Minorities Defined


An assertion I’ve seen floating around in some of the recent threads on feminism and skepticism has been that women, being slightly over half the population, are not actually minorities. This statement demonstrates a lack of understanding of what makes a person a member of a minority group. This short post is meant to clarify the term for those within our communities who are unfamiliar with how it is used in the social sciences and social justice movements.

First, being a minority does not refer to a number. A minority group is defined as a group of people who are systematically denied equal access to resources and power that a socially dominant group has access to. So even if there are more individuals within a minority group than a dominant group, what makes it a minority group is the lack of equal access, not the quantity of members. This means that, yes, women are a minority group.

Second, similar experiences as minorities often lead to shared identities, which is also a common feature of a minority group. These shared identities enable minorities to band together and fight for their rights to equal access and their fair share of power.

Finally, being a member of a minority group has real and damaging effects on people’s lives. The best example that comes to my mind is health disparities (or health inequities outside the US). The NIH defines health disparities as the “the difference in the incidence, prevalence, mortality, and burden of diseases and other adverse health conditions that exist among specific population groups” (p. 1 of CDC report). Public health researcher and social scientist Ilan Meyer’s minority stress model demonstrates how the stress of being a minority (in his research, LGB individuals) that stems from prejudice and discrimination negatively impacts the health of LGB people. His model is being confirmed, including by a recent study that showed that the health of gay men improved after marriage equality was passed in Massachusetts, even for men who were not in relationships.

I hope that this opens the eyes of those within our community who believe that there are no problems faced by minorities within our community. We should strive to make our community a safe, welcoming space by calling out and rejecting the prejudice and bigotry that is directed at minority groups.

**Post image from BBC article on marriage equality and gay men’s health.

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  1. A good example of majority population but minority treatment would be South Africa. Though the majority of the people in the country were/are black, the small population of whites ruled and established apartheid. It lasted for fifty years and ruined a lot of people’s lives and well being. All black people had their citizenship taken away under apartheid in 1970. The segregation only became worse as the years went on.

    Women were treated even worse under apartheid because they were discriminated against for both race and gender and had very few if any rights. Many women were forced to stay in rural areas away from their husbands who would be sent to urban areas to work. Children suffered because of this. And worse there were laws about marriage and and birth in an attempt to keep the birth rate low.

  2. And perhaps a good reason why having a technical definition for a word that can be exactly the opposite of its conventional meaning can serve as a major communicative barrier, and one that opponents of social justice can use to semantically undermine it.

    Obviously at this point “minority” is entrenched as the term of choice, but I honestly think replacing it with something like “socially devalued group” would immediately clarify meaning, and make it more obvious that simply because a person belongs to a minority demographic in a given situation doesn’t make them “a minority.” Like say, a white family in a predominantly black neighbourhood.

    It never fails to irk me when people in places like California say “white people are now a minority!” just because they are no longer above 50% of the population.

  3. Every discipline has it’s weird jargon, but if you have to define black as white or up as down, you have to wonder if the right word is being used. At the very least you have to wonder who you are writing for.

    Personally I think this reads like self parody and only reinforces the stereotype that social justice/fighting oppression/whatever is only for those with access to the esoteric sociological gnosis.

    • I don’t think that’s remotely true. Words are important and we need to discuss whether they’re working for us and whether they’re not. And people use words everyday so it’s pretty elitist to imply that only those with obscure knowledge can keep up.

      Yes the word “minority” is being altered, but this also happens to basically any other word. Arguments about redefining marriage come to mind.

    • This is not a new use of the word. If you look at the link I provided to the discussion of women as a minority group, the article was published in 1951.

      Words can have multiple, useful meanings. This use of minority could actually be used in a quantitative way, referring to the quantity of power that a group holds. In that sense, it is not far from the “original” definition of minority as less in number, it’s just not referring to population anymore.

      I think the word is loaded, obviously, but so are words like “privilege” (which, by the way, is not really that much more clear to people who aren’t familiar with social justice). That being said, I think both words are fine, and I have no problem explaining to people their multiple meanings. We will never find terms that are 100% fully accepted and uncontested.

      Also, I wonder if you would apply this same line of thinking to other words that aren’t specific to the social sciences? Like “theory,” which has a different meaning in scientific contexts than in everyday language. The problem isn’t so much with jargon (a word I don’t think is applicable to any of the words we’re discussing here) as it is with people not knowing the multiple uses of words.

      • In this case I think it is not only less intuitive to use ‘minority’ to refer to groups that are not quantitative minorities, I think it is also less accurate (even if similarly oppressed, there are different social dynamics involved in oppressed majorities compared to oppressed minorities) and adds nothing new that less ambiguous language would miss. Even a qualification would help, “XXX are the minority in certain power structures”, “YYY are underrepresented…”, etc.

        i don’t know if I hold other sciences to a higher or lower standard. I’m certainly more used to them and I do enjoy mocking faux-academic rambling though so you probably have a point. I can think of a few non-obvious or contradictory scientific terms and ideas I wouldn’t use when targetting the general populous without explanation (hypothesis vs theory; elective surgery; electical diagrams with electricity flowing from positive to negative). Few of them seem as explicitly contradictory as the case of ‘minority’ though.

