As people of color become a majority, is it time for journalists to stop using the term ‘minorities’?

Is it time to stop using the term “minorities”?

The word has long been used to describe people who are not white. But changing demographics make the term outdated and oxymoronic.

Consider the word usage in these stories:

From the Associated Press:

For the first time, minorities make up the majority of babies in the U.S., part of a sweeping race change and growing divide between mostly white, older Americans and predominantly minority youths that could reshape government policies.

From KTLA-TV in Los Angeles:

Not surprisingly, most of the states that experienced growth in populations of minority children are the ones where white children are in the minority: California, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Mississippi and Maryland.

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.”

Wordsmiths aren’t the only ones interested in this issue. In 2001, the San Diego City Council voted to ban “minority” and “minorities” in all official city documents. Terms like “underserved,” “people of color” or specific ethnic identifiers are used instead.

City leaders said “minority” implied being minor and inferior. And in many neighborhoods, Latinos, blacks and Asians were the majority of residents. By the 2010 census, all of San Diego County was officially minority-majority, with whites who were not Hispanics making up less than 49 percent.

(Boston’s city council voted for a similar minority-word ban in 2002, but the mayor vetoed the measure.) The San Diego Union-Tribune continues to use the word “minority” in its stories. Editor Jeff Light told me that changing the terminology isn’t a front-burner matter for the paper.

For the journalists who formed UNITY, though, the issue was important. UNITY leaders recognized the demographic trend in the early 1990s and decided not to brand the group as an alliance of minority journalists, co-founder Will Sutton said via email. Instead, UNITY calls itself an alliance for “journalists of color.” The coalition included the Native American Journalists Association, National Association of Hispanic Journalists, Asian American Journalists Association and, until earlier this year, the National Association of Black Journalists.

Joanna Hernandez, the current UNITY president, said journalists should be as precise as possible when describing someone. It’s best to say someone is Latino, for example, and then go further by stating a country of origin.

Specifics keep readers from making assumptions. For example, “a lot of people assume that Latino means Mexican,” said Hernandez, who describes herself as Latina and more precisely, a “Nuyorican,” a New Yorker of Puerto Rican descent.

Still, Hernandez said, there aren’t easy alternatives when a writer is describing a coalition of groups. As a multiplatform editor at the Washington Post, Hernadez said by phone that she can understand why it’s hard for journalists to drop “minority” from their copy. It fits into a headline — or a tweet — more neatly than saying blacks, Latinos, Asians and Native Americans or people of color.

Hernandez and others who think that “minority” is outdated say they couldn’t think of a better replacement.

Merrill Perlman, a former director of the New York Times copy desks, rejected “ethnic” and “people of color” for being too vague. A term like “non-white” has negative connotations. “I haven’t seen a good alternative,” she said by phone. “Someone needs to invent a word.”

(Boston College uses the acronym AHANA to refer to African, Hispanic, Asian and Native Americans, but the term has not made its way into popular use.)

To Hernandez, the conundrum shows the beauty of language. “When you start questioning it and start thinking about it,” she said, “then it’ll change.”

Your suggestions: Let’s replace the word “minority” with…

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  • Ron Hoenig

    Really like your point Sherwin. Any new word that does not focus on the reality of racialized white power and privelege is a way of turning what looks like a demographic majority into a racialised Other. It continues to normalise whiteness and de-normalise any other groups. Calling attention to whiteness runds the risk of creating or cementing supremacist views but not doing so continues the current idealogical paradigm which creates the Other as deficent. Racialising whiteness is the way to go


    Great article, thanks Phuong Ly
    Viet Biz
    Dream Jobs


    Great article, thanks Phuong Ly
    Viet Biz
    Dream Jobs


    Great article, thanks Phuong Ly
    Viet Biz
    Dream Jobs

  • Alan King

    I don’t know what to replace the word with, but I’m glad this article was written. I stopped referring to myself as a “minority,” when an older writer said, “You’re not minor. You’re not inferior. Don’t ever let anyone call you that word.”

    It’s a shame that changing the term is not a “front burner issue” for most papers. Great article!

  • Sherwin Arnott

    Well, presumably, we all agree race is not a biological category. We’re talking about racialized minorities which is a category that operates socially and politically, with various demographic correlates like socio-economic class, social capital, access to wealth and education, etc. 

    Also, I assume, that one danger of a new word is that it serves to white-wash or make invisible the way race does operate socially and politically. 

    Hmmm, given these two assumptions, my brainstorm is to drop the adjective “minority” but to instead to use, en masse, the term “white” to qualify any person that is white. This way, we continue to pay attention to the way race correlates to privilege and power but we don’t have to deal with the other confusing ambiguities.

  • Martha Infante


  • West Seattle Blog

    YES. It has LONG been time to get rid of the m-word. I left old media four years ago but before that was in charge of the style guide, copy editing, etc., in most of my roles as a TV newscast producer and/or executive producer/assistant news director going back to the mid-’80s, and wrote that word out of several newsrooms’ style guides. It always seemed belittling and dismissive. Even if people of color WERE in “the minority,” there was no reason to use that word as a blanket descriptive. Every form of writing and discussion benefits from taking a few minutes to think hard about how to be as specific as possible about what you are trying to say. Who are you writing about? Are you really writing about/reporting on every single person in a city/state/country/whatever who is not “white”? 

    (Side note: I advise avoiding blanket descriptives in other situations, too. An example close to my heart – it’s ridiculous to call everyone who writes in blog format a “blogger.” What kind of writer is the person you’re writing about? Journalist? Advocate? Humorist? Diarist? Etc.) 

  • Carolina A. Miranda

    And “people of color” is a solution? I’d abolish that one first. It doesn’t make sense on a most basic English language level…

  • Anonymous

    Carole, I agree….it should be cap B….imagine if we lowercased the C in christians? all hell would break loose.

  • Bucky

    At the risk of sounding like I’m spouting PC mumbo-jumbo, I think you’d be hard-pressed to find any statements that apply equally–but non-trivially–to the entire collection of people currently referred to as “minorities.”

    Whether the word “minorities” is apt or not, I’d argue that its use is often simply intellectual laziness.

  • Carole Simmons

    Shoot.  I’m still waiting for us to capitalize the “b” in Black.

  • benito_a

    Just because a group of “minorities” puts whites in a non-majority compared to a collective, does not mean that those specific groups are no longer minorities or that whites are not majorities compared to each of these groups or as a whole ethnic body. 

    Kind of a contrived straw man here.  

  • Anonymous

     The court decision to continue the imprisonment of Nguyen Van Ly conformed to Vietnamese law, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Nguyen Phuong Nga said …  question: Why isn’t this person called NGUYEN in second refernce in English newspapers in USA? and even your name you are PHUONG LY,,,,but your family name is PHUONG, right? like my family name is BLOOM, right…so shouldnt the  USA standard be to call you Ms Phuong or just Phuong in second reference…..? it is like calling me DAN in second refence no? please explain. i am probably wrong but I am curious to know why……BLOOM DAN,

  • Anonymous

    Phuong Ly has a very good crusade here, and I support it 100000 percent…but the AHANA thing seems too 1979ish for 2011… about we just call people what they are…..people?

  • Anonymous

    Phuong Ly has a very good crusade here, and I support it 100000 percent…but the AHANA thing seems too 1979ish for 2011… about we just call people what they are…..people?

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