively diminish their individual experiences and cultural identity.

When talking to (or about) individuals or smaller groups of people, avoid defaulting to umbrella terms such as “BIPOC,” since these tend to be less accurate.

This may require some work on your part — be prepared to do that work. Here are some examples:

  • If you’re bringing up the inequalities many Black children face in school, you’ll want to say “Black students” rather than “BIPOC students.”
  • If you’re discussing the extremely high maternal mortality rate among Black, American Indian, and Alaska Native women, you wouldn’t say “BIPOC women,” since other women of color do not face the same risk.
  • When recommending a book by author Louise Erdrich, you wouldn’t say “Louise Erdrich, a BIPOC author” or “Indigenous author.” The best option would be “Louise Erdrich, a member of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa Tribe.”

You might find yourself defaulting to “BIPOC” when talking about a friend, classmate, or co-worker, but if you know their ethnicity and it’s relevant to the conversation, use the most specific language possible.

For example, “My friend Kazuhiro is having a rough time. He hasn’t heard from his family in Japan since the tsunami.”

Many people consider “POC” somewhat outdated.

It may seem politically correct, but some find it offensive because it doesn’t distinguish between different groups. It implies, rather, that people of color have an experience similar enough that no distinction is needed.

This, of course, is not the case. By attempting to include all people of color, it effectively dims — and even erases — their unique experiences.

Generally speaking, “people of color” might work in very specific circumstances, such as: “In the United States, people of color often lack many of the same opportunities as white people.”

If you’re trying to emphasize a particular struggle, however, you’ll want to use more specific language.

When exploring disparities in pay, for example, you’d want to note how the average earnings break down by ethnicity rather than simply saying, “People of color make less money than white people.”

This article isn’t exhaustive.

These resources offer more information about amplifying BIPOC voices, becoming anti-racist, and combating white supremacy:

You want to be polite, you want to acknowledge someone’s identity, and you don’t want to get it wrong. That’s a perfectly understandable goal.

But handy acronyms, though sometimes appropriate, are no substitute for working to combat bias or invalidation in your language.

Trying to include everyone equally can, at times, minimize the voices of those who need to be heard. Focusing on understanding the separate experiences of different groups of people — and how those experiences continue to affect them — can offer a better path toward change.

(And if you do get it wrong, apologize, accept the correction, and use the right term in the future — without trying to justify your mistake.)


Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.