Minority Report

Rethinking the language around oppression

What’s your favorite color? If you like blue, you’re in good company. But, if you like yellow, you won’t find many others who share your preference. A 2011 study found that yellow is the least liked color, and only 5 percent of people have yellow as their favorite color. So, are people who like yellow a minority?

Well, yes and no. Numerically, they are a minority. After all, there aren’t many of them. But they aren’t a minority in the same way that we think of people of color or LGBTQ+ people as minorities.

Are women minorities?

If we’re looking purely at numbers, I’m not sure. The 2010 census states that 50.8 percent of Americans are female, but that’s inaccurate since much of the data is based on gender assigned at birth rather than actual gender. But even if we pretend that women are indeed the numerical majority, the question still stands: Are women minorities?

And that’s how the premise of solely using numbers and population percentages to determine minority status falls apart. Having fewer numbers doesn’t directly translate to less power, and having greater numbers doesn’t directly translate to greater power. Liking the color yellow does not lead to oppression, and being a woman or being a person of color in a majority nonwhite class does not lead to privilege.


Yes, it’s a problem if an institution is completely comprised of cis straight able-bodied white men. And yes, it is better to include more women, LGBTQ+ people, people of color, and people with disabilities. But that’s only part of the puzzle. Even if there are more women than men, or more people of color than white people, or more LGBTQ+ people than cis straight people, or more people with disabilities than able-bodied people, the oppressive structures that marginalize women, people of color, LGBTQ+ people, and people with disabilities won’t just magically disappear.

Having more people of color in a Harvard class doesn’t change the fact that 81 percent of faculty members are white, or that only 25 percent of Counseling and Mental Health Services clinicians are people of color.

There might be more women in America, but that doesn’t change the fact that only 21 percent of the US Senate is comprised of women, or that only 6.4 percent of Fortune 500 companies are run by women. Oh, and 0 percent of US presidents have been women. And even if more women attained positions of power, they still face many other barriers. Assertive women are called “bossy”, women are slut-shamed for their clothing choices, and women are expected to be responsible for most of the housework and childrearing while advancing in their career. Now, these problems aren’t specific to just women—certainly, people of all genders can face these issues. But, historically and presently, these social norms and expectations harm women more than men in ways that have been systematically set in place by power structures.

Diversity initiatives that purely focus on increasing the number of people from oppressed groups rather than working to change the system that creates oppression in the first place are just putting a band-aid on a gushing wound.

The overemphasis of the concept of majority versus minority could help explain why we see some pushback from privileged groups on women’s schools and historically black colleges and universities. Some cry reverse sexism or reverse racism, claiming that these schools create an unfair environment where men or white people are suddenly in the minority. But they forget that the rest of the world outside of these institutions is dominated by men and white people. And they forget that the reason why many of these institutions exist in the first place is because women and people of color were denied access to existing schools. And they forget that even today, most schools that are supposedly co-ed and racially integrated are still predominantly run by white men and cater to the needs of white male students. It’s easy to forget about power structures when looking solely at numbers supports a privileged worldview.

Speaking solely in terms of majority versus minority also ignores intersectionality. For example, 4.1 percent of Americans are LGBTQ+, and 13.3 percent of Americans are black. Thus, LGBTQ+ people and black people are numerical minorities and structurally oppressed groups. But just looking at these numbers ignores the fact that there are black LGBTQ+ people who face both queerphobia and racism. Moreover, the simple categorization of LGBTQ+ people as minorities because there aren’t many of us ignores the power structures that many LGBTQ+ people benefit from and perpetuate. A great example of this is white queer men perpetuating racism and misogyny by appropriating culture from black women. It’s not enough to simply say you’re a minority—we need to all recognize that being oppressed from one power structure doesn’t prevent us from oppressing others in different power structures. Being a minority doesn’t absolve anyone of problematic behavior.

I would love to see the language we use to shift away from just majority versus minority. While some people understand the majority versus minority dynamic to be shorthand for the complex ways we all interact with intersectional power structures, too many are missing the point.

Becina J. Ganther ’20 is a Crimson editorial editor in Leverett House. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.


Recommended Articles