Can we find a better term for "Marginalized" People?

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.

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39 Responses to Can we find a better term for "Marginalized" People?

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  4. 4
    ScottM says:

    Oppressed people sounds like it contains what you’re saying. It implies active effort, not resignation to a second tier. Of course, I’m white, so there’s probably lots of nuance that I’m missing.

    [Plus it's not gentle. Oppression is something people reflexively oppose, at least verbally.]

  5. 5
    Richard Bellamy says:

    I think you and your class are conflating “disempowering” words with words that refer to “disempowered” people. The negative connotation will necessarily become attached to it when the Empowered start using it to say and do disempowering things to the so-named group.

    We saw it in New Orleans, when the Empowered start talking about the problems with those damned Refugees. “We’re not Refugees,” the Disempowered said, “We’re Evacuees!”

    “Okay,” the Empowered said, and started talking about the problems with those damned Evacuees. And nobody felt better or more empowered afterwards, because the problem isn’t the connotations of the words, but rather who gets the power to give the words connotations.

    Words only seem more empowering (or less disempowering) because they are new to the use, and don’t have any negative connotations attached to them (yet). If they actually start being used, and they refer to people who do not have the power to create linguistic connotations in the broader culture, the negative connotations will show up very quickly.

  6. There’s a lot to sink one’s teeth into here. I am not so sure that I like “oppressed people,” even though I agree with ScottM that it contains a lot of what you’re saying, because I am not so sure that ageism, for example, is, strictly speaking, oppression in the same way that sexism is. It may be that I am distinguishing here what is essentially a matter of degree, but part of me thinks that, while I certainly do not want to get into the business of hierarchizing oppressions, degree does matter when one thinks about setting priorities in terms of activism and calling everyone who is marginalized oppressed does flatten out differences that shouldn’t be ignored.

    I actually like “marginalized people” as an umbrella term because it allows you to talk about different centers of power and how those centers overlap and intersect–I am picturing a venn diagram here. So, for example, an 85-year-old white woman will be in some ways at the center of one “sphere of power” and at the margins of others. Power, after all, is always negotiated and exercised in a context. I can see that someone might think “marginalized people” sounds too clinically distant, but if it is used as an umbrella term, it might make room for using words like “oppressed people” as a subcategory of marginalization.

    I’m not so sure I like the line of thinking that last sentence starts to lay out, but I need to go teach. I will be interested to read what others have to say in this thread.

    (By the way, do you know Richard Dyer’s White? It’s a great book that takes on a lot of the questions you ask about terminology, etc.)

  7. 7
    sparkane says:

    Richard Bellamy ++

    From the post:

    “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.”

    I’m not a sociologist, nor do I play one on tv, so for me “minority” has always been about “fewer than” – not “less than”, as your student said, a common mistake made nowadays, like confusing envy and jealousy. (And “impact” and “affect”. OMG all my pet peeves in a row, I feel positively naked.)

    What I’m getting at here is that the sociological term “minority” is – it seems to me – a jargon term within a technical discourse. Obviously that doesn’t make its use that way wrong – but the problem is not that others think the term has to do with numbers – it does. The question is how do you justify the jargony meaning to those of us not familiar with your discourse.

    In writing this I was at first leaning toward making the claim that you should have a new term, that it is a bad metaphor for what you mean. But then I thought, nah, it’s a fine term, considering the circumstances. Or at least potentially still fine. It seems clear to me – he said all famous-last-words style – that the word can mean “power” if you assume that greater numbers have a greater voice in a voting democracy. Not to mention in a pitched melee. So it seems very simple to me. The two meanings are actually closely related; one is more inferential, but it’s there in the original concept. (Which suggests I’m going back on what I said about “jargony”.)

    I already agreed with Mr Bellamy, but my reaction to students disliking a term that really has – at least for how _they themselves_ interpreted it – a _very_ concrete meaning, is not the problem of sociology. I’m not saying it couldn’t be, but in this case it isn’t (or doesn’t seem to be to me).

