Who identifies as a “minority” when it comes to race in America? Many Fusion writers and editors find the label misleading and misplaced—and we suspect we’re not alone. What makes the word “minorities” (and, similarly, “nonwhite”) so loaded with misdirection is that it defines American people of color by the negative: not white. Using the terms racial “minorities” and “nonwhite” center all of us around whiteness, as though whiteness were the default against which people are determined.
“People of color” is Fusion’s suggested alternative. It doesn’t rely on whiteness as a default in the way “minorities” and “nonwhite” do. Except when individuals prefer identifying as minorities, Fusion supports “people of color” as more evenhanded because everyone should have words that describe who we are, not just who we’re not. The words “minorities” and “nonwhite” are contingent on whiteness for meaning and standing in the United States.
Whiteness itself is a construct. While Anglo-Saxons have always been white in this country, people of Irish and Italian descent were only considered white after gaining positions of power and participation. Whiteness had to be acquired, and only then was the barrier to inclusion lowered. And whiteness has never just been a matter of skin tone; it’s always been about privilege and the placement of power—and which individuals are granted access to that privilege and power.
That’s not to say that the words “minorities” and “nonwhite” never have a use. These words are common in census reports, surveys, and some scholarship, and they’re selectively useful in journalism when word variety is needed to avoid repetition. “Minority” also works well when power disparities need emphasis, and when “minority” is the most accurate word in a statistical sense: Atheists are a growing minority; deaf and hard-of-hearing people are a statistical minority; LGBTQ members of Congress are a statistical minority.
But in many cases it’s a spot-on move to people of color, artists of color, activists of color, students of color, and voters of color in reference to race.
Here’s why. Exhibit A: In a video published last year, we started with this draft of a sentence:
“Nonwhite” was replaced by “people of color” as an empowering construction:
In the same video, another draft of a sentence:
“Minority voters” hit an off note and wasn’t accurate—it could have meant religious minorities or sexual and gender minorities, but didn’t—so we agreed on a fix:
Onto the video’s title. First attempt:
Second, final version:
“Why Your Vote Matters” speaks directly to and about people of color—and all people with a vote and a voice.
“People of color” was first heard in French-speaking colonies in the late 1700s to mean anyone of African descent who was not enslaved, or gens de couleur libre (free people of color). A starkly racist 1797 survey of what’s now Haiti grouped people three ways: “1st, pure whites. 2d, people of colour and blacks of free condition. 3d, negroes in a state of slavery.”
But times and tones changed. “People of color” got a powerful lift when Martin Luther King Jr. referred to “citizens of color” in his “I Have a Dream” speech, linking “of color” to self-empowerment.
According to the Pew Research Center, by 2055 the United States “will have no racial or ethnic majority group.” The Census Bureau projects that the U.S. will be what it calls majority-minority—more people of color than white people—by 2044. The word “minority,” when it comes to race in America, is becoming almost meaningless.
The point here is not to switch words every generation without changing our thinking. The point is not to make conversation impractical or impossible. The point is to understand there’s a continuum of racial constructs. There is no binary of white and not white. We are also brown Asian Americans, black Latinx, and, quite often, humans who resist being labeled or categorized. “People of color” gets us as close as possible to that continuum without fixing whiteness as a default.
A highlight of editorial voices across our staff:
Using “minority” to refer to a person who isn’t white is absolutely absurd. It’s lazy in that it groups very different races and ethnicities into one label neglecting any “nonwhite” interracial or intraracial relations. It’s infantilizing, as if “nonwhite” people are legal minors. And it’s degrading in that it renders people of color as peripheral at best, subordinate and subservient at worst, that our lives and stories simply do not matter as much. “Minority” is a reinforcement of the very white perspective that pervades and upholds institutions that were built to exclude people of color while inherently painting the world as black and white when that just isn’t the case.
—Isha Aran, Fusion staff writer
I know “minority” has a connotation of “oppressed group,” but it becomes useless when you’re talking about women, for obvious reasons. And then you just end up saying “women and minorities,” which is supremely awkward because, well, some of those minorities might be women!
—Nona Willis Aronowitz, Fusion features editor
I personally do not like the term “minority.” Brown people are essentially the majority throughout the world. Plus the word, honestly, has come to mean nothing. It’s just not a good descriptor. I prefer “people of color” or just the actual names of the nationalities and ethnicities of people. I’ve always hated the word “minority.” It seems to minimize historically marginalized people and erase our various identities. Plus you can’t just dump a bunch of brown people in a bucket when we’re all very different and have different views and opinions and experiences. Also, I just hate the word with a passion. At The Root we try to avoid its usage. Did I mention I hate it? I hate it.
—Danielle Belton, The Root managing editor
I prefer “people of color” to “minorities,” but the truth is that it’s frustrating that our language is limited in this arena—we do not have the proper words to accurately describe the shifting demographics of this country, and by 2044 we’ll need to have adjusted not just our language, but our thinking and attitudes about the construct of race. “Minorities” refers to quantity, but though there will soon be greater numbers of people of color, this country cannot escape its deep history of institutionalized racism—the after-effects of which last for generations.
—Dodai Stewart, editor in chief, Fusion and The Root
As Fusion’s style guide editor—a position I share with my brilliant colleagues on questions of inclusivity and accuracy in language—I stand shoulder to shoulder with our creative crew on word choice about people of color’s own lives. Word choice is a choice when it comes to self-identity, so count me in for amplifying the words “people of color” for the powerful reasons that Dodai, Danielle, Isha, and Nona pinpoint—while also supporting staffers and readers who self-identify as “minorities” over “people of color” as personal preference.
It’s mystifying and misguided to me that the otherwise thoughtful New York Times style guide still says “people of color” is “too self-conscious for the news columns.” By whose and what measure is “people of color” any more self-conscious than “white” on the continuum of shorthands about race?
It is the power and beauty of language that it changes. It is the power and beauty of style guides that they change. It is the power and beauty of minds that they change—or have the potential to change. Concepts, too, can change, under conversational pressure, evidence, persuasion, and the generational reminder of reason and resistance.
Have strong thoughts about “people of color” or “minorities,” or another expression entirely? Weigh in below.
This post is part of Fusion’s series on our house style guide, a living document spearheaded by senior copy editor Daniel King and crowdsourced from editorial staff across our teams for input on words’ accuracy. Reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org.