        Personally I think effective communication with the lay person is the big problem in science (hard, soft or in between) and skepticism. Theres a reason the typical newspaper aims to have their material readable by those with the literacy of a 12-year old. It isn’t necessarily that they think their readers are idiots.

        ps. Not a fan of the popular use of ‘privilege’ either. During peak-Elevatorgate I had ambitions of making “Privilege = original sin for feminists. Prove me wrong!” a thread-derailing troll meme on par with “0.9… = 1” or the monty hall problem. 😉

        • "During peak-Elevatorgate I had ambitions of making “Privilege = original sin for feminists. Prove me wrong!” a thread-derailing troll meme on par with “0.9… = 1″ or the monty hall problem."
          Er… do you want to be congratulated on your trolling, or something? That comment just indicates you don't understand Feminism OR Christianity. :/

        • "Few of them seem as explicitly contradictory as the case of ‘minority’ though."

          Uh, the term is not contradictory. I've explained already that it could refer to quantity of power instead of population for those who are hellbent on making it a quantitative term. I also don't think the term is counterintuitive just because it has multiple meanings. I agree that we should communicate effectively, which is why I made this post! To clarify that there are multiple meanings to this word and that using an argument like "women aren't a minority because there are more of them!" or "I"m white and I'm a minority now because more Latino people live in my neighborhood!" are misuses of the term minority as it applies to social status. Are there other ways of saying this? Sure! But this one works fine too, as long as people understand that words can have multiple meanings. I don't think the argument that having words with multiple meanings is too complex is a good enough reason to jettison the use of a word that's been around for over 60 years.

          • I agree that disciplines and areas of interest all have their own jargon, and that it is perfectly fine that some words have varying meanings in different fields and or contexts. However, using a word whose technical meaning in one instance radically departs from its common usage (and whose difference will essentially always require explanation to the uninitiated lest they misunderstand the argument) seems like an unnecessary barrier to communication.

            “Privilege” is a good counterexample in this case, because even though its meaning is more specific in discourse about social justice, its use in this field is still compatible with its common meaning, and unlikely to be misinterpreted as a lack of power or prestige.

            I don’t think the argument that having words with multiple meanings is too complex is a good enough reason to jettison the use of a word that’s been around for over 60 years.

            This is just an appeal to tradition. We jettison words that can lead to misunderstanding all the time. Take, for example, “niggardly.” When supporters of that word defended it with the exact same logic you use above, their appeals were dismissed by social justice advocates because there are other ways to express the same meaning that are less likely to confuse, and that shifting the blame for misunderstanding onto those lacking an education in a given (obscure) usage reflects a very privileged viewpoint.

            Why not say “disempowered” when that’s what we really mean, since it is less likely to be confused with the common definition? Especially since other technical usages of “minority,” as in “minority government,” exclusively refer to a minority of people and not of power?


    I think some of you are missing the bigger picture here, which is that the argument that women are not minorities is used to dismiss feminist and social justice concerns about the treatment of women. My purpose in explaining how women are minorities despite being half the overall population is to disrupt the intent behind such anti-feminist statements.
    I've already conceded that there are other ways of saying the same thing; however, the word "minority" is used regularly in both public and academic discourse, and it's important that we are all clear on what we are saying when we say it. The basic arguments I'm seeing here are that the public is too stupid to understand multiple meanings of words and that we should not use those words even if they themselves use them. I think that's the wrong approach. I think we can and should clarify definitions when people misuse words.

    I'm not shifting the blame to the uneducated, I am saying we should educate. If I was merely interested in blame, I wouldn't have taken the time to write this post. I am not appealing to tradition because I'm not saying we should keep the word ONLY because it's been around for a long time. I'm saying the word works when it is clear what we are talking about and that not using the word "minority" will not end its (mis)use in public discourse.
    But, ultimately, what I'm saying is that people claiming "women are not minorities" as a means to dismiss feminist concerns is bullshit and needs to be called out as such, and one way to do that is to explain how women are, in fact, minorities in a sociological sense.

  5. But, ultimately, what I'm saying is that people claiming "women are not minorities" as a means to dismiss feminist concerns is bullshit and needs to be called out as such, and one way to do that is to explain how women are, in fact, minorities in a sociological sense.

    I agree with the sentiment. I know those people are full of shit and need to be told they are. I and most others understand what you are trying to say even if I disagree with your wording and I'm not deliberately misunderstanding the sentiment.  But to the uncommited bystander, who are the people you should be targetting*, the minority/minority dichotomy adds a needless layer of complexity. Personally I would answer something like "no they aren't literal minorities, but thats not the point because of this this and this…"
    Additionally, while the similarities between quantitive minorities and sociological minorities are important. I still say the differences are very important. A simple example: large numbers of these "minorities" can gather together to a point where they must be taken seriously (Arab spring, collapse of the Soviet Union, apartheid, etc.)  This just isn't possible for many other oppressed minorities who may be 0.01% of the population.
    I do also think people should take the time to educate themselves on these matters and agree with you that they are perfectly capable of understanding complex situations. But many just don't care enough and  still have a wide variety of preconceived notions that can't all be dealt with at once and plain, unambiguous language is the best way around this. 
    (* For a similar if unrelated analogy: I work in IT for a large organisation, I can't tell you the number of times I have heard, often from myself,  "Well this broken system would have worked, except business higher-ups wanted XYZ even though it's impossible."  and I nod along happy in the knowledge of stupid businessmen oppressors who should know better all the while knowing full well that zero attempt was made to explain why XYZ is impossible.)

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