Sociology For Dummies
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The acronym BIPOC has come into common use recently; it stands for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. The term became widely adopted amid the discussions sparked by the death of George Floyd in 2020, as people confronted the reality that different groups have different experiences.

BIPOC, Black Indigenous People Of Color © Dmitry Demidovich /

It’s an evolving effort. “The whole point is that we want to take up space,” writer Sylvia Obell, who doesn’t care for the acronym, told the New York Times (Sandra E. Garcia, “Where Did BIPOC Come From?”, 2020). “Take the time to say black, Latinx and Asian. Say our names. Take the time to learn. Show me that you know the difference.”

This is a rich and important vein of sociological research; here are just two ways in which people’s lived realities involve variables that go well beyond anything you could check on a census form.


Have you sent a mouth swab in for genetic testing, or do you know someone who has? People are often surprised by just how varied their genetic makeup is, testament to how the human family tree has always crossed branches. In a world that sorts people into racial and ethnic boxes, though, people at the intersections of different groups are forced to navigate challenging landscapes. Many multiracial people have stories of being baldly asked, “What are you?”

Elizabeth Hordge-Freeman and Edlin Veras (Sociology of Race and Ethnicity, 2019) point out that nearly a quarter of Hispanics in America identify as Afro-Latinx, tracing heritage to both Africa and to Latin America. Talking to people in this group, the sociologists found widespread reports of what they called ethnoracial dissonance. In other words, many Afro-Latinx Americans simply don’t feel like they fit into the racial and ethnic groups recognized by the people around them. In some cases, that even included their own families; one woman said that her relatives coached her to downplay her Black features by straightening her hair.

“To be Afro-Latine in America,” said one research subject, “is to feel like you don’t fit in anywhere. You’re not Black enough, you’re not Puerto Rican enough. To be Afro-Latine is to be salsa and hip-hop, bachata and reggae, rice and beans and collard greens, papito and homeboy. Afro-Latine is important because we exist.”

The term intersectionality, in reference to overlapping aspects of social identity that can lead to distinct experiences of oppression (such as African, Latinx, and female), was coined in 1989 by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, a Black feminist scholar.


Discrimination based on skin color, referred to as colorism, is experienced by people around the world. Angela R. Dixon and Edward E. Telles (writing in the Annual Review of Sociology, 2017) identify colorism as “a globalized preference for whiteness and/or lightness.” That can lead to discrimination against darker-skinned individuals by people both outside and within what any given society defines as a “race.”

That there’s even a distinction between colorism and racism is another example of the degree to which race is a social construct. In the United States, a biased preference for lighter-skinned individuals within, say, the Black community is called “colorism.” Meanwhile, “racism” means discrimination against the entire Black community. In Latin America, on the other hand, concepts of “race” are less prevalent, and what someone from the United States might call colorism is experienced as racism.

Sociologists and historians have extensively studied colorism in the United States, which in Black American communities stretches back to the time of slavery, when lighter-skinned slaves (their fathers often being slave owners who committed rape) were given preferential treatment. Civil rights activists have fought colorism, concerned for its potential to divide communities that need to unite against white supremacy.

A persistent disadvantage

Despite some progress, colorism remains widespread; across races, researchers have found that lighter-skinned individuals fare better in areas including income, education, and occupational status. Irene V. Blair, Charles M. Judd, and Kristine M. Chapleau (Psychological Science, 2004) found that for crimes committed in Florida between 1998 and 2002, both Black and white convicts received harsher sentences when their facial features were more Afrocentric. The sale of products designed to lighten the skin, and cosmetic surgery to change racial features, is a multi-billion-dollar industry that spans continents from Asia to Africa to America.

As the world becomes increasingly multi-racial, sociologists expect that intersectionality and colorism will become increasingly important as lenses through which to understand discrimination, inequality, and identity.

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book author:

Jay Gabler, PhD is a writer and editor living in Minneapolis. He has authored or coauthored several books and sociological research studies, including Reconstructing the University. He works as a digital producer at The Current (a service of Minnesota Public Radio) and holds three graduate degrees from Harvard University.

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