Recently, I had to let a dynamic, talented woman of color know she was using racist language. The most racist word in the English language is not the “n” word but the “m” word – minority.
In the 1960’s, South African activist Steve Biko said, “The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.” Forty years later, George Stevens, San Diego deputy mayor expressed the same idea with action. He introduced legislation to ban use of the word minority from municipal documents and discussions because “Minority means less than and language has strength.”
When talking with youth throughout the city he found minority was seen as a negative term by black and Latino youth. The same youth said teachers expected less of them and didn’t push them to succeed as much as white students. Stevens asked, “When you’re called a minority, why should you be expected to achieve like a majority?”
Even though The Census Bureau stopped using minority in the 1990’swhite politicians continue to support its use. In 2003, Boston City Council President Charles C. Yancey, felt that minority “. . .is anachronistic and demeaning.” The City Council unanimously supported his proposal to ban the word minority from official city documents. But, the white mayor vetoed the vote. Such actions have created the situation in which now, in the second decade of the 21st century, you still see and read black professionals and entrepreneurs who say, “I’m a minority.”
“Of what race am I? To this question there is and can be but one true answer–I am of the human race, I am an American. . . I would liberate myself and ourselves from the entire machinery of verbal hypnotism. I am simply of the human race. . .I am of the human nation. . .I am of Earth.”
– Jean Toomer
At the turn of the 20th century, Jean Toomer, author and philosopher, recognized it’s easier to use labels rather than to discover the true nature of an individual. Ironically, the USA concept of rugged individualism is a myth when you look at actual practice. From politics to pulpits people classify others based on age-old prejudices of appearance, wealth, education, skin color, ethnicity, and language.
These classifications result in the use of the word minority as a noun rather than as an adjective. Problems arise with the use of a word which means less than to label unique, individual human beings. People grouped as minority have different backgrounds, encounter different problems, and often speak different languages.
Yet, organizations, institutions, and individuals continue to use the word minority when speaking of people of color ignoring the inherent meaning of “less” at the root of the word. The defense and use of the word minority supports and perpetuates intellectual, institutional, political and social racism.
By examining the inherent problems with minority alternatives arise. Precise and specific language in sociological research, use of the language of inclusion, and promoting positive descriptive language are a few options. Such alternative actions contribute not only to significant language change but also to progressive social change.
Instead of your organization serving “minorities” you assist under-served populations, or people of color in business, or the woman of color entrepreneur
The pejorative nature of minority is increased with the use of double-speak, in minority–majority. An oxymoron is, according to Webster’s Tenth Collegiate Dictionary, “a combination of contradictory or incongruous words.” I first heard the oxymoronic expression minority-majority as an employee of the University of Texas in Austin decades ago.
Placing minority before majority enables people to consider these populations as less than making their numerical majority insignificant because the minority-majority is still seen as less than the “majority” in education, economics, and political power. Thus, such language use maintains the status quo.
The status quo keeps the growing minority in this country, wealthy white men, in positions of economic, political, and social power. This power is propped up by the mass entertainment industry still dominated by white men and women in front of the camera and behind the camera.
“Tradition has it that whenever a group of people has tasted the lovely fruits of wealth, security and prestige it begins to find it more comfortable to believe in the obvious lie and accept that it alone is entitled to privilege.”
– Steve Biko
“What minority?” is the question many ask. As racial and ethnic intermarriages continue to increase, the question of racial identification alone becomes more complex. Is a person with one white parent and one black parent a member of the white majority or the black minority?
But that question does not support the ludicrous suggestion to “let’s remove the race category from the census.” Rather, research should be scientifically precise by using specific ethnic, racial, or national identifying language. And those options should include mixed race or choose more than one identifying race or ethnicity.
However, as long as social problems are identified as problems of racial minorities the so-called majority doesn’t have to concern itself with addressing the minority’s problems. By placing minority in front of majority, those with privilege feel they can hold on to their power.
Yet, this thinking gets confusing when the greatest number of people in poverty among that group classified as the minority in poverty in the USA are white people. Because the wealthy ruling elite and mass media propagate negative reports about affirmative action for minorities the white poor fail to align politically with people of color who are poor. Additionally, to further the contradictions caused by the blanket use of minority are the minority groups of gay, bi-sexual and transgender people and differently-abled people (which really encompasses most human beings, but in this case, is a better label than “disabled or retarded”).
A prime example of the social and psychological confusion misuse of minority causes is the problem of disproportionate minority confinement. What goes on in the minds of black youth who have been called minority (and other dehumanizing terms) to enter an institution where they find themselves in the majority population?
Some political and social efforts are combatting the disproportionate confinement of black, brown, and poor people. But real progress cannot be made in a system that continues to describe people as a minority based on a norm that is in flux.
Sadly, not much progress has been made among journalists since 2003. That year, the director of data research in a U.S.News and World Report defended the publication’s refusal to call whites at historically black campuses a minority when they were numerically in the minority. The researcher explained, “It’s done from the context of what society, broadly speaking, generally considers a minority, and what higher education calls a minority.” In other words he was saying, “From the context of the white men who are writing, researching, and publishing this ranking of Campus Diversity no way exists, in our minds, for the white man to be a minority.”
The Federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 designated four specific minority groups – Black, Hispanic, Asian or Pacific Islander, and American Indian. Taken together, along with others classified as minorities these collective groups of people are the growing majority.
