Earlier today, I sat through yet another meeting in which colleagues in the federal sector lobbed the term “minority” around in describing the lack of diversity within Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) disciplines. Over the years, this term has increasingly bothered me, and I think it is time for it to be retired when describing diversity and inclusion issues within STEM fields. Here’s why.
For context, I am an African American scientist within the field of Atmospheric Sciences, which includes meteorology and climate. According to past statistics from the American Meteorological Society (of which I served as only the 2nd Black President in 2013), roughly 2% of its membership identified as Black. The number is not much better for Hispanics or Native Americans. As a child, I idolized Dr. George Washington Carver. He was not even known for weather research, but he was one of the few scientists whom I had access to through books thanks to my local library. If you explore other STEM fields, you are likely to find a similar story so yes, “technically”, these groups of people represent the minority from a purely quantitative framing. Heck, I even wrote an article in Forbes (2016) a few years ago using the term to explore why numbers remain so low in science fields.
However, a few years ago I really started paying attention to microaggressions. Psychology Today refers to a microaggression as, “A subtle, often unintentional, form of prejudice.” Some microaggressions are even intended as compliments. The term first appeared in book (1970) called The Black Seventies. Some that I or other colleagues have received over the years include:
- “You’re such a credit to your race.” – Why does my race need to have a credit?
- “Wow you are so articulate”/”You speak so well” – I have 3 degrees and faired pretty well in school. Why wouldn’t I? Additionally, my white colleagues that speak in public often have shared that nobody has ever complimented them in that way.
A prominent colleague of mine who was born on the West Coast of the United States shared that because of some of his physical features, he is constantly asked, What country in Asia he is from?” These are examples of microaggressions. Female colleagues have long dealt with microaggressions too. Denise Sekaquaptewa has documented several examples including a woman being told, “She doesn’t look like an engineer” or a woman’s idea being accepted when presented by a man.
I have arrived at the conclusion in recent years that the use of the term “minority” is a microaggression. It isn’t intentional. It is technically correct when used in the context of the numbers. It is also firmly entrenched in federal, private sector, and public lingo. For example, you can pull up a Small Business Administration website on “minority-owned” businesses or a National Science Foundation report on Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering. NOAA has an outstanding Educational Partnership Program with Minority Serving Institutions.
I found a 2020 article by Forbes colleague Rashaad Lambert that articulates what I have been feeling for some time now. He writes in his explanation of why Forbes will no longer use the term “minority” that, “First, non-whites are already a majority of the world’s population. Second, in my lifetime, people of color will compose a majority in America. Finally, as any Black or Brown person will tell you (and as echoed in the words of Prince), there is nothing minor about us.”
As I dug deeper into this issue based on my own feeling that “minority” is a microaggression, I found that the National Association of Hispanic Journalists asked newsrooms in 2020 to stop using the term “minorities” when referring to communities of color. They wrote in a press release, “The way it is too often utilized minimizes historically marginalized people and promotes erasure.” They further argued that better framing is required because, “The people who are considered part of ‘minority groups’ are diverse and deserve the proper context.”
Other terms that can be used include communities of color, disenfranchised people, marginalized groups, frontline communities and so forth. Candidly, there will likely be quibbles with any of these. However, let’s start by getting rid of the term “minority” in our STEM institutions and narratives.
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