    I agree with your students who don’t like being referred to, individually, as “a minority” – though that could be rationalized as a shorthand way of saying “a member of a minority” – this is a common tactic in language, e.g. how many of us always refer to a “work of art”, and not just “the art”? Assuming that the intention of “you’re a minority” was what your student perceived it to be, it wouldn’t have been inappropriate for him/her to say to the one who said it, “Hey you crumbum – yeah I’m a minority. I’m one person. You’re a minority too. And I weigh more than you, which means I’m a bigger minority, so shut the fuck up, asshole.”

    I have to say it seems like jerry-rigging to say that whites are in the minority when you compare then with all the people in the world who are not white, or are “minorities”. I mean, that might be practically true, if all the heretofore-referenced minorities identified with each other; that would mean that they all share a common voice, nicht wahr? One which could express itself against the “white” one. But do they? Do blacks and latinos all identify with each other? How about arabs (please excuse my terminology if you find it offensive, I don’t know the noms du jour), blacks, latinos, native americans? And I’ll make it easy on you, they don’t have to be from “the whole world” but just within the lil ol You Ess Ay. I’m tempted to point out that when it comes to minorities identifying with each other, gays have historically gotten the shaft; no one wants to identify with them, it seems. Except sheep-ranchers in Montana. (Yay! Made my Brokeback monthly joke quota!)

  8. 8
    sparkane says:

    Sorry, meant to say, tempted to point out that last point about gays being accepted by minorities, but I’m not sure how germane it is to a discussion that seems to be mostly in terms of skin color.

  9. 9
    sparkane says:

    And just so everyone knows, yes I _did_ just finish the article and please just ignore my “discussion that seems to be mostly in terms of skin color” comment. Germane-ness of gays restored! Whew.

  10. 10
    Rock says:

    Good job Rachel S!
    During a class in applied theology we had a similar discussion regarding the term “Marginalized people.” Most in the class could be categorized that way, and all work, “on the margins.” We followed the route your class did, and could not bridge the gap at the end either. (Richard B. makes some great observations.) I have to admit I like the “Margins.” I live and feel a close kinship in the margins. However I do not feel good with the term, “marginalized people.” There is a connection that is kinda squishy… a connectiveness when living on the edge. The poor, the imprisoned, the bullied, the exploited, their is an instant recognition of belonging in these groups that has not changed a bit over time. (Jesus, the epitome of the margins, thus the easy recognition by those that suffer in them.) The dues are high but sadly too many have the capital to belong.

    I look forward to hear more folks try and place a moniker to something most readers know but slips from the bounds to quantify without prejudice. Perhaps that is why it is so difficult, if we could put it in a box than it would be easier to deal with. Perhaps it is supposed to be a struggle? Blessings.

  11. 11
    Lee says:

    Really good post! I think the most confusing thing for me is that many of the terms available to choose from are owned by particular political groups or philosophical stances, and sometimes their use requires knowledge of historical context that maybe I don’t have.

    Similarly to your students who are mixing up “people of color” and “colored people” (and probably wondering what the fuss is all about), I know that almost any term I choose *could* have negative aspects that would give me many many clueless points or offend somebody unintentionally if I used them. For instance, “water buffalo”. There is a VeggieTales song about water buffalo that is kinda cute and funny, yet one young woman I know found the song offensive, because of the incident where the white male college student used it to refer to a group of black female college students.

    So let each class come up with its own terms of art, and see where you collectively end up.

  12. 12
    P6 says:

    Easy stuff. Just call everyone by their preferred name. If you need “everyone that has a preferred name,” negate the mainstream, i.e. “non-mainstream issues groups will meet…”

  13. 13
    Sage says:

    I don’t have an answer for you, but I also have issue with terms we use. In particular I dislike the connotation of “developed” and “developing” countries. It implies some countries are done; they’re perfection. Others are still trying to attain said perfection. I think the U.S. and Canada are still working, still developing and hopefully improving. I think we should start labelling countries (where labelling is necessary at all) by current economic stability – impoverished, struggling, holding (us), sustainable (not us), etc.

