So recently in the comments section of my blog, one of my readers said , “can we stop using the term minority now. it is obvious that whites are the minority.” I think her point is well taken, and I think it provides and excellent opportunity for me to talk about some issues related to language that I grapple with in my research and in my everyday life.
A few years ago in my class, we had a great discussion about the term minority. Several of the students in my class, all of whom were African American, argued that they didn’t like the term minority. One of the students argued that she didn’t like the term minority because it means “less than.” She went on to argue that she didn’t want to be associated with any term that marked Black people as less than. I was a little sympathetic to the argument, but my definition of the term minority was much broader than the way my student was using it, and I used it in a much broader way then the term is used by the typical American.
In sociology (and several other academic disciplines.) the term minority group(s), refers to any group that has less access to power; in other words any group that is underrepresented in the power structure of a country or culture. A synonym I use in my classes is subordinate groups. Some minority or subordinate groups would include women, children, Muslims, Jews, Asian Americans, African Americans, gays, lesbians, the disabled, poor people, the working class, and so on. In contrast, the majority group or dominant group, the most powerful groups, would include whites, men, the wealthy, able bodied people, and so on.
So here is the problem, most people don’t think of the term as something related to power. They think about numbers. There are way more people in this world who are not considered White than there are Whites. So people of color are a numerical or mathematical majority, even if they are a sociological minority. The same is clearly true for women.
Once I talked about using power in the definition, several of the students argued that because of the confusion over whether or not the term is being used from a sociologically or mathematically we may need to come up with another term. Moreover, several students pointed out ways that the term “minority” is used in a derogatory or inappropriate way. One student said he didn’t like anyone telling him he is “a minority.” His argument was that it reduced him to one status and was disempowering. He said, if someone was referring to his race, he wanted to be called “an African American.” I liked his point. I agree that there is a distinction between referring to a minority group as opposed to an individual who may be part of a minority group, and I also like the point about how the term is disempowering. So I asked the students, what do you think about the term subordinate group? Many felt it was not as bad as minority, but it was still disempowering. I asked, about the terms marginalized people or oppressed people. Both of which they thought were even more depressing and disempowering.
One student suggested the term people of color, but I argued that the term may be used to about racial minorities in the US, but wouldn’t be broad enough to cover other groups. (I should note the class was called prejudice and discrimination, and we focused on racism, ethnocentrism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, and to a much lesser extent ableism. We were searching for a term that could encompass all of the groups that are oppressed based on these systems of inequality.). I also have to admit I don’t like the term people of color, and I used it reluctantly. (I also reluctantly use the terms biracial, Black, White, Asian American, Latino, and African American.) My problem with that term is threefold. First, the term is completely power neutral, and second it reinforces the racial language of color. I also keep thinking: are there people without color? Then, I wonder if the term reinforces the normativity of Whiteness and the notion that Whites are somehow raceless. My final problem with this term is purely practical. No matter how often I explain that the terms “people of color” and “colored people” are not the same, I still have students who use the term “colored people.” Even though I thoroughly explain the difference, somebody uses it every semester; it is usually Whites, but I am increasingly seeing “people of color” using the term “colored people.”
As we were discussing the issue and struggling over the language, I made the following statement. Are we looking for a nice and polite term to talk about discrimination…something that is clearly not nice. Is there a nice was to talk about oppression, and if we do find the “nice words” to talk about marginalization and domination, are we Whitewashing the problem? I think so. In fact, I think that is the problem with much of the language of contemporary racism. It uses terms like diversity, multiculturalism, or code words that have to be interpreted. People use politically correct terms to say really bigoted things, but many people don’t notice the bigotry because the language it is wrapped in is part of a really pretty package. What politically correct language takes out of the equation is racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, and so on. We find language that avoids the crux of the problem: discrimination, oppression, and dominance. I am by no means here to defend the term minority, minorities, or majorities. I’m not even sure I can pick out the best term. I think my students had some fair points about how language is used, and even though people like me dedicate our lives to trying to figure this stuff out, the fact of the matter is that everyday folks react to what feels uncomfortable to them. Even if those feelings are not critical or come from a gut reaction, they should not be dismissed.
I really don’t have the perfect answer or the perfect terms. In fact, I spend quite a bit of time talking about language in my classes…even though I think the English department should be doing more about this. The language we use is very powerful, and the more I learn the less I like the language choices available. I would like some new terms. What do other folks think? How do you feel about the terms minority and majority? What about oppressed or marginalized people?
A slightly longer version of this is posted at my blog.