Do You Say "Minorities" or "People of Color?"

5 years ago

Recently, the latest Census report revealed that the majority of babies born in the U.S. are non-white, which has prompted the question: does it make sense to keep using the term “minority” to describe blacks, Latinos, Asians and Native Americans?

One the nation’s foremost experts in reporting on racial trends, Rinku Sen, raised this question last week on the CNN website. Sen, who is the President and Executive Director of the Applied Research Center and publisher of Colorlines, writes about her coming-of-age as a “person of color” during her college days:

At the beginning of my sophomore year at Brown University in 1984, the African American, Latino and Asian student groups ran a campaign for campus-wide policy changes – more professors, new curriculum, a new Third World Center.

There had been meetings and a rally, and I had skipped them all, just as I had skipped the school’s pre-orientation program for incoming students of color when I entered college.

One night I was with my friends Yuko, a Japanese national who had been raised in the U.S., and Valerie, a biracial black and white woman, who wanted me to attend a rally the next day.

I gave them the 1980s version of “I’m not feeling that.” And they gave me a serious talking-to. “You’re not a minority,” Yuko said. “you’re a person of color.”

I went to the rally.

It was the first time since immigrating that I felt I belonged in an American community

Sen, who is Indian American, urges the media and the public to stop using the term “minority”, when in fact there are now more people of other races than there are whites in the United States.

A similar discussion is featured on Multi-American, a website about immigration and cultural fusion.

And last year, this topic was highlighted by Phuong Ly on the website of the Poynter Institute, a well-respected journalism organization, although there are no plans to officially change the way reporters use the terms:

David Minthorn, deputy standards editor at the Associated Press, told me via email that the wire service uses “minority” as it’s defined by Webster’s dictionary — a racial, ethnic, religious or political group smaller and different from the larger group. The term is widely used by academics and demographers, he added.

Minthorn, who is one of three AP Stylebook editors, said the AP isn’t considering a change in usage, but “I have no doubt other precise terms will emerge as the situation evolves.”

This spring, I've been to several conferences centering around race and ethnicity, and the topic has come up more than once. But when I talk about this subject with friends and acquaintances, I've met some mixed reactions. Some people confuse the phrase “people of color” with “colored people” – which has not been an accepted term since the 1960s. And others feel the term “people of color” seems to refer to blacks, and not other minorities (oops, there I said it again!). Even I have to admit, the terms "people of color" or "women of color" seem like they are most at home at events involving bull horns and picket signs.

I remember back in the 1980s, we used to use the term "Oriental" to describe ourselves. After going to college at Berkeley and studying about the origins of that word and how it has been used to minimize people as perpetual foreigners of un-American values, I began to embrace the term Asian, which had previously sounded academic or strident. Now, I would no sooner use the word Oriental than I would poke chopsticks through my hair or speak in pidgin English.

Minority? Or people of color? What words do you think best describe ethnicity in America?

News and Politics Editor Grace Hwang Lynch blogs at HapaMama and A Year (Almost) Without Shopping.

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