In the United States, the dialogue about how to refer to non-Whites has been ongoing for centuries. The words we choose are telling, a thermometer that reveals much about our understanding of race and ethnicity. Simultaneously these words play a powerful role in shaping ever-changing perspectives on these social categorizations.
If the linguistic shift away from using the term “minorities” as a racial and/or ethnic descriptor for non-White persons is new to you, or if you’re not convinced that it matters, allow me to offer three reasons for its importance.
Using “minorities” to describe the race and/or ethnicity of non-White persons reinforces racism, unconscious bias, and White privilege by normalizing Whiteness.
The word “minority” is a relative term. By its definition, it refers to a subdivision of a group that comprises less than half of said group; the remaining subdivision, the larger portion of the group, is the majority. In other words, any time “minority” is used, it inherently assumes the existence of a majority as well.
When we refer to non-White persons as minorities, we assume a White majority. Assuming a White majority in turn lends itself to the normalization of Whiteness. This is not necessarily an intentional or even conscious process. Rather, it’s simply how human beings perceive and formulate beliefs about the world around them. In a given context, when most objects are characterized by a particular quality, or even if we merely believe them to be, we come to consider that normal, and any deviation is considered unusual, different, or an abnormality.
If we assume that most people are White, non-White persons become abnormal, the others, the different ones. And as history and psychology show us, it doesn’t take much for society to make the small leap from “this person is different” to “this person is less than.” The normalization of Whiteness, and a lack of awareness that we have internally adopted its normalization, thus become deeply ingrained mental structures that uphold much of racism, unconscious bias, and White privilege.
If we want to deconstruct racism, unconscious bias, and White privilege, one way to start is by changing our vocabulary. We can actively challenge the ideas that Whiteness is the norm and that most people are White by ceasing to describe people of color as minorities.
Using “minorities” to describe the race and/or ethnicity of non-White persons reinforces racism, unconscious bias, and White privilege by disempowering people of color.
Separately and in addition to laying the groundwork for the normalization of Whiteness, use of the term “minorities” permits and perpetuates the disempowerment of people of color.
In the abstract, the concept of a minority is purely an arithmetic one, and we might like to believe that that’s how we view it in our understanding and conversations about race and ethnicity. In reality, however, belonging to a minority group (racial, ethnic, or other) frequently comes with undesirable connotations and consequences.
As alluded to above, the fact of the matter is that those in the minority are often viewed and treated as less important than the majority. Minorities tend to become disenfranchised and go unheard when it comes to significant political, economic, and social decisions. Their voices are not given due consideration, even if their concerns are pressing and their points are valid, because there are too few of them to be loud enough to garner the attention of those in authority. It is, quite simply, the principle of “majority rules,” something even children understand and leverage to get their way.
Continuing to use the term “minorities” does nothing to challenge the systemic and institutional hierarchies borne of racism, unconscious bias, and White privilege. Instead, it allows existing power imbalances to persist. We can begin to confront and remedy these inequities by choosing to not describe people of color as minorities.
Using “minorities” to describe the race and/or ethnicity of non-White persons overlooks demographic realities and consequently, in some cases, is factually incorrect.
“Minorities” has been used as a designator of non-White persons for so long that its underlying assumption of a White majority has become a foregone conclusion. However, in many instances, people of color are in fact not statistical minorities, rendering the term a demographic inaccuracy.
Yes, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, as of July 2015, an estimated 61.6% of Americans are non-Hispanic/Latinx Whites — a majority. However, White persons do not account for a majority of the population in California (38%), Hawaii (22.9%), New Mexico (38.4%), and Texas (43.0%). In these states, people of color, at least collectively, aren’t actually the minority. The same rings true for many urban areas, such as Los Angeles (26.6%), New York (46.8%), and Washington, D.C. (36.1%), to name a few.
Consider global demographics. The Population Reference Bureau estimated that in 2014, 4.4 billion of the world’s 7.2 billion people were in Asia. (As a point of reference, the next most populous continent was Africa with 1.1 billion people.) Even taking into account the fact that being geographically located in Asia does not per se mean all of its inhabitants would self-identify as Asian if asked about their race, these figures show rather convincingly that Whites are not the global majority.
In sum, depending on what group of people is at issue, it is very possible that people of color do not in fact constitute a minority within that group. “Minorities” is going to be ambiguous or inaccurate in many instances. Even if one thinks that talk of racism, unconscious bias, and White privilege is poppycock, the sheer facts cannot be ignored.
Of course, all of this begs the question: If not “minorities,” what should we call non-Whites? At the moment, “people of color” has been generally accepted as an accurate and non-demeaning term. For other ideas, or simply for the sake of intriguing discussion, it doesn’t hurt to ask your non-White friends and family members for their thoughts and preferences about how they want to be described. Race is, after all, a social construct and therefore dynamic. As it evolves over time, we would be wise to expect the terminology to change as well, and to remain sensitive to the nuances, connotations, and power of language in this particular context.
– U.S. Census Bureau, http://www.census.gov/quickfacts/table/PST045215/00
– Population Reference Bureau at http://www.prb.org/wpds/2014/