What Does BIPOC Stand For? Why It’s Important You Know What That Phrase Means

Suddenly seeing this term a lot in your social media feeds or the news? Here's what it means and why it's important.

Recent weeks have seen a massive ongoing surge of awareness of the systemic racial injustice that targets and harms Black Americans. With the murder of Minneapolis man George Floyd by a police officer as the catalyst, a movement unlike any other has taken hold. In addition to protesting, people throughout the United States and the world are working to educate themselves, and others, about the history and persistence of systemic racism. And a term that comes up a lot in these discussions is the abbreviation, “BIPOC.”

Because education is crucial in understanding and joining the fight for racial equality, it’s important to know what this expression means and where it comes from. Educating yourself is one of the important ways to support Black Lives Matter and become anti-racist.

What does BIPOC stand for?

BIPOC stands for “Black, Indigenous, and People of Color.” It seeks to highlight the Black and Indigenous communities and, as the BIPOC Project explains, the “unique relationship to whiteness that Indigenous and Black (African Americans) people have, which shapes the experiences of and relationship to white supremacy for all people of color within a United States context.”

It is a noun and includes the word “people,” so, when using the term, you would say “BIPOC,” not “BIPOC people,” which is redundant and incorrect. And while it’s certainly becoming better known than ever now, the New York Times was able to find uses of it in social media as far back as 2013.

How is “BIPOC” different from “POC”?

“POC,” or “people of color,” is a much, much older term, one that appeared in dictionaries as early as 1796. This term is still used today, mostly as an alternative to the dehumanizing label “colored people”; “people of color” puts people’s personhood first.

Many people prefer “BIPOC” over “POC” because they view the use of “POC” as lumping all people of color together. “BIPOC,” on the other hand, acknowledges that people in Black and Indigenous communities face different, and often more severe, forms of oppression and erasure, especially when it comes to the racial oppression that permeates America’s history. “Anti-Black & anti-indigenous sentiment/policies/oppression is a foundational structure of the United States,” writer and activist Lara Witt explained on Twitter.

Using one term to describe all Black and brown people can indicate that you don’t see the individual races and different experiences within that one large group, which falls into the same microaggressive territory as saying, “I don’t see color.” In addition, it also acknowledges that, racism is not, literally, just Black and white, and that anti-Blackness exists in other communities of color. In fact, Merriam-Webster has just updated the dictionary definition of racism.

Is “BIPOC” a substitute for “Black”?

No, BIPOC does not mean the same thing as Black. Black people are included in the BIPOC meaning, but “BIPOC” encompasses more people than “Black” does. BIPOC also includes Indigenous people, and, though the struggles of Black Americans are at the forefront of the worldwide conversation right now, “BIPOC,” when used correctly, always includes Indigenous people as well.

It’s not perfect

It is important to acknowledge that no one term is going to be embraced by every member of a community. While many people are widely using the term “BIPOC,” others dislike it, and what people want to be called is very much a matter of personal preference. This difference plays into whether to use “Black” or “African-American,” too.
Some people dislike the term for the same reason as the resistance to “POC”: the idea that the BIPOC meaning lumps together the experiences of Black and Indigenous people as well. “It is dangerous when you perpetuate the notion that Black and Indigenous people of color are homogenous,” Chelsey Luger of the Native Wellness Institute in the New York Times said. Some Native American activists also believe that using the single term, “Indigenous,” for all Native Americans ignores the vast diversity within the Native American community.

What about “BIWOC”?

By now, you may have guessed: BIWOC stands for “Black, Indigenous, and Women of Color.” This abbreviation, then, specifically refers to women in Black and Indigenous communities and acknowledges that women in these groups have their own unique and valid experiences. Now that you know what BIPOC means, continue to educate yourself on how to join the fight for racial equality. Here are some small ways you can fight racism every day, and some ways to keep supporting racial justice even after the protests are done.

For more on this important issue, see our guide to the Fight Against Racism.

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Meghan Jones
Meghan Jones is a Staff Writer for RD.com who has been writing since before she could write. She graduated from Marist College with a Bachelor of Arts in English and has been writing for Reader's Digest since 2017. In spring 2017, her creative nonfiction piece "Anticipation" was published in Angles literary magazine.