  14. 14
    spit says:

    Hmm. I personally avoid using “minority” specifically because, outside of its specific usage within sociology, it is absolutely taken to mean something about numbers. When we talk, for example, about women as “a minority group”, it tends in normal conversation IMO to completely cover over the fact that we’re talking about half (a little more, actually) of the human population. When we talk about other groups as “minority groups”, it tends to make it seem as though the power structure that’s effecting them is one that’s just all about numbers — when that is really not the case. I’m fairly certain that the majority of people in this culture are not wealthy WASP men.

    Subordinate group or marginalized group are things with which I’m personally much more comfortable — they reflect one’s position in the power structure, and can’t really be misused to be about something else. Subordinate treats it as a top-bottom thing while marginalized treats it as a default-other (or perhaps inclusion-exclusion) thing, and I can see good reasons for either treatment. I have more mixed feelings about “oppressed” people, but I’ll have to think a little on how best to verbalize why.

    I think that part of the discomfort that people probably have with these is that is sounds so negative, and is designed to describe the power structure that exists, not change it. The problem is, as you’ve pointed out, that these distinctions are fundamentally talking about something that is negative — the differential power dynamic between one group and another in society. It’s not just that these groups are “different but equal”, it’s that their social positions — not their individual worth (which is probably where the confusion arises) — are set up in a complicated system of above/below or dominant/subordinate.

    This debate actually kind of reminds me of the debate around whether we should pay attention, anymore, to racial distinctions given that we now know that race does not biologically exist in any meaningful way. The logic there goes, of course, that continuing to work withing a racial framework simply allows it to keep existing. I see very much a similar argument at the base of this debate, where the idea that we talk about groups being “subordinate” or “marginalized” helps keep the system in place that makes them subordinate or marginalized. It’s an argument with which I strongly disagree.

  15. 15
    Richard Bellamy says:

    Except sheep-ranchers in Montana. (Yay! Made my Brokeback monthly joke quota!)

    Wyoming, I believe.

  16. spit:

    It’s an argument with which I strongly disagree.

    Which argument specifically? I had a hard time–probably fatigue on my part–following the last part of your post.

  17. 17
    Aaron V. says:

    I prefer “disadvantaged groups” – it doesn’t place the emphasis on color or number, like “colored people/people of color” or “minority” does.

    It acknowledges that people can lose their “person of color” status, yet still feel the effects of non-institutional racism, like Jews, Italians, Greeks, and Slavs in the United States.

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  19. 18
    Prairie O. says:

    Sage: That’s an interesting take on ‘developing’, I’ve never thought about it that way. It does sound a bit patronizing!!

    I assume the term refers to economic development but I always think about it in terms of Wildlife Conservation (because that’s my job). As far as the amount of infrastructure and the complete modification of the environment, the US and Europe could also be called ‘over-developed’, whereas countries that still have some of their natural resources like wildlife and forest intact could be called ‘thankfully under-developed’.

  20. 19
    spit says:

    Richard J. Newman — it might be fatigue for you, or it might be because I’m having one of those incomprehensible days. I have those a lot, just FYI.

    The argument with which I strongly disagree:

    that changing the terminology/categorization system to not reflect racial difference (because it’s not biologically real) will somehow help racial difference disappear as a social mechanism. Or, more central to this topic, that changing the language from “marginalized” or “subordinate” populations to something else would help in some way to break down the power structure that makes them marginalized or subordinate.

    Not that that’s the entire argument from people who want to change the language, mind you. It was a little bit of a side note.

  21. 20
    Chris Adams says:

    In brief, I believe it would be far more productive to try to redefine the “majority”, i.e. white males. See if the class can come up with an accurate but non-perjorative term for them, that still neuters their presumptive advantages in society. It’s not easy.

    As you noticed, even positive, newly-minted terms and symbols simply become magnets of mockery to bigots. Rainbow flags and “multiculturalism” still seem very positive to me, but we all know how they’ve been stomped on by those who want to.

    My preferred word for the condition of white men is “default“. It’s certainly how they perceive themselves, since American society never seriously treats them as an “other” for very long. Consciously or not, this allows them to sweepingly categorize other ethnicities, and depreciate women to greater or lesser degrees, while avoiding categorization, and thereby marginalization, themselves. Religion and sexuality become lesser pieces in the same game. (Note the telling meanings behind the old phrase of a certain persuasion. Persuaded away from what?)

