BIPOC—pronounced “bye-pock”—is a term you probably started to see on social media or in the news over the course of 2020. The earliest origins of the term were found on Twitter in 2013, but use of the acronym spiked in May 2020, coinciding with the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. Standing for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color, “BIPOC” is more specific than “People of Color” (POC), the broader umbrella term that refers to all non-white people, and aims to highlight the specific discrimination experienced by Black and Indigenous people.
Let’s take a look at what each letter stands for, why and when organizations should (and shouldn’t) use this term, and a few examples of how to use the term in both written and verbal communications.
What does each letter in BIPOC stand for?
Let’s break it down! Here’s what each letter of “BIPOC” stands for, plus some stats that show how each group faces different types of discrimination and prejudice both inside and outside of the workplace.
“Black” refers to a person of African or Carribean descent. It’s important to note here that the terms “Black” and “African American” are not interchangeable. Not all Black people are American—there are Black people in nations all around the world, and the term “African American” only addresses Black people in the United States. Nowadays, “Black” is generally more widely accepted as the default, universal term to describe race. Still, racial identity can be layered, complex, and very personal, so if you’re unsure of how to address someone’s race or ethnicity, ask.
Now, here are some stats on the type of discrimination that Black people experience. 54 percent of Black people aged 18 to 49 say they’ve been subjected to slurs or jokes because of their race, and 59 percent of Black men say they’ve been unfairly stopped by the police because of their race. In the workplace, Black people—especially Black women—face a multitude of barriers and biases.
Starting with management opportunities and pay, only 1 percent of C-suite leaders are Black women and Black women are paid 38 percent less than white men and 21 percent less than white women. Black women face microaggressions daily and are, for example, more likely than other women to hear people express surprise when they demonstrate strong language skills. Outside the workplace, doctors underestimate and undertreat Black women’s pain, leading to worse health outcomes. These examples are in no way exhaustive, but they are indicative of the Black experience.
“Indigenous” is a broad term referring to the tribes and original native inhabitants of North America. You’ve probably seen additional terms to describe indigenous people like American Indians, Native Americans, Native Alaskans, or Alaska Natives.
A Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health survey revealed that 35 percent of Native Americans report personally experiencing slurs, offensive comments, threats or harassment, and violence, and 39 percent report insensitive or offensive comments specifically about their race or ethnicity. Plus, Native populations suffer from chronic disease, poverty, and education gaps at disproportionately higher rates, and Native women go missing and are murdered at rates 10 times the national average.
In the workplace, the Harvard survey showed that almost one-third of Native Americans report being personally discriminated against because they are Native when it comes to being paid equally or considered for promotion (33 percent), applying for jobs (31 percent), and when interacting with the police (29 percent). When we take a look at the gender pay gap, Native women are at the bottom of the list, making only 58 cents on the dollar compared to white men in similar positions.
People Of Color
People of color broadly refers to anyone who is not white. This could include, for example, people from or with ethnic origins in Mexico, India, East Asia, Hawaii, or the Philippines.
The term “people of color'' represents a broad group of people, but there are many statistics that show how various groups of people of color are overall more disadvantaged than white people. For example, about a quarter of Latinx people say someone has discriminated against them because of their background, 22 percent say someone has criticized them for speaking Spanish in public, and 20 percent say they have been told to go back to their home country.
Within the Asian community, violence and racist incidents skyrocketed during 2020, with 45 percent of Asian adults reporting having experienced offensive incidents since the start of the coronavirus outbreak. These statistics provide just a snapshot of the tip of the iceberg of what people of color face, and some studies have even shown that the stress and trauma of discrimination may put people of color at higher risk for physical and mental health issues.
Why do organizations use the term BIPOC?
There are many reasons why organizations might choose to use “BIPOC.” Overall, the term reflects the intersectionality that is inherently weaved into racism, discrimination, and systemic oppression. Not all people of color experience the same injustices and levels of oppression, and the term “BIPOC” brings to light the specific challenges and systemic racism that Black and Indigenous people especially experience, in addition to other people of color.
To understand the nuances in meaning, let’s take a second to understand where “people of color” came from. The term emerged as a “people-first” word aiming to reclaim “colored people” from its racist past. It’s an acceptable term when used broadly like, “people of color in the United States face high rates of discrimination and violence,” but can become problematic when it replaces the specificity of certain ethnic and racial groups and blurs the line between all non-white people and specifically Black and Indigenous people.
The bottom line is that systemic racism continues to affect the lives of Black and Indigenous people in ways that other People of Color might not necessarily experience, and Black and Indigenous communities still feel the impact of slavery and genocide today. Using “BIPOC” shows solidarity and visibility through language.
How should you use the term BIPOC in communications?
In written and verbal communications, you can use “BIPOC” in the context of advocating for diversity, discussing racism and its implications in and out of the workplace, examining your company’s policies, and more.
Examples of correct usage:
“We need to re-evaluate our company policies in order to be more inclusive to BIPOC employees—especially BIPOC employees in the LGBTQ+ community.”
“Let’s start an employee resource group for BIPOC employees so there will be an outlet to raise concerns to management.”
“I think we should consider an anonymous hiring option on our platform in order to combat unconscious bias and discrimination in the hiring process when evaluating BIPOC candidates.”
Although it’s more specific than POC, BIPOC is still an umbrella term, so it should not be used when you’re making references to a specific population. When you use “BIPOC” as a blanket term, it can end up erasing the mention of a certain group that has different bias and prejudice attached to it. If you are mentioning a specific population or individual within the BIPOC community, use specific language to be as accurate as possible.
Examples of incorrect usage:
“Great Places to Work found in their 2019 Women in the Workplace report that out of all demographics of women, BIPOC women are the most likely to feel excluded in the workplace at all levels of management.” This sentence is incorrect because this fact is actually referring to the obstacles that Black women face in the workplace, and “BIPOC” and “Black” aren’t interchangeable.
“I want to start a book club. Have you ever read ‘The Underground Railroad,’ a novel by BIPOC author Colson Whitehead?” While this statement isn’t necessarily false, it could be more specific by referring to Whitehead as a Black author.
“I think my coworker is a BIPOC person.” This sentence is incorrect for two reasons. First off, never assume someone’s ethnic or racial identity. Secondly, “BIPOC” already has the word “people” in it, so adding “person” afterward is redundant.
Note: Pronouncing names correctly is a huge sign of respect, and that courtesy extends to pronouncing identity-defining terms. As previously mentioned, BIPOC is pronounced “bye-pock” and shouldn’t ever be referred to in verbal communications with each letter pronounced separately (“B-I-P-O-C”).
Are there any arguments against the term?
In short, yes.
Historian Janus Adams, who was one of the first children to desegregate the New York City public schools, argues that BIPOC allows white people to keep their identity but conflates the identities of all non-white people. She says:
"If we're able to know the difference or hear that there is a difference between French, Austrian, English, Welsh, then why can't we know that there's Sioux, Cherokee, Shinnecock, Mohican, why can't we know that and why shouldn't we know that? This is a continuation of taking away the identity of these people. White people keep their racial/cultural, nation-state, heritage identities, but Black people, Indigenous people, Asian people, Latino people all get subsumed into something."
If continually used as a blanket term, Adams worries that the BIPOC acronym could lead to an identity crisis within the Black and Indigenous communities. To prevent this, it’s imperative to pay attention to our language and be as specific as possible when we know the racial or ethnic group that someone belongs to.