A version of this post was originally published in 2014 in The Root.com
It’s hard to believe, but it has already been four years (July 2012) when babies born of parents of color in the U.S. overtook births of white babies. What this means, according to demographers, is that by the year 2040, or thereabouts, there will be no majority race in the U.S. Blacks now make up about 13 percent of the population, while those hailing from the Spanish-speaking former New World colonies make up approximately 17 percent, and growing. Asians, both south and east, Middle-easterners and the cohort of mixed or “other” are also on the rise.
So why do we insist on using the word “minority” to speak of people of color, as a synonym for nonwhite? Growing up in the 70s and 80s, “minority” became an easy shorthand; an all-inclusive way to designate those who are not Caucasian. Since historically, this country has been overwhelmingly white (as much as 70 percent and more) it made its own kind of sense, and it was also easier than saying the mouthful “people of color,” or more daunting, calling each racial/ethnic group by name.
For some time now, I have sworn off using the term at all, and have tried to persuade others that the term is one whose time has passed. With the news of the nonwhite babies becoming a majority of births three years ago, I noticed such awkward constructions in the media as “majority minority.” Talk about oxymorons!
I believe that words have power to influence our thoughts and our thoughts influence our actions. If we cling to outdated and identity-sapping self-descripters, we forever regard ourselves as powerless.
So let’s take a look at how Merriam Webster’s dictionary defines minority: It reads:
: a number or amount that is less than half of a total;
: the group that is the smaller part of a larger group;
: a group of people who are different from the larger group in a country, area, etc., in some way (such as race or religion)
That last definition is the one we are dealing with here; but think of the other definitions: minority is something that is less than half of a total. It is the smaller part of a group.
As long as we use the term as a synonym for the myriad people of color, we are, I believe consigning those people to lesser status and a smaller role, in short to powerlessness.
When you hear the word majority, on the other hand, it denotes power. The majority vote wins in elections. The majority opinion is sometimes able to silence the less popular. Speaking of the majority race makes it seem like a behemoth; something as immovable and inevitable as a mountain range.
But racial power is not inevitable; it is the result of various historical forces. What will happen when our country becomes a nation of fractured ethnic and racial groups, with no one group in the majority? Doesn’t it make sense to begin to speak of racial groups using their proper name, i.e., black, white, Asian, Middle-Eastern, Latino and Latina?
Recently, I read in the New York Times that Middle-Eastern immigrants would like a designated box on the census form. Currently, they must check white or other, and many of them do not feel white, nor are they treated as if they were. You have to wonder how the white bloc of citizens is over-counted due to quirks of the census like this. Same with Hispanics. They are also able to check a box declaring their race, black, white, or a combination. However, the same article noted that Hispanics, when given the option of choosing a race, overwhelmingly check white, despite the fact that few Hispanics from the New World have a typically Caucasian phenotype. Again, the white “majority” bloc is falsely expanded.
I was watching a movie in the Fast and Furious franchise the other day, noting how diverse the cast is. There are several blacks. A few whites, both men and women. An Asian man. Several Hispanics. Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson and Vin Diesel face fight during one scene. My first thought, looking at the two men, is that I have seen the future, and the future will look a lot like them. More and more Americans are balking at the strictures of claiming one race at all: Diesel is reportedly black and white; Johnson is Polynesian and black. I am seeing more young people who belong to the nebulous “mixed-race group,” who see no reason to deny any part of their heritage.
In light of such trends, will there come a day when the census drops racial labeling altogether?
Maybe. But in the meantime, can a majority of us agree to stop using the belittling and power-robbing synonym “minority” for that blossoming, growing, expanding group of multi-racial and varied-race Americans?