    Default” emphasizes the lack of definition “whiteness” has beyond mere presumptive power over non-whites (“maleness” by contrast, is laden with storied imagery). It also suggests something common and replaceable; unspecial– this emphasizes that a loss of power is a loss of white male identity, since empowerment is their default identity.

  22. 21
    spit says:

    Sage — totally agree with you on the “developing nations” thing. Developing into what? Something just like “the developed nations”, of course, since clearly everybody is just DYING to be us. What a lovely goal!

    To me, it’s even worse than the old-school “first world” “third world” distinction, though of course that suffers badly from the same problem (and who ever talked about those “second world” countries, anyway?).

  23. 22
    Diane says:

    As long as we’re splitting hairs, I disagree with your student. “Minority” does not mean “less than”–it means “fewer than” in this context, which–again, in this context–is different.

    However, I agree that we should not use the term “minority” to refer to a group whose numbers are not smaller than the established power group’s numbers. In my community, blacks are definitely a minority, as are liberals, but 30 miles away, in the city, whites are a minority (well, they were, before the hurricane), yet no one refers to them as that.

  24. 23
    spit says:

    Diane — I agree, actually, with your hair-splitting — though “fewer than” in this culture all to often translates well into “less important than”.

    I also just wanted to say that the big problem I have with the term “minority” and its (often unintentional) focus on the size of the group is specifically that no matter what size of group we’re talking about, it really makes it seem as though the size of the group is the central thing in its social standing. It’s completely possible to be both a numerical majority of the population and subordinated — and it’s possible to be a relatively small amount of the population and dominant. So the language, the way its interpreted in real life, just utterly misses the point IMO.

  25. 24
    spit says:

    Chris Adams — there’s a lot that’s great about that comment. I was just thinking the other day, actually, that often being in a “dominant” group requires that you are defined by what you are not. Meaning, whites are specifically defined as not people of color, say. And actually, I think that men are often defined as not women or not feminine — a lot of effort inproving masculinity goes into showing that one is not “womanly”. All of this speaks, exactly as you’re pointing out, to men’s (or white people’s, or straight people’s) default status in the cultural awareness. White, straight (insert here) men are “normal”, and it’s everybody else that requires language to define them.

    I use the term “default” often, too… it comes in very handy when I’m discussing this stuff with old redneck-ish buddies. Which is always a happenin’ time, let me tell you.

  26. 25
    anonymous says:

    i like white and non-white because people of color suggests that whites are not of any color.

    sociologically speaking, minority means those who are currently not in power and that can mean democrats, liberals, non-whites. it has a negative connotation.

    cynics talk of a time when we will all be black and non-black.

  27. 26
    Polymath says:

    well, from the point of view of a linguist (yes, i actually studied a lot of it), what you call people out of power doesn’t make all that much difference. language changes. it’s one of the axioms of academic linguistics. you’re absolutely right to focus on the fact that we are describing undesirable conditions of society, and that will be true no matter what words we use. eventually, any word associated with “a minority” will come to mean the same thing as “minority”; it might not have the numerical connotation, but it will still imply some inferiority if it describes people of inferior social standing (by which i mean lack of access to power).

    kind of like how “n–ger” was replaced with a more polite “Negro”, which was replaced with a more polite “colored person” which was replaced with a more polite “Black” which was supplemented by the more descriptive “African-American” (which some people use as if it were a synonym for “Black”; tell that to Africans and Pacific-Islanders). “multiculturalism” used to sound positive, but now it reminds people of quotas.

    my point is that there’s no way to prevent the words from absorbing negative connotations if the whole reason we need them is to describe undesirable situations. sure, it might matter to some people which word you use (like the woman who was understandably offended by “minority”). but to avoid negative connotations, you’d have to come up with a different word every 5 years or so, and soon everyone would be on to that ploy as well.

    i once was in the presence of someone who used “Jewish” as a synonym for “stupid”. so, what, are we going to make a new word for practitioners of that religion because some people use it as an insult?

    so i do understand why that woman was offended by “minority” even if it’s technically used as a sociological or numerical term. but notice that if there were no racism, that “less than” connotation would probably not occur to her, and she’d just accept it as numerical description. it’s the presence of racism that’s offensive, not the word itself.

    i’m not saying words don’t matter, exactly, just that it’s unrealistic to expect the language to have (or keep) a neutral word for a distinctly non-neutral situation.

    so…there, that’s the 2¢ from the linguist in the group.

