Words matter

While I’ve thought of myself as a racial minority all my life, it is only in recent years that I’ve come to view the term “minority” negatively. I wasn’t sure why. I just knew that I didn’t like being referred to as a minority. I knew my reaction related to my growing racial justice awareness and understanding, but I couldn’t put my finger on what bothered me. Then, I heard the term “minoritized people” for the first time on a PBS special about Zora Neale Hurston, the author and anthropologist.

So, what did the term really mean?  I looked it up. Minoritized – “to make (a person or group) subordinate in status to a more dominant group and its members.” Now, it was clearer. Even before knowing the actual definition, I had had a feeling/a sense of the word. It was the concept of less than that was bothering me, not just the concept, but the process of being made into something that is less than something else.

Not surprising that this term would be used in a documentary about an anthropologist, someone studying culture, language, and human behavior. Remember the first time you heard, and thought about, the distinction between a slave and an enslaved person? Now, I’m beginning to understand why the term minority had become bothersome to me.

Societally, we seem to have associated – consciously or unconsciously – a host of characteristics with the term minority. Does it automatically mean poor, disadvantaged, uneducated – less than the standard/desired quality of life?  Has it become a code word like “urban” or “inner city” or the now villainized “woke?”

Language is constantly evolving. Words that were once every day acceptable have become archaic, or downright unacceptable, rude, and pejorative.

Just another reminder that in racial justice work or any effort to right a societal wrong, language is important. Listen to how people describe themselves and their circumstances. Ask about language that is different from what you are accustomed to using. Adapt as language evolves. Words matter.


Note: I see myself as Black, African American, or as a member of the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) community, but not as a minority.


12 Replies to “Words matter”

  1. Thanks as always for sharing your thoughtful and wise observations. I also associate minority with disempowered and being unheard or dismissed at the table – another negative association.
    I always appreciate the privilege of reading your blog. Thank you

  2. I have also questioned the use of this term. It’s like “third world countries”. It involves a direct comparison to something else. I expect that in terms of numbers, the white population in America will become the minority as compared to BIPOC. As the term “minority” is used today, I believe the implication is that “White Americans“ are viewed by many as the majority of … what? The population? The power and wealth structure? There are many White Americans with whom I have nothing in common, except the color of my skin. And skin color does not define character or spirit or integrity or intelligence or basic human nature, in my opinion. We are a multi-cultural society with an amazing array of religions. There is NO majority, and thus no minorities, in my view of our country.

  3. Tamara, I’ve missed hearing your perceptive thoughts. For this West Virginia woman, it’s reading information like this that helps me become more thoughtful and hopefully perceptive in my choices. Keep helping us grow. Kris

  4. The only words that I have about your comments are…Well said! There is nothing left to say.

    1. Hi Tamara,
      I would like to attend The Onion Dialogues. Will there be another opportunity in the near future?
      Lillian Turner

      1. Hi Lillian, we are usually hired by an organization or a company to provide the training to staff or board. I’ll let you know the next time there is an open session.

  5. Well-thought and well-said, Tamara. ‘Minority’ is one of those labels that has become pejorative in some people’s use (and thinking). And for some, a thin veil over an insidious universal belief in class superiority. Less harsh, but just as damaging is that too often people let a label be the ‘end-all-be-all’ of their understanding and judgment. Something we should never do when it comes to people.

  6. Good, precise article, Tamara. I guess if I had thought of it, the word “minority” does come from “minor”. I have always known that a minor is someone below a certain age, and therefore a person who is limited in what they are permitted to do. I didn’t think of “minority” in the same way. To me, it was a mathematical concept, as in something that was a lesser amount or number. However, now I can also see it means a person from a group that is somehow “less” than another group. Less worthy, less able, less accessible to rights and privileges granted to another group – the “majority”, perhaps? Thanks for the chance to wrap my head around the use of the word “minority” in these negative connotations.

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