Words are extraordinarily powerful. There have been so many coined to describe different people in society. Terms for classes, castes, identities, ethnicities, and races–be they slurs, slogans, or common slang–record the history of where we’ve been as a society and where we are today. And like all words, they have their own history. For the important ones, we have a responsibility to understand their origins.
Of course, we all know about that one word. The one that stuns any ear that hears it. It’s been printed in books, spat out in the streets, and broadcast on television. It’s been on presidents’ lips and in state courtrooms. It has thrived in schools, playgrounds, and town halls. In jokes, in stories, and in songs. And because of its long and violent history, whenever I hear it in certain people’s mouths, it makes my blood boil.
We all know about the “N word.” And most civilized people in this country know what it means for a Black person to hear it out loud. But the N word is not the only word that hurts my ears. There are others. Just because they are less glaringly offensive doesn’t mean we shouldn’t challenge them.
I want to explain how I feel about one that, up until recently, was plastered all over business, universities, newspapers, books, websites, and every other issuer of public media you can imagine: minority.
Not “lesser than”
Though it has nothing like the history of the N word, the “M word” leaves a different bad taste in my mouth. First, because it is intrinsically condescending. To use the word minor as the basis for describing a human being and more, specifically their identity, is politically and emotionally toxic. I am not “lesser than” because I’m Black. Nor is anyone from the many cultures represented by the other, more current umbrella term: “people of color.”
And let’s make no mistake: It is specifically “people of color” who were envisioned when the term minority was at the height of its usage. Because you cannot argue that the word is simply used to denote groups who are smaller in number than the equally vague majority. In colloquial usage, we do not refer to LGBTQIA+ people as minorities. We do not refer to veterans as minorities. We do not refer to disabled people as minorities. Being mathematically in the minority does not make you a minority in the English language.
It’s absurd to use this word to denote groups that do not and will not have a minor influence on this country.”
Even if it did, it has now been shown that in our lifetimes–likely by the year 2045–so-called “minority groups” will outnumber the white majority. The children of minorities will outnumber white children even sooner and reach voting age before all other age groups see the same dynamic take hold. Logically, therefore, it’s absurd to use this word to denote groups that do not and will not have a minor influence on this country.
But minority is not just a mathematical term. While it may seem like one of the most harmless options–there’s something almost academic about it–it’s just as insidious as outdated terms like colored. Because minority seeks to separate racial and ethnic groups into less powerful, atomized identities. In defining groups by their “smallness,” it not only diminishes them, it erases solidarity between them.
Most important, even if it isn’t used with the intention of making people of color feel “less than,” it has that ability built in. Simply seeing the word minority in your mind’s eye is enough to minimize the individual and/or community it describes. Whether you mean to do that or not is irrelevant: The word comes with those associations.
And though it almost doesn’t need to be said, I’ll say it anyway: “People of color” are not lesser than. Historically, today, or in the future of our society.
I realized the importance of this point while reading one of Nikole Hannah-Jones’ brilliant pieces for The New York Times‘ 1619 Project. In it, she argues that Black Americans have actually been the perfecters of American democracy, which was born with (just a few!) glaring inconsistencies. At the time of their writing, the Declaration of Independence and Constitution excluded “minorities” from our most foundational principles of equality and democracy. We declared that all men were created equal and 12 years later ratified a Constitution that defended the practice of chattel slavery. It was only through the struggles for Abolitionism, Emancipation, Reconstruction, the end of Jim Crow, and Civil Rights that America extended the promise of equality to all its citizens.
In defining groups by their “smallness,” it not only diminishes them – it erases solidarity between them.”
The struggles for liberation that the Civil Rights movement helped catalyze–women’s rights, LGBTQIA+ rights, disability rights, immigration rights–show that “minority” groups have never been on the sidelines. They have not played a lesser role in the long project of fashioning and re-fashioning the United States of America. We have been front and center in the economic, political, and cultural development of this country.
The United States is a nation that is supposed to thrive e pluribus unum: “Out of many, one.” We need to stop creating false binaries between the illusory “majority” and the many “minorities” who have actually made this country what it is. We have never had a majority population that defines unilaterally what this country is or represents. We are bigger than that.
Citizens like any other
The current usage of the term minority has an interesting history in itself. It was originally coined in Europe to describe “national minorities,” people from specific cultures or regions who lived within much larger empires (e.g., Slavic peoples living in the Austro-Hungarian Empire).
The concept was therefore tied up in the 19th century project of nationalism. And in fact, as nationalism bred more and more conflict, huge numbers of immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe flooded into the United States. Social scientists at the time realized that many of these immigrants faced similar economic and cultural struggles as racial and ethnic “minorities” already living in the United States. One of them, Donald Young, therefore proposed using the word to describe any racial, ethnic, or national “minority.”
But the key difference between “national minorities” and, say, Black Americans, or any immigrant to the U.S., is obviously that the latter groups have no desire to live in separate countries. A group of Black leaders made that explicitly clear when Abraham Lincoln asked them to leave the country right before the Emancipation Proclamation: They considered his offer and replied that they weren’t going anywhere. This was their country, too.
In this country, “minorities”–be they racial, ethnic, national, or otherwise–are American citizens like any other. They must be viewed and described as such, not cordoned off in some “lesser than” category that suggests a conflicting agenda at odds with their own culture and country.
And the categories that do define them need to be named. It’s important for all marginalized groups to stand in solidarity with one another, as we recognize the history of white supremacy and work to dismantle its legacy. But terms like “minorities”‘ and “people of color” erase nuance. Be specific and use the terms you mean to use: Black, Latinx, Indigenous and so on.
If you need to refer to us in bigger groups, then remove associations of value (like minor) and use a term like underrepresented instead. But even then, why can’t we be specific? Groups underrepresented where? In academia, Hollywood, the tech industry? What is “underrepresented” means something different in each context. We need to get over the laziness ingrained in our language by centuries of pretending this country is home to a “majority” of any kind.
And I think that’s the last point to make here: Minority is supremely convenient for anyone who isn’t from a marginalized community. As a catch-all term, it makes it easier for “dominant” castes to understand themselves in distinction to the many groups they–unconsciously or not–ignore, suppress, and/or actively oppress.
Minority is linguistically, mathematically, and historically irresponsible. It describes the wrong dynamic, is demographically inaccurate, and ignores the centrality of so many diverse groups in our history.
Obviously, using it won’t produce the same reaction to using the N word. If you use it in writing or in everyday speech, it’s not the end of the world. But consider why you’re using it and ask yourself whom it actually benefits. The same goes for print and other media, especially when they come from corporations, schools, and universities. An intellectually irresponsible word shouldn’t be sanctioned as an official alternative by any institution.
In your everyday speech, ask people from underrepresented groups what they prefer and do your best to stick to it. Asking is not harmful; if anything, it shows real engagement and concern. It has the opposite effect of using a vague term like minority that comes with unspoken associations of diminished status.
The beautiful thing about language is that it is always changing. It’s therefore a historical record of how we change. I hope that minority will go the way of other harmful terms from the past, since it’s no longer useful in a country where our influence is and always has been anything but minor.
Porter Braswell is the cofounder and executive chairman of Jopwell, founder of Diversity Explained, author of Let Them See You, and host of the podcast Race at Work. Subscribe to his weekly content pieces at Diversity Explained.