  28. 27
    a nut says:

    Just to let you know, it’s not about “the disabled” but about “people/persons with disabilities” or “people/persons with varying abilities.” If we’re going to talk about inclusive terms, we need to address them all.

    I posted on this very subject yesterday. Because let’s face it, disability awareness within the blogosphere pretty much sucks.

    As for the word minority, I tend to think of it in sociological terms myself because that’s my training. I try not to use it when speaking to a person individually since it is an overall generalization and not meant to be applied singularly. It’s very similar to why I refuse to use “American Indian” or “Native American” but instead will use “indigenous peoples.”

    I really like your post and the discussion that ensued. Thanks for putting it up for us to see!

  29. 28
    Richard Bellamy says:

    kind of like how “n”“ger” was replaced with a more polite “Negro”, which was replaced with a more polite “colored person” which was replaced with a more polite “Black” which was supplemented by the more descriptive “African-American” (which some people use as if it were a synonym for “Black”; tell that to Africans and Pacific-Islanders). “multiculturalism” used to sound positive, but now it reminds people of quotas.

    Perhaps the most pro-marginalized-group development in language has been the (relatively) recent move to partially re-claim slurs, like the ‘N’ word, or various anti-gay slang, as in-group-only language.

    They become “words we can call each other, but that you can’t call us.” It’s sort of a flip-off to the unmarginalized, saying “You made your connotational bed, now lie in it.”

  30. 29
    spit says:

    “You made your connotational bed, now lie in it.”

    I’m going to start saying exactly this, with no further explanation, to folks who bitch about how unfair it is that “those people” (or “you people”, in the case of queer slurs) get to use language that they cannot use without being offensive.

    They’ll probably just stand and blink at me, but it’ll make me happy.

    On a more serious note:

    Polymath — I think you’re completely right, and the language is going to change and absorb new connotations all the time. Somewhere above, somebody said:

    And nobody felt better or more empowered afterwards, because the problem isn’t the connotations of the words, but rather who gets the power to give the words connotations.

    which I think is a really great way to say it.

    I’m honestly less concerned about whether the terms are viewed as negative in this case than I am about whether they accurately reflect the power relationships for which they’re being used. I think that “minority” — understood with its connotations, including the one about numbers — winds up doing a very poor job in that. And I suspect that no small amount of confusion or misunderstanding about the nature of those power relationships comes out of that. I think that the constant “but in sociology, it means X!” thing — let’s just say I think it’s fairly funny that sociologists, who of all people should be very aware of the power in the connotations of language to form conceptual associations, are still hung up on using the terms “minority” and “majority” when — given most people’s understanding of those words — they will not accurately reflect the power dynamic they’re being used to describe.

    But then, I’m a science geek, too — and don’t get me started on the words “hypothesis” and “theory” and the considerable problems they create for nonscientists’ understanding of accepted scientific ideas. No small amount of the popular culture debate on evolution is driven, IMO, by that language.

    Erf. More coffee for me. I’m not sure anything I just said makes any sense at all.

  31. 30
    nobody.really says:

    “African-American” (which some people use as if it were a synonym for “Black”; tell that to Africans and Pacific-Islanders)….

    I’ve heard (perhaps apocryphally) that CBS News had a policy of substituting the term “African American” for “black,” with the consequence that Dan Rather reported, “For the first time, South Africa is sending an African American to the Miss Universe pageant.”

    “You made your connotational bed, now lie in it.”

    Recall that the word “cop” was originally pejorative. I knew it had turned a corner when the guys on C.H.I.Ps were complaining about being punished for being a “good cop.”

