Why I Wish Nonprofits Would Stop Using the Word “Minorities”

"We’ve got to stop using the word 'minorities' to describe the communities we serve. It doesn’t have any value. It never has."

We’ve got to stop using the word “minorities” to describe the communities we serve. It doesn’t have any value. It never has.

I’ve been thinking a lot about language lately. How it can inspire or enrage, clarify or condemn.  The English major in me wants to take a red pen to all the useless jargon we promote in our organizations, starting with how we talk about the people we serve. Because part of the role of nonprofits, I believe, is not only to drive social change, but to also reframe the way America looks at social problems. For years, we’ve made a pity party out of the fact that “XX percent of the people we serve are minorities” as if this were in itself a reason to support our cause.

One of my first jobs was as a grantwriter for a small community development agency. Way back when I literally knew nothing about nonprofits or philanthropy, it baffled me as to why our grant language was littered with terminology about “serving minorities” and helping “at-risk youth.” A minority compared to whom? At-risk of what, exactly?

A better term to use that is highly regarded by academics is “people of color” which encompasses all people who are non-white. It’s a term that I prefer, and one you’ll notice me using a lot here on this blog. The term “people of color” has a more positive connotation than “minorities.” “People of color” have cultural significance, while “minorities” conjure up images of people that are worth less than the majority, marginalized, minor. As an African American, I’ve never wanted to be known by a term that makes me feel like I don’t matter. That reminds me I’m not majorly important just because of my race.

Many nonprofits use the word “minorities” as a blanket term to indicate that they provide services for underrepresented groups including African Americans, Hispanics, Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, Native Americans, and so on.  Why don’t we just be specific and name the communities we serve rather than being lazy with it? In Washington, DC, many nonprofits serve 100 percent African Americans. Much better to say that than to call your youth or homeless clients “ethnic minorities.” It means nothing except to connote a group of people that get stuck on the bottom of society’s shoe.

Anyway, as we know in this country the minority is becoming the majority. As the New York Times has reported:

Ethnic and racial minorities will comprise a majority of the nation’s population in a little more than a generation, according to new Census Bureau projections, a transformation that is occurring faster than anticipated just a few years ago. The census calculates that by 2042, Americans who identify themselves as Hispanic, black, Asian, American Indian, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander will together outnumber non-Hispanic whites. Four years ago, officials had projected the shift would come in 2050.

As the times change, we might as well get rid of the antiquated language that remains a huge barrier to our cultural competence.

imageRosetta Thurman is an emerging nonprofit leader of color working and living in the Washington, D.C. area.  She holds a Master’s degree in Nonprofit Management and blogs about nonprofit leadership and management issues at Perspectives From the Pipeline.

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  • BY Sparky Harlan

    ON February 12, 2009 04:01 PM

    I agree with you Rosetta that “people of color” is a much better term to use rather than “minorities.”  In our community we often use terms such as “diverse populations” or “cultural diversity” to describe ourselves.  Our funding sources always want us to identity the demographics of the youth we serve but often the kids don’t fit into a neat category.  What if your dad was African and your mom white?  Sound familiar?  The “other” category or “multi-racial” box gets checked off a lot these days but doesn’t begin to describe the rich diversity of our population.

  • LINDA SEALS's avatar


    ON February 17, 2009 10:15 AM

    I totally disagree with you when you say that minority is like using jargon. What would you suggest? I believe that looking at the entire picture that minority could also cover white females on food stamps and welfare, white men on food stamps, Asian women with sickle cell, or how would we describe those in need? I think that minority covers a whole area of need and that the word should stay. God forbid if the word colored (which is on my birth certificate) should ever appear in what you call jargon. Do you think we should instead use one legged, colored, broke, slave descendant, or hear is one better; Ellis Island stow-away, Italian, spaghetti eating Caucasian?

    How we think that because we have made a pull up in the world and we are a member of the minority class that we have made it. There is still much work to do and I believe that wording is a childish and silly thing to worry about.

  • Thank you, Thank you.Finallly we are talking about this the word, minority. I hate this word and how it has been allowed to identify a paticular group of people. It is truly a word that should be taken out of our vocabulary. Thank You

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