Before we share this week’s post, I want to say Happy Pride Week in Seattle. This year’s theme is The Future of Pride, a fitting theme.
I’m writing on a plane heading home from a week in Boston. It was a great week, even with the East Coast dress code (no slippas and Aloha shirts) and bias against West Coast time difference (7.00 a.m. start times– brutal). I spent the week with about a hundred talented and brilliant people from various sectors, working to make their cities great. One of the most interesting parts of the trip was hearing how people talked about their communities and the different problems different communities face. There is a whole blog post about how our problems are all the same and different, but that one will come at a later time. Being in Boston with peers from across the nation highlighted the differences in language we use and subtleties of perspectives.
In my writing and speaking I use the term ‘people of color,’ or abbreviated to PoC or if I’m lazy poc. Language changes and evolves over time. Just a few years ago we used the term minority to refer to what are now known as people of color, or one or two generations before my grandparents were called Jap as a commonly accepted to reference to Japanese, now it is a derogatory term. We need to pay attention to language and how it is used and preferred by communities of color.
To read about the history of the term people of color, here is Wikipedia’s page. No term is perfect and the term people of color has a history some may agree with and others will disagree with. That said it is still time to stop using the term minority and currently the popular term of choice is people of color. Until our language evolves again I want to see us phase out minority in favor of a people centered approach.
Stop Saying Minority
Throughout the week I heard people use the word minority to refer to people of color. I also saw people give me puzzled looks or a raised eyebrow when I said people of color versus minority. Language changes across regions and sectors, and we need to stop using the term minority no matter where we live, work, or play.
The word minority is problematic. At one time there might have been a minority group, as in fewer people of color, but those trends are rapidly changing. Across the nation few communities are untouched by demographic shifts – let’s face it our cities and communities are becoming more diverse and our language has to shift as well.
Quickly people of color are becoming the majority, hence the term minority no longer fits. Some call it a Majority Minority, which is ironic like the former Starbucks campaign #RaceTogether (get it, if we’re racing we’re not together). In the 2014-15 school year Seattle Public Schools students of color made up fifty-four percent of the student count. Schools are often a harbinger of change in our cities. The term minority does not adequately capture the changing student count, nor the collective need to shift educational experiences for children of color. It also doesn’t acknowledge the growing family base and collective base we have in communities.
The word minority denotes a minority or smaller status. As a person of color I’m not smaller nor lesser than another; I may be shorter but my voice has equal status. I have the same rights as others in my community, not more or less but equal. The term minority is pejorative; we do not need to justify our status or make ourselves smaller to fill a label.
People of color are the majority or will quickly become the majority locally and nationally. As such we need to recognize the collective power and diversity in our joined experiences. The term people of color or communities of colors puts the emphasis back on people and communities. The term minority allows us to fall into an amorphous blob of otherness; we cease to be people and communities. In many ways we fall into the background.
We are In this Together – We need to Be a Majority
Changing language from minority to people of color also needs to include the notion of we are in this together. As people of color we are the majority and we need to support each other. We need to work together and build coalitions that push for change as coordinated ‘people.’ We need to do the cross-cultural and cross-sector and cross-cause work to be united.
Moving from a minority status into a majority count gives us a greater presence and a greater need to be seen as a unified voice and support for each other. As an example Heidi shared the words of Sonja Basha, a speaker at the Seattle Orlando Shooting Vigil: “The Muslim community and the LGBTQ community are not separate; we mourn together. I am Muslim, I am queer and I exist. The fact that I exist does not erase the fact that you exist.” Our existence together will bring greater prosperity to all, it also slows down or stops divide and conquer strategies to separate us by racial and ethnic groups, sexual identity status, or to be ‘othered’ in other labels.
Heidi also points out “Even in ‘majority minority’ school districts or cities, people of color may be the numeric ‘majority’ in the community, student and family population, but it is highly unlikely that they are the ‘majority’ of the power holders; teachers, administrators, school board members, funders, etc. This plays into the false dominant society narrative that we are all ‘equal’ in power, or will have the exact same experience if people of color held majority of leadership positions on a board or in an organization.”
Language Makes a Difference
Language makes a difference in how we see ourselves and how we see each other. One of the lessons I re-learned this week is how language helps to frame problems and helps us understand problems and see solutions. How we identify and frame a problem the labels we attach to it can positively or negatively frame a problem.
The collective term people of color doesn’t take away from our individual races and ethnicities. In my interpretation it doesn’t dismiss our histories or individual cultures as African American or Black or Latinx or Asian Pacific Islander or Native American or Mixed Race or however you choose to identify. It is a way to say collectively we matter and we collectively want to see an end to institutional and systemic racism. The term people of color is meant to say as poc we have shared experiences not common to whites, which sometimes involves racism, power grabs, or the reverse beautiful and joyful experiences because of our cultures and communities. Put another way, my experiences as a Asian-Japanese American adds to the collective experiences of being seen as a Person of Color, there are many times when I want to be part of the collective and to share in the joys and the heartaches.
When we speak with honor and acknowledgment for people of color and use language that sees us as people we are seen and heard. As Heidi wrote about last week in talking about love and emotions in our work, language can either evoke love or be used to tear us apart. Let’s choose to use language that sees us as people, communities, and in positive ways.
For some interesting videos on race and what people are saying check out these videos by The Seattle Times: Under Our Skin.
Posted by Erin Okuno, with liberal quoting from Heidi Schillinger