    Well, let me ante up my own 2 cents:

    Positive vs. Normative. I use words as tools; I have a bunch, and I use different ones for different purposes. I have words for describing (“positing” or “positive” words) and words for evaluating (“normative” or judging words). So I see benefits in having “nice [descriptive] words” for discussing marginalization and domination, as well as having evaluative words. I would hope a teacher could present her students with facts about marginalization and domination, and trust that the students would draw appropriate conclusions based on those facts. I would hope a teacher would not need to use normative words to advise students about the appropriate conclusions to draw.

    I suspect Rachel’s concern is not that people use value-neutral descriptive words for discussing marginalization and domination. Rather, I suspect she’s concerned that people use value-neutral NON-descriptive words – words selected not merely to avoid expressing an opinion, but to avoid expressing facts about which people will have opinions. That language obstructs critical thinking as much as normative words do.

    Positive terms “default” and “archetype.” Because everyone’s circumstances differ, no one term will encompass them all in every detail. I kinda like the idea of building a tool box of terms with related but finely graduated meanings. On the other hand, I also kinda like the elegance of using similar terms to describe certain common dynamics. And among the dynamics that I find most commonly are those of “margin” and “archetype” (although I must admit that “default” sounds less snooty than “archetype.”)

    Some words evoke an archetypical (or “default”) image in my mind. This dynamic need not be related to power or oppression. For me, the word “bird” evokes an image of a sparrow, not a penguin. Intellectually I acknowledge that both are birds equally, but at some gut level I accord more “birdness” to sparrows than penguins.

    I don’t know that I would regard penguins as “oppressed members of the bird community” as a result. But, of course, the fact that I think in terms of archetypes has consequences that can be oppressive. If I were to design public policy to promote the interests of birds, I might very well overlook the interests of penguins – not out of animosity for penguins, but out of ignorance and indifference. The power of being the archetype is the power not to be overlooked out of ignorance or indifference.

    One sign that people are thinking in terms are archetypes is when people use adjectives to define only one part a continuum. I hear the term “unwed mother” but not “wed mother”; a “wed mother” is the unstated archetype of mother. Similarly the term “date rape” is more common that “stranger rape.” The term “Upper Peninsula” is more common that “Lower ??? [Michigan]“ The term “working poor” is more common than “unemployed poor.” Etc.

    The archetype need not be a member of a majority. My archetypical human is male, even though I believe that women outnumber men. My archetypical rape is committed by a stranger, even thought I believe most rapes occur between acquaintances. My archetypical person of color is black, even though I believe that the number of Hispanics has surpassed the number of blacks in the US. Thanks to lobbying, the archetypical person who pays an estate tax is a family farmer, even though I believe the vast majority of people paying that tax are stockmarket heirs.

    Attribution affect. Psychologists observe that we tend to offer more lenient judgments to people with whom we identify than to others. That guy cut me off in traffic because he’s an inconsiderate jerk. In contrast, I changed lanes abruptly because I was constrained by other cars. Identical behavior, different judgments.

    So, why do I lavish attention on the archetype/margin distinction? Perhaps because it’s the one I learned most recently. But also perhaps because it offers a partial explanation for discrimination and oppression that doesn’t involve much guilt on the part of able-bodied white male professionals like me. The attribution affect suggests that I will favor explanations that let me off the hook – and I do! Of course, the attribution affect also suggests that people who feel oppressed will favor explanations that find moral fault with their oppressors. So it’s hard to find neutral ground upon which to stand, linguistically or otherwise.

  32. Pingback: Feministe » Unthinking Thought

  33. 31
    hf says:

    And among the dynamics that I find most commonly are those of “margin” and “archetype” (although I must admit that “default” sounds less snooty than “archetype.”)

    Makes a good deal of sense. It leaves out one factor, because of course in theory we can pick any group and define them as the archetype. If marginalized groups nevertheless use the definitions of the most powerful group, that stems from the use of physical power rather than the definition itself.

    Now, this part of the original post puzzles me slightly:

    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.”

