August 4, 2011

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 But changing demographics make the term outdated and oxymoronic.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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Phuong Ly is founder of Gateway California, a nonprofit that helps journalists connect to immigrant sources. The project was developed during her recent year as…
Phuong Ly

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