In the summer of 2003 the census released figures that revealed the white population of the state of California was only 47%, less than one-half of the total population! The response of the press was to fall back into the comfort of the impossible descriptive of a “minority–majority state.”
Most census and population forecasters predict that inevitably, white people will become a numerical minority in the USA. The values and cultural expression of this country are changing one dominated by the western white male paradigm, to that of a multicultural, multi-gender reality.
The election of a black president happened because the USA is a multi-racial, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious, and multi-gender population. The open racism and bigotry displayed in the halls of power now are simply the cries of those who cannot accept this truth.
The Changing Paradigm
“There are no accidents in language. Language is the growing, changing, evolving process of our conscious development. . .” Victor Villasenor
Well-meaning people of all races are the first to say, “But we need minority in order to document social inequities.” However, if scientific studies of society are to be done, they should be conducted with as much rigor and preciseness as any other science. In states where people of color are significant numerical minorities and poor whites are even more invisibly marginalized the catch all term minority can produce a skewed statistical picture of the problems of the diverse realities lived.
On the other hand, the black medical doctor with a private practice in a white suburb is a member of the numerical black minority in the community but he is also part of the upper economic majority class setting social policy. Racial, sexual, ethnic, economic, and health data are essential to learning how people live in terms of scientific studies and social programs. Specificity is the key to combating diverse social problems which have been lumped together under an amorphous minority.
The USA is not the only country confronting use of the term minority. Muslims in India, indigenous and religious sects in Japan and Turkey are among countries that have taken the easy route to classify people who are different, indigenous, poor, of a different religion, or another language group. These countries too, in the 21st century, struggle with how to address diverse people, meet their needs, and guarantee their rights.
History is filled with the genocide of groups of people who were deemed the “minority.” The slaughter of indigenous peoples in countries from Australia, to India, to the USA in the name of exploration was the genocide of colonialism. This genocide of people due to their religion or ethnicity occurred repeatedly in the 20th century and now rears its ugly head this century in Myanmar.
Word usage changes over time. For over 200 years the use of nigger was common among whites and blacks, not as a pejorative, but as a country, southern pronunciation. By the beginning of the 20th century polite society frowned on the word, as black people in America called themselves colored, Moorish, Negro, Black, Afro or African American.
Black was how Gwendolyn Brooks, Pulitzer Prize winning poet, chose to identify herself because use of this descriptive makes black Americans part of a great world majority. Every country has people who are darker, different, or the so-called “black sheep.” Calling oneself a black person creates a great unity going beyond ethnic, geographic, or tribal divisions.
If Africans had recognized their common needs and not sold their people for money and guns to kill each other, Europe might have become the “third world.” The world white minority might not have succeeded in imposing its values, economics, and military might upon the majority, black, brown, yellow, and red populations. And the United States would not have become a dominant world power built on the backs of the unpaid labor of black people for hundreds of years.
If the Census Bureau and government documents do not use minority as a descriptive of people, why do media, educators, politicians, business leaders, and social workers continue to stigmatize living, human, feeling beings by telling them they are less? While the big question today is “who or what are they less than?”
“. . .these labels, together with ideas, opinions, beliefs, emotions and their associated behavior constitute the sociological, psychological factor of racial matters.” Jean Toomer
Private businesses have begun taking a progressive lead through their human resources departments to address how people are labeled. Some surveys have shown employees find the use of minority “offensive, a ploy to label people.” Upon a logical and thorough reflection, the language of inclusion is the only language to use.
21st Century USA is a multicultural, multiracial, and multiethnic nation. Thus, language must be inclusive. The language of inclusion is the language of a true democracy which builds its wealth by investing in the capital of all of its citizens by offering opportunities and compassion to all.
Communities, schools, businesses, and government can work from a policy of inclusion that welcomes everyone and asks people how they wish to be called, how they choose to identify themselves. This inclusive philosophy recognizes the need to be willing to become culturally competent in as many cultures as one meets in order to avoid falling into the acceptance of stereotypes and/or engaging in prejudicial actions or so-called unconscious bias.
Renee Sneitzer, a black woman who traveled from the projects of New Jersey to become the first black prosecutor in Black Hawk County, Iowa saw language change as one tool for helping to combat the problem of disproportionate confinement of black, brown, and poor people.
Her guiding quote was “People will rise to greatness if greatness is expected of them.”
Thus, she suggested rather than calling people “poor, disadvantaged, or at risk” for whom society, fate, or forces beyond their control have cast into negative life situations to recognize them as the individuals and communities “with the greatest potential for growth and success.”
Imagine the change that will occur in the minds of the public when journalists write stories with headlines such as, “Black and Brown Youth Exploit their Potential for Growth and Success.” Imagine the positive impact on justice when legislators pass penal laws to “increase the potential for growth and success of people incarcerated.”
Imagine the decrease in police brutality and arrests if police were trained to view black and brown men as “people with the greatest potential for growth and success.” Imagine the improvement in families if social workers were taught to view their clients as “families with the greatest potential for growth and success.”
The use of positive language creates positive results. The challenge now is to take this knowledge and use all resources at hand to institute changes in the language paradigm. And remember to stop yourself or anyone else who slips up and refers to a person as a minority.