    And? People changed the name because of racist connotations. If those connotations have died out enough for members of the marginalized group to use the name proudly, well then, “colored people” seems more accurate and less ominous-sounding than “black”. (And while I’ve heard the word “nigger” from Southern whites, I don’t recall ever hearing them say “colored”.)

    This reminds me of the name “progressive” for people on the political left. The word sounds good, and lacks the irrational negative connotations of “liberal”, but it doesn’t make a damned bit of sense. Liberal refers to freedom, while progressive refers to progress — progress towards what? A robot uprising? A return to the Middle Ages? One person’s progress is another’s regress. It depends which direction you face. Hopefully at some point we’ll all go back to saying liberal, or some other inherently good name.

  34. 32
    piny says:

    Liberal refers to freedom

    …Yes, and anti-pron feminists have been asking “freedom to what?” for a long, long time. There are specific connotational disincentives to “liberal,” too.

  35. 33
    binky says:

    Sage: “I don’t have an answer for you, but I also have issue with terms we use. In particular I dislike the connotation of “developed” and “developing” countries.”

    In a conversation I had with an economist in Cuba, he insisted on not using the term “developing.” In his words “We aren’t going anywhere” and using the term masked the situation. Of course, for those who have been studying the “developing” world for some time, we remember when we advocated to discard “third world” for the more hopeful sounding “developing.”

    One of the most interesting discussion of “other ways to say marginalized” that I’ve ever had was with a multinational group of scholars and activists who had come together in Ecuador for a conference. One insisted that we should not use “the poor” because it was insulting, and in the country where he worked (but was not a national), people who were economically disadvantaged got quite offended being called pobre, and preferred marginal, which emphasized the social dynamic of active marginalization by the powerful. On the other hand, some of us worked in another country, in which another language was primary, and to call people marginal, was the insulting phrase. The people there (vastly generalizing again, “the people”) preferred pobre, as a basic factual statement around which they could organize to advocate for economic change. Not to mention the positive and negative aspects of (and attempts at reclaiming) sem terra (without land), favelado (shantytown dweller) etc. Likewise, the distinctions raised between the use of afro- hyphenating with the national identity, versus negro raised huge questions of national – as well as regional – cultural differences. Some activists (from some countries) insisted that the use of afro- fostered division, by emphasizing the nationality (after the hyphen) and that negro (reclaimed) or negritude was the better unifying concept. Others, the opposite.

    All of which served to impress me with the difficulty in agreement, for one, but also for the necessity of recognizing across cultures, and even within countries, the possibility that even the most well-thought out attempts at establishing a “new” term, less imbued with power inequalities, was likely to run into this kind of problem either sooner – in the case of cross cultural differences – or later – in the case of generational change – as with the Third World/Developing scenario. An open mind to this possibility, and the willingness to recognize it when it occurs, is extremely important.

  36. 34
    nubian says:

    thats kinda wack. i said that minority should not be used. why not link to me from this blog? did you guys meet the quota for linking to us brown folks for the week?

  37. 35
    Rachel S. says:

    The thing I love about this blog is that things take off on their own. I haven’t had the time to respond to any of the points as it is midterm time, but I think there are some really interesting issues some of which I was even thinking about posted in here. The whole issue of the term “developing countries” is an important problem.

    I also like the points about how language evolves over time. Unfortunately, there are some many points I can’t really comment on the all, but this has given me several points to think about.

  38. 36
    Rachel S. says:

    Nubian, I did put the link to you in the original post. I don’t know what happened to it. Due to my poor knowledge of wordpress it doesn’t seem to be showing up. I’ll fiddle with it and try to figure it out. I tried to put it at the end, but I’m by no means accustomed to wordpress. I had to get my partner to help me over at the ally work site, and he wasn’t around to help me when I posted this one. He’s here tonight, so I’ll get him to fix the link.

  39. 37
    Anna in Cairo says:

    Living in North Africa, I immediately thought of the Quranic reference to the Mustaadafin f’il Ard (which can be rendered, as Franz Fanon did, as “the wretched of the earth”). Basically meaning marginalized. What about “non-privileged groups”?