The term person of color (plural: people of color, persons of color; sometimes abbreviated POC) is used primarily in the United States to describe any person who is not white. The term encompasses all non-white peoples, emphasizing common experiences of systemic racism. The term may also be used with other collective categories of people such as communities of color, men of color, and women of color. The term is not equivalent in use to the term colored, which was previously used in the United States to refer to African Americans only.
The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style cites use of people of colour as far back as 1796, and, like colored, it was originally used in reference to people of mixed African and European descent. French colonists used the term gens de couleur ("people of color") to refer to people of mixed African and European descent who were freed from slavery in the Americas. In South Carolina and other parts of the Deep South, this term was used to distinguish between slaves who were mostly "black" or "negro" and free people who were primarily "mulatto" or "mixed race". After the American Civil War, colored was used as a label exclusively for black Americans, but the term eventually fell out of favor by the mid-20th century.
Although American activist Martin Luther King Jr. used the term Citizens of color in 1963, the phrase in its current meaning did not catch on until the late 1970s. In the late 20th century, the term person of color was introduced in the United States in order to counter the condescension implied by the terms non-white and minority, and racial justice activists in the U.S., influenced by radical theorists such as Frantz Fanon, popularized it at this time. By the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was in wide circulation. Both anti-racist activists and academics sought to move understandings of race beyond the black-white binary then prevalent.
According to Stephen Saris, in the United States there are two main racial divides. The first is the "black–white" divide, which he describes as "basically anti-black". The second racial divide is the one "between whites and everyone else" with whites being "narrowly construed" and everyone else being called "people of color". Because the term people of color includes vastly different people with only the common distinction of not being white, it draws attention to the fundamental role of racialization in the United States. As Joseph Truman argues, the term people of color is attractive because it unites disparate racial and ethnic groups into a larger collective in solidarity with one another.
Use of the term person of color, especially in the United States, is often associated with the social justice movement. Style guides from the American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style, the Stanford Graduate School of Business, and Mount Holyoke College all recommend the term person of color over other alternatives. Unlike colored, which refers only to blacks and is often considered offensive, person of color and its variants refer inclusively to all non-European peoples—often with the notion that there is political solidarity among them—and "are virtually always considered terms of pride and respect".