“Minority” Label a Power Play

June 30, 2004

Minority is a damaging word in certain circumstances. It’s OK to use in reference to the “minority leader” in the House of Representatives. It’s fine for describing the dissenting view from high court justices.

But I don’t like it to be used in reference to me because I’m Puerto Rican, nor in regards to the other 40 million Latinos here. That’s just too many people to call a minority.

It’s like a school body being described as minority because 98 percent of the students are Mexican. Que?

When the Anglos become outnumbered by the array of Hispanics and other ethnic and racial groups in the United States, the word “minority” will probably have passed from misuse. As it should. It’s an offensive term that good people use because they don’t know better yet.

There was a time when American Indians were called “savages” and that was all right with everyone else. For hundreds of years being black meant that, naturally, you should be a slave. The words we use reflect our times. In 100 years, these times may be viewed with humorous disbelief, much the same way people thought that a woman running for president was funny. And then Carol Moseley Braun ran and two doors swung wide open for generations to come.

There are a bunch of arguments for using the “m” word, of course. Topping the list is that it’s not offensive. Says who?

Media across the country, including this newspaper, use the word to describe blacks, Puerto Ricans, American Indians and Chinese – everyone who is not Anglo. It fits better in a headline and a story than spelling out diverse ethnic or racial groups.

To me, it sounds like a bullet ricocheting. I run for cover because that bullet is after me. It’s after my family. It’s a destructive word.

When we moved from Puerto Rico to Boston in the late 1970s, my mother instructed us to never use it to refer to ourselves or other racial and ethnic groups. It was one of the few rules she imposed that she didn’t need to explain. We knew it was off the mark.

Even people of color use the word. They proudly say, “I am a minority.” They say the word got them college scholarships, for instance. Or jobs. In reality, they got the scholarship or job for specific reasons: They were deserving of it and they were Mexican, or black, or American Indian.

They say that thanks to the term “minority-owned business,” they got a loan with a reduced interest. Well, there are other ways of saying who you are without getting into self-deprecating mathematics.

To say, “I am a minority” sounds as wrong as hearing a white person say, “I am a majority.” Que?

A couple of years ago, the Boston City Council unanimously banned the word “minority” from all city documents. It was vetoed by the mayor of guess what color. The council understood that the word culls images and beliefs of small, insignificant, less than. I believe that I am neither small, insignificant nor less than any other person.

DeWayne Wickham, a columnist for USA Today, wrote in 1999, “Sometime after the middle of the next century, whites will lose their majority status in this country…. It’s time we started preparing for this change. Just as whites surely won’t want to bear the nondescriptive label ‘minority’ when that day comes, many of those who are now defined this way want to get out from under the long shadow the word casts.”

In 50 years, more than 100 million Latinos in the United States may well make the dreaded description fade. Maybe it will take a majority of Spanish-speaking people termed minority to get the rest of the country to speak English correctly.