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.
Rosetta 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.