What Does It Mean to Be a BIPOC Student?

What Does It Mean to Be a BIPOC Student?
portrait of Ciera Graham, Ph.D.
By Ciera Graham, Ph.D.

Published on June 24, 2021

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Language used to describe racial and ethnic minorities has evolved over the years and generated increased controversy. The terms "people of color" and "POC" have been used as all-encompassing generic terms to distinguish nonwhite people since as early as 1976.

The coinage "people of color" has had a coalition-building effect historically and presently: the expression is used to unite people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds around their shared experience of systemic racism and marginalization. The term "marginalized groups" has also been commonly used, but this term is viewed as disempowering, as it only serves to reinforce the oppressed status of people of color in this country.

While people of color still lack representation within many powerful institutions, the term “minority group” has become misleading ...

Similarly, the wording "minority group" is an all-encompassing term that does not identify particular racial or ethnic groups. The term has been used to denote how people of color are often a numerical outlier in the U.S. population or that they remain a minority in terms of their representation across systems or institutions of power, such as government, law enforcement, and education.

While people of color still lack representation within many powerful institutions, the term "minority group" has become misleading, as racial minorities are now expected to be the majority by 2045, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Furthermore, for historically Black colleges and universities or minority-serving institutions, the term is illogical since students of color represent the dominant majority at these institutions.

Language is powerful when discussing the impact of systemic racism on the lives of people of color in the United States and especially important for understanding how our students experience institutional racism in similar and dissimilar ways.

What Does BIPOC Mean?

In 2020, a new term, "BIPOC" (Black, Indigenous, and people of color), arose along with the increased growth of the Black Lives Matters movement in response to the continued unjust murders of Black and brown men and women at the hands of police. Unlike past terms to describe racial minorities, BIPOC recognizes that not all people of color face equal levels of injustice.

Terms like “people of color,” “minority groups,” or “marginalized groups” don't address the specific systemic inequalities facing Black and Indigenous peoples.

Terms like "people of color," "minority groups," or "marginalized groups" don't address the specific systemic inequalities facing Black and Indigenous peoples. Moreover, previous all-encompassing terms rendered Native Americans invisible and ignored how white supremacy impacted their historic erasure and lived experiences. According to the BIPOC Project, the term "BIPOC" acknowledges the unique relationship that Blacks and Indigenous populations have with white supremacy in a U.S. context.

What Are the Reasons for This Change in Language?

The United States was founded on the enslavement of Black people and the genocide of Indigenous people, so the term "BIPOC" centers these two historic events as endemic to the history and founding of our country. To that end, BIPOC intentionally separates the terms "Black," "Indigenous," and "people of color."

The usage of BIPOC at the college level allows us to understand the varied experiences of people of color in the United States and forces us to contend with the notion that all racial and ethnic groups do not experience racism in the same ways.

It provides the language and framework to examine how historical and current incidences of genocide, police brutality, and white supremacy impact both Black and Indigenous populations, while also reccognizing the nuances that exist within particular communities of color.

Rendering the Invisible Visible

At the college level, the experiences of Native American and Indigenous students have been largely invisible, and their unique challenges and barriers are often disguised with the usage of terms like "people of color" or "minority students."

Data shows that less than 10% of Native Americans receive their associate degree, and only 16% obtain a bachelor's degree or higher.

Data shows that less than 10% of Native Americans receive their associate degree, and only 16% obtain a bachelor's degree or higher. Many colleges and universities are housed on stolen land, and while colleges frequently conduct land acknowledgments in campus programming, Native American and Indigenous students remain largely underserved by many institutions.

If college administrators don't specifically recognize Indigenous students as racial and ethnic minorities, they cannot know and determine what support services such students need to succeed and thrive. With the term "BIPOC," we center the experiences and perspectives of Native American students, a population that has gone largely ignored.

Opportunities for Growth

In the realm of higher education, using the term "BIPOC" and understanding its roots and implications encourage us to examine how anti-Blackness, anti-Indigenousness, and whiteness impact the experiences of Black and Native American students. It serves as a forceful reminder of how white supremacy shows up every day in our campus culture, classrooms, and course curriculums.

As many colleges work to become antiracist institutions, we must center the experiences and needs of all BIPOC students in our curriculum, training, and campus programming to ensure that our campuses are inclusive and respectful of individual group differences.


Feature Image: Klaus Vedfelt / DigitalVision